A large chunk of the time you spend playing Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s post-apocalyptic open-world game that many critics consider the best game of 2019, won’t actually be spent playing at all. Instead, you’ll be watching.
Roughly seven hours of “cutscenes,” a term that refers to the movie-like sequences in a game that serve to move the story forward, are interspersed throughout the Kojima Productions title. The game even features cameos from the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Conan O’Brien. On average, it takes a total of 40 hours to complete a journey through the vast hellscape of the Japanese video game developer’s imagination, according to crowdsourced game times website How Long to Beat. If you’re playing at a leisurely pace, it’ll take you 60 hours.
Anyone who is familiar with Kojima’s work won’t be surprised by Death Stranding’s cinematic bent. The 56-year-old is known for his auteur-like approach to designing video games, creating visually rich games like the Metal Gear series and Snatcher. And while many fans and critics would gladly spend multiple weekends traversing the bleak environs of Death Stranding, others called foul. Multiple threads cropped up on the Death Stranding subreddit criticizing the game for its slow pace and number of cut scenes, including a finale that reportedly lasts a whopping two hours. “I’m 50 hours in and this is getting so tedious. Super engrossed in the story so just pushing ahead with that, but unless they introduce an auto-skip option for the menial cutscenes I’ll probably stop there,” wrote one Redditor, summing up what many players felt at the time.
Death Stranding’s length is no aberration in the world of modern video games. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, released in 2018, was estimated to take players 50 hours to complete. Players of Red Dead Redemption 2, the best-selling game in the US in 2018, took an average of 47 hours to complete the title, according to HLTB data.
The most recent entries in blockbuster video game franchises have also gotten bulkier. Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 2, first released in 1999 for Playstation and PC, takes an average of roughly 12 hours to finish; Grand Theft Auto V, released more than a decade later for PC and consoles, takes 32. The Witcher, a PC game released by Atari in 2007, takes more than 36 hours; 2015’s more ambitious The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt clocks in at an average of 52. And these times easily double or triple for “completionists,” the gaming world’s term for players who don’t abandon a game until they’ve effectively wiped the map clean, finishing every side quest and collecting every trophy.
Are video games really getting longer, as these play times suggest? And is it possible, as some players and critics contend, that they have gotten too long?
The answer to both questions is less clear-cut than it might have been in 2000, or in 2010. Video games got longer in the ‘80s and ‘90s due to technological advances in consoles and personal computers, but began to plateau in the 2000s, noted The Ringer in its analysis of HLTB data. Microsoft’s release of the Xbox 360 in the fall of 2005, and Sony’s release of the PlayStation 3 a year later, coincided with a spike in playing times in the mid-aughts. So did the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, both in the fall of 2013.
Unlike a movie, a podcast, or an album, video games don’t list the number of hours it takes to play the game. Websites that publish game times, like How Long to Beat, rely on user submissions of playing times. “The length of a game is not always defined by the creators’ intention,” said Julien Bazile, a PhD student in historical game studies at the University of Lorraine in France. Game length could refer to the average time to complete the main story line, or it could include side quests and extra content. There are other factors like replayability, or a game’s capacity to remain interesting to audiences for a long time.
“It’s very hard to make general observations that apply to video games, because they’re just so weirdly diverse now,” said Frank Lantz, head of NYU Game Center. From mobile games like Pokemon Go to multiplayer shooters like Overwatch, the video game ecosystem in 2020 has never been as vast. There are video games that function as 20-minute, smartphone-based boredom killers and never-ending social simulation games like Animal Crossing and The Sims. The rise of esports in the late 2010s turned games like Fortnite and League of Legends into full-time professions. And while devoting 40 or 50 hours to finish an open-world game may seem like a big time commitment, it’s still one that has a natural conclusion. Meanwhile, there are players of Candy Crush, the free-to-play gaming app, who clock in a few hours per day and have played for years.
And, since there are so many games available today, extra time spent on one game means less time for others. “In a way I wonder if I actually appreciated and enjoyed games more back when I could only own one or two new ones at a time,” said David Szymanski, a video game developer and creative director at New Blood Interactive. “But regardless, now it’s often the case that a game’s run time exceeds my desire to keep playing it rather than switching to something else.”
Still, open-world, single player, AAA games (the industry term for major video game publishers and studios) seem to be uniquely prone to criticism over lengthiness. The reason for the backlash may be partly generational. Many players entered the world of video games through open-world titles like Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid, and so the length and format of those games function as a sort of baseline. “It seems the days of a well-produced eight to 10 hour experience or even a 20 hour [role playing game] are pretty well dead now and I really don’t know how I feel about that. Well, other than old,” wrote one user on the gaming forum NeoGAF.
A look at the top-selling video games over the last two decades, according to data provided by NPD Group, reflects how the gaming industry began to prioritize larger, blockbuster first-person shooter and open-world games after 2010.
The first decade of the 2000s was the reign of party games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, as well as fitness games like Wii Fit. There was more variety back then in terms of best-sellers, with sports games like EA’s Madden NFL series and racing games like Mario Kart Wii. But the aughts also saw the debut of first-person shooters like the Halo and Call of Duty franchises and open-world games like Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, all of which broke sales records for the industry. This past decade was dominated by first-person shooters and extra-long open-world games like Red Dead Redemption II, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
It’s clear that open-world games have gotten longer, even if games in other genres haven’t. A comparison of the top-selling games in the open-world genre from the years spanning 2000 to 2009 and 2010 to 2019 show a notable spike in average playing times. There’s further evidence in video game reviews. Back in 2012, Gamerant’s review of Far Cry 3 marveled at the fact that the game would take at least 20 hours to beat. Roughly seven years later, a Kotaku journalist revealed that he had spent more than 149 hours playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey—and still hadn’t reached the end.
Open-world games are defined by their large budgets and state-of-the-art graphics. “Open-world games are the gold standard in the game world’s equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster—invest highly in a narrow pipe of titles and market them heavily,” said Daniel Greenberg, owner of Winterion Game Studios and gaming design professor at George Mason University.
The rationale of many gaming studios is that the bigger a game is, the more likely it is that a player will find something to like. “It’s the theme park idea: Offer a cohesive world with a number of ways to play, entertain a larger overall number of patrons,” said Greenberg. “Open-world games allow for content creators in the pipeline to work on making games as broad as possible once the means to do so is at their disposal.”
Navigating such large worlds can be a pleasure, or it can seem like busy work. Players can spot the difference between a high-quality game and a title that is loaded with filler. According to Greenberg, the difference between one player’s filler and another’s depth of gameplay is the “nuance and care” with which the game is created. “Simply clone-stamping quests across a barren landscape can certainly make the content in these titles feel more like chores or errands, the work of a completionist or someone needing to grind out some extra rewards,” said Greenberg.
The idea of a game that feels like a chore or an errand may seem like a paradox. And many gamers, for their part, seem like they’ve had enough. French video game publisher Ubisoft is known for its large, unwieldy open-world games like the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry franchises, many of which have generated billions in revenue. But sales of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, released last year, were so disappointing that the publisher rearranged its schedule for the next two years. The Washington Post’s Gene Park deemed Breakpoint the worst game of 2019. “Stay on this island of morons long enough, and you start to feel yourself become dumber,” wrote Park.
But length wasn’t the sole factor that contributed to Breakpoint’s demise. The litany of pay-to-win microtransactions and technical bugs likely sealed its fate. Much like movies, operas, books, or television shows, a high-quality game will be good, despite or even because of its length. “A well-executed optional mission is perfectly capable of capturing the player’s attention, adding a clever wrinkle to gameplay, or stepping out of the main plot thread’s constraints to tackle different themes or ideas,” said Greenberg.
Additional reporting by Daniel Wolfe.