Brevity, Death, and Replay Value

I bought a copy of The Binding of Isaac a few months ago. According to Steam, I’ve put 100 hours into it, probably more time than I put into any one game this year (or last year for that matter). I received a review copy of FTL three days ago, and I already have 12 hours sunk into that game.

Despite very different settings and thematics, both games have a number of things in common.

I have never gone out of my way to gauge the exact amount of time that a full playthrough of The Binding of Isaac takes, but from beginning to end (actually beating the game), I would guess around an hour of play time is necessary. I haven’t yet beaten FTL, but I have managed to get to the second to last sector of space necessary to keep my important data out of the hands of the rebel starships that I have been fleeing from just once. And on the basis of that near completion, again, I would guess that a full playthrough would require about an hour of my time.

Spending 100 hours on a game that requires an hour to complete might seem really, really absurd. It also makes little sense in terms of how we usually talk about time and games. When I say that the single player campaign of Call of Duty is about 10-12 hours, I usually know that because that is the time I have spent with the game in total. I played. I beat it. It’s done.

I have beaten The Binding of Isaac maybe a half dozen times, not 100. Of course, there is a reason, which also relates to the gameplay of FTL. Both of these games are (essentially) roguelikes. Games in which a complete game sometimes (actually quite often) is not a “complete” playthrough. Instead, these are games that one can actually lose. If Isaac loses all of his health or your starship blows up in FTL, that’s it. You’re done. Time to start over.

Okay, that isn’t entirely the case with FTL. Unlike The Binding of Isaac, which offers no save system for the player to pick up at an earlier time before a failure, FTL does offer the option to cheat death, turn back the clock, and try to ameliorate a bad situation.

However, I have yet to bother to save a game. The Binding of Isaac has trained me well in seeing a brief game as just that, brief. It has also taught me to live with my mistakes. When my sojourn across the stars has gone badly in FTL, I sigh and usually just begin again, wanting to make up for my mistakes, not by trying to change my game’s narrative course, but by trying to do it better next time.

Death is inevitable in a roguelike, games generally known for being brutal and unforgiving, but it is also a teacher, a mentor, a guide.

However, that brevity that I alluded to earlier is part of the reason that not saving a game of FTL seems important to me. Completing it, brief as it is, seems entirely unsatisfying, hardly worth the effort of play, which is strange because the inevitable completion of all the games that I play that are much, much longer is driven by the ways that the game forgives my screw ups, proffers me save files to encourage me along.

The real irony to me is that most of those longer games, those ones that offer me a helping hand are really not long at all when compared to my commitment to The Binding of Isaac and what I foresee to be my new found commitment to FTL. Few modern games that suck away hours of my time because they require long hours are hardly likely to have any replay value at all.

People have noted the brief playtime of Lollipop Chainsaw‘s full campaign, but that game, too, caused me to pour more hours into it than were required for a full playthrough. Somehow the brevity of the experience, added to the unlockables that were too expensive to buy all of in a single playthrough, drew me back to that game. Though that game doesn’t threaten the player with permadeath, its more challenging combat, which really does improve with practice, brought me back to learn in order to advance, not so much to completion but to superior play, playing a level better the next time.

One of the more popular roguelikes of recent times, Dark Souls holds far less allure for me, at least not the allure of returning to it any time soon. While Dark Souls teaches through death, it still holds your hand by allowing you to bank souls and essentially guarantee “perma-stats,” a ward against a complete fear of permadeath. My character that I have built at least has some immutable existence.

The Binding of Isaac and FTL both do feature some permanent “bonuses” for long term committed gameplay as well, and certainly, these explain in part my desire to replay them. I have unlocked all of the alternate characters in Isaac, which were won through long hours and real improvement in my play. Likewise, I have unlocked an alternate ship in FTL and have partly unlocked an alternate layout for it as well.

Nevertheless, I still think that it is brevity itself and the random generation of dungeons and a universe to fly a starship through that keeps me coming back to these games and drives me to spend far longer with them than other so-called “long” games. Each experience is unique, each experience has a beginning, middle, and an end (even if that end is more often tragic than not), and each experience teaches me a bit more about the systems underlying these two games, causing me to appreciate them more.

Dying to these systems simply causes me to desire to play within them more. I find myself more discouraged by the games that encourage me and more interested in letting brief failure teach me patience, better strategy, and to appreciate the few victories I squeeze out of hours and hours of play.