by Jed Pressgrove
A prevalent ideology in gaming suggests that everyone — whether you’re a drooling gamer like my friend down the road or a fart-sniffing critic like myself — should keep up with how many hours they spend playing a game. Similar to open-world ideology and consumer-review ideology, this perspective is deceptive and should be ignored. There are several reasons why.
1. Hours played has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.
Theoretically, you can enjoy playing a mediocre game for more than 100 hours. I did this with Street Fighter V, the weakest game in that series since the arcade original. The reason I spent so much time with Street Fighter V is that I am a very competitive person who has played every Street Fighter sequel. Similarly, most gamers can name an average or below-average game that they have played with friends for numerous hours. From such observations, we can arrive at another critical truth: enjoyment alone has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.
2. Hours played often has little to do with whether we love or hate a game in general.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: in many cases, you must spend at least several hours with a game to give it a fair shot. This reminds me of my experience with Arkham Asylum more than a decade ago. I remember playing the first hour of Arkham Asylum at a friend’s, and I could not help but wonder why my friend thought the game was special. The opening was a bit tedious, and the mechanics seemed superficial when I was finally able to engage with them. A year or so later after this first impression, I ended up buying Arkham Asylum. After putting just a little more time into the game, I was able to understand my friend’s adoration (not that understanding someone else’s adoration is the point).
Once you grasp what a game is going for, though, you’re not going to change your mind about it with more hours played. To give a different example, I was annoyed by Persona 5’s approach to tutorialization and storytelling for the first 12 hours that I played it. After 70 hours, my opinions only became more crystallized. Why? Games are like pop song choruses. They tend to repeat themselves. As such, just as you won’t come to praise what you find to be a crappy pop song after hearing it 100 times, you’re not going to magically fall in love with a game after playing it for 100 hours. You might become more skilled after 100 hours, but you can be good at a game that you think is substantially flawed. It happens all the time.
3. Hours played often has little to do with finishing a game.
First we have to know what we mean with “finishing a game.” If we define it in the simplest way (i.e., if “finishing a game” means to view some version of closing credits), hours played before we finish a game can vary for multiple reasons. Existing skill and the time it takes to improve skill are obvious factors and can lead to fewer or more hours. Another variable is whether the gamer in question is a curious cat. Does this person like to meander about in virtual environments? Does this person, before finishing a story, like to screw around and find different tricks or glitches to “break” the game? Does this person always press any button they can to skip story-focused segments? Does this person get distracted by sidequests? We could ask such questions for a long time.
Others might define “finishing a game” as beating a final boss AND uncovering what they consider significant secrets or parts of a game. My personal interpretation of “finishing a game” is more straightforward: to me, you’re finished when you’re ready to move on from the game for whatever reason. Perhaps you’re not good at the game and wish to quit, perhaps you’re good at the game but find it uninspired and stupid, perhaps you’d like to keep playing the game but don’t have the time, or perhaps you’ve beaten the game 10 times in a row and want to experience something else. In any case, hours played doesn’t tell us why or if someone is finished with a game in the overwhelming majority of cases (exceptions include so-called narrative-focused games that require little, if any, skill to see the finale of the story).
4. Assuming that “finishing a game” means to see closing credits, this also frequently says nothing about whether or why we like the game in question.
The first time I played Castlevania was before the age of 10. Even though I found the game very interesting and was able to view the closing credits of other infamously difficult NES games of the era (such as Contra and Ninja Gaiden), I thought I would never get past the Grim Reaper boss on the fifth stage. It basically took me more than a decade of trying (with extremely long breaks, of course) to kill the cheap bastard and go on to conquer the rest of the game with no trouble.
I couldn’t begin to determine the number of hours I put into Castlevania before I “finished it” (I still play it to this day). Like I said in the title, hours played is virtually meaningless. Meaning is found in feelings: I thought Castlevania was a good game the entire time, and “finishing” it didn’t make it lesser or greater. It was always fucking Castlevania.
Like it or not, most video games are like Castlevania (exceptions include works that invite full readings without much skill, such as Off-Peak, Actual Sunlight, or Proteus). You know what you’re getting after several hours of observing the same kind of stuff. It’s as simple as that. (What’s more, the suggestion that games should only or primarily be played to be “finished” doesn’t make sense. Why would you want to spend hours and hours just for the closing credits of something you hate for 10 different reasons?)
Granted, if you want to talk specifically about the ending of a game, or its final level, or its climactic boss fight, and so on, yes, you should have seen the final credits or at least gotten close enough to them in order to make particular claims about any of these things. If I had reviewed the original Castlevania before beating Dracula, I could have reasonably called it a very good game, but I couldn’t have said, for instance, that Dracula is a great boss fight.
The truth is almost nobody seems to care if you’ve not beaten a game yet and you love it. But if you despise the game and haven’t beaten it, you’re tantamount to a corrupt dictator. My stance is that, unless you’re talking about specific things that occur at the end of a game, seeing the closing credits isn’t relevant to what you think about a game’s pop song chorus, if you will. And let’s not forget, too, that many of the greatest video games will likely never be beaten by anyone reading this: BurgerTime, Galaga, Xevious, Ms. Pac-Man, and on and on we could go. Gamers have a rich history of not beating games, only to hold and share passionate opinions about their qualities. It’s a tradition that I find instructive and significant from a critical standpoint, within reason.