All Hail the Winter Killers

[8 March 2010]

By Sean McCarthy

Like comfort food, some video games seem made for winter. Not necessarily the season, but those situations like when a blizzard dumps 15 inches of snow in your city, forcing you into full-on hermit mode.

About 20 years ago, a game called Dragon Warrior forced NES-loving players to make a time commitment that far surpassed the usual hour or so that was required to beat Super Mario Bros.. The game required players to log in hours of time, traveling short distances in a huge world. The more you traveled, the stronger you got, the further you could travel. For a console game, Dragon Warrior was one of those games where a user could easily log in 20 hours before completion. It was a game that could only be completed during a long winter vacation stretch (or a summer vacation with a broken arm).

About ten years ago, the Nintendo 64 released its installment of the Zelda series, The Ocarina of Time. While technically not a role-playing game (the game was fairly linear in what you could accomplish), the game was a lush, beautiful masterpiece. For a college student with some time to kill, the first play through Ocarina was a great distraction between the Super Bowl and March Madness.

Of course, games (not including PC games) have only gotten more involved and required more out their players since the days of NES and N64. Perhaps no company has proven this more than Bethesda. Its Elder Scrolls series, first with Morrowind and later with Oblivion, had an almost overwhelming amount of paths for players to take. Not only was the primary quest a huge undertaking (players could assume that it would literally take days to get their character to a level where an instant death encounter with an adversary could be avoided), but smaller tasks like gathering various ingredients throughout the vast worlds to create a potion (finding out the mixture without a guide – well, some people have more patience than others) could guarantee an easy 40 to 60 hour time commitment.

Whether this time commitment is a worthy investment is subjective. But if you are looking for how these winter-killing games operate, look no further than Fallout 3, another Bethesda game. The first few hours (when your armor/strength is at its lowest) are almost maddeningly frustrating. You get bored, you try to venture further out into the game’s world where you meet a near instantaneous death. But as you slowly build up your power levels, you begin to get more engaged in the story. Upon hearing that I had just purchased Fallout 3, a coworker said that my social life would be almost non-existent for about two months.

This year it looks like the winter-killing game of the year is BioWare’s Mass Effect 2. Unlike Bethesda’s massive worlds of Oblivion and Fallout 3, Mass Effect‘s gameplay is much kinder in the instant gratification department. The game boasts a well-written storyline with a stellar voice talent team. The mix works so well that, like Avatar, you tend to forgive the fact that you’ve seen the central story played out dozens of times before in movies, books, and other video games. Upon finishing Mass Effect 2, I glanced at the final save log. Estimated time of play: 41 hours.

Games like Call of Duty and Halo have been criticized for their relatively short “main missions.” Pay no mind that almost a decade ago, a game that would take eight hours to complete was considered a lengthy game. Socially, these “winter killer” games definitely have their adverse effects. One month of Mass Effect 2 has made me five pounds pudgier and more sleep-deprived than normal. But these games can be viewed like that 900-page copy of Don Dellilo’s Underworld or that third attempt to finish The Lord of the Rings novels. It’s an undertaking that just seems appropriate for the months that force us inside. And though winter is coming to an end, I’m secretly hoping for one last blizzard so that I can finally get to level 20 on Fallout 3.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/121678-all-hail-the-winter-killers/