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I like RPGs, I really do. Turn based or action-oriented, Western or Japanese, doesn’t make much difference to me. They all tend to use the same basic plot (only you can prevent the end of the world, in much the same way only you can prevent forest fires), and the same characters (oh, look a girl wearing white – I bet she’s a healer!), but that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm as I hack, slash, and magic my way through them. I’ll try just about any RPG you care to put in front of me, and have amassed a fairly decent collection of them over the years. I was rattling off a list of some of my all-time favorites recently – Lost Odyssey, Drakan: The Ancients’ Gates,, Disgaea, Persona 3 – when I realized something rather unsettling. I adore RPGs, but I hardly ever finish them.

As I thought about it, I could only recall a handful of role-playing games that I’d seen through from start to finish: Grandia II, Super Mario RPG, and A Link to the Past were the only titles I was sure I’d beaten. Excellent games, to be sure, but all also several years old. Surely I’d finished something more recently? Nope. Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, Twilight Princess, Persona 3, Eternal Sonata all sit half-finished, patiently awaiting the day that I pick them up again. Which, judging by my experiences with Dark Cloud 2, Dragon Quest VIII, and Final Fantasy X-2, is never.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the games, I do. I’d made significant progress – sometimes playing 20 hours in a single weekend – in each and every one before putting it aside in favor of something else. It wasn’t that the games suddenly turned bad, either, forcing me to abandon them in a fit of gaming disgust. I pondered my apparent RPG fickleness, wondering why I finished Mass Effect and Fable when so many other fantastic games went only half-played. And then it hit me: it’s because I have a serious case of RPG OCD.

Your typical RPG is chock full of items, chests, and chatty NPCs simply dying to tell you all about some magical geegaw hidden is some cave or other. And I must find all of them. If there are things to collect, I must collect them, no matter how useful they end up being. You could scatter used tissues and expired coupons for laundry detergent throughout a game, and I’d be compelled to track down each and every last one. No matter which RPG I play, I soon find myself knee deep in magical armor and weaponry, carrying around an entire armory’s worth of gear for character classes that I don’t even use. I have backup weapons for my backup weapons, and make sure I keep at least one of every healing item imaginable, you know, just in case. You might think such obsessive behavior is actually a wise investment, as selling off all that crap nets me a small fortune, and you’d be right – if I ever spent the money. Instead, I hoard that, too, saving it for that special item I just know will be for sale at the next shop.

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So you can see why I tend to progress through your typical RPG only slightly faster than a narcoleptic snail. I certainly enjoy the journey, but usually run out of steam after about 20 or 30 hours of gameplay. Mass Effect and Fable joined the exalted ranks of Games I’ve Beaten not because they’re so much better than other RPGs – though they are both excellent – but simply because they fit within my 20-30 hour attention window.

The obvious answer is to just not do that, of course. And I’ve tried. With fierce resolve, I have steadfastly refused to explore entire sections of maps, left doors unopened, ladders unscaled, bureaus unsearched, pots unbroken. And I’ve had a miserable time. Eventually, I simply had to admit that if I don’t search a game’s every last nook and cranny, I end up fretting about what I might’ve missed and don’t really enjoy myself. Yes, I have issues, I know. I’ll consult a therapist later. In the mean time, I have a solution that will allow gamers like me to enjoy even the most epic of RPGs: a length setting.

Difficulty settings make games like Halo or BioShock accessible to players of all skill and patience levels, and a length setting would do the same for RPGs. At the game’s outset, you would choose either Long, which provides the full-blown experience, or Short, which hits the highlights of the full game, but cuts out a lot of the sidequests or extraneous story. Essentially, it’s the Cliff’s Notes version of the game, providing the broad brush strokes of the experience, but not all the detail.

Obviously, the Long version of the game would be the “true” experience, but the Short version would allow players who typically burn out halfway through a game – or those who simply don’t have the time to finish a 100-plus hour game – to make it all the way to the final stage. An RPG’s Short version might excise entire towns, or, if that would muck about with the story too much, simply remove all but those NPCs and quests that are vital to the progression of the story. The allocation of experience points could be rejiggered to allow players to level up faster, or simply scale the leveling down so that the Big Bad at the end is a level 20 monster instead of a level 75. A Short version could even have summaries of extended cutscenes, so that the player could get up to speed on the goings-on without having to wait through twenty minutes of bad voiceovers.

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Many of you are likely thinking that playing an RPG on Short would be defeating the entire purpose, and that if I can’t bring myself to finish the games, I shouldn’t be playing them anyway. I understand that point of view, but even if I weren’t afflicted with my particular kind of OCD, the fact is that the vast majority of RPGs involve more than a little repetition and fluff that could be cut away without harming the game experience as a whole. I mean, really, do we need to grind quite that much in order to get the full Enchanted Arms experience? Does a game suffer if you kill 1,000 demons instead of 2,000? Is a quest to find seven pieces of magical armor that much worse than a quest to find nine?

Let me be perfectly clear: I’m not for one moment suggesting that these games actually need to be shorter. Clearly, many RPG fans enjoy wringing every last drop out of them and are more than happy to put in the time necessary to complete them. It would be doing them a serious disservice to tell them they can’t. But there doesn’t really seem to be a down side to offering a Short version of the game, too. The players who want the full experience can get it, and those who simply don’t have the ability or desire to sink countless hours into a game like Wind Waker or Star Ocean get to see what all the fuss is about. Everybody wins.

The different versions of the game could even be reflected in the Achievements and Trophies, the same way completing games on varying difficulty settings is. Again, this benefits both kinds of players; those without the stamina to endure the full experience still earn points and awards for playing, but those who go the distance wind up are rewarded far more heavily for their efforts.

I haven’t quite figured out all the details yet – if you want to play the game on Long after completing it on Short, does any of your character info carry over? Not sure. – but I’ll get it all sorted out eventually. I have to. It may be the only hope I have of seeing the end credits of a Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, or Shin Megami Tensei without cheating.

Susan Arendt finished Koudelka, but not any of the other Shadow Hearts games

Review: American McGee’s Grimm

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