I Don’t Replay Narrative Video Games

Devin ponders why most narrative games are one-and-done for him.

It's really hot in LA, the kind of hot where you get out of the house just to go someplace with good AC. Someplace like your local movie theater, which happens to be showing The World's End. My roommate hadn't seen it yet, so we went and enjoyed the film and enjoyed the break from the swelter. It was my third time seeing the movie. It's unusual for me to see a movie in theater that many times, but there are a lot of movies I'll watch again and again at home. The Avengers has turned out to be just such a film, one I can throw on at any time.

There's a great used book shop in LA called The Last Bookstore, and a couple of weeks ago I was there going through their dollar books. Most of the books in that section are garbage, but you'll find hidden gems. Some of the books I picked up were ones I had always wanted to read, but many of them were books that I had lost over the years, either because I lent them out and never got them back or I unloaded them while moving or they ended up left in some hotel room. I ended up rereading The Vampire Lestat, a book I had read a couple of times already. 

Next to my TV is a pile of video games. These aren't the games I tend to play, games like Rock Band 3 or Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 or Grand Theft Auto IV. They're games I've played, loved, finished and hope to one day replay. They're games like Red Dead Redemption and Dragon Age: Origins and the Mass Effect trilogy. They're strong narrative games, with characters I liked and worlds I enjoyed visiting. They're not much different from the movies I rewatch and the books I reread... with one exception. I will never actually replay these games. 

Like I said, I always intend to, but it just never happens. I've popped Red Dead Redemption in before and instead of actually following John Marston's story I found myself wandering around shooting cougars. The open world play was fun, but the story didn't catch me. Why? I loved it the first time through. I think Red Dead Redemption has one of the best stories in all of video games and I found myself moved by the ending and its implications. But I couldn't sit down and make myself play through it again.

Some of the problem is length; replaying a narrative game usually means sinking hours and hours into the endeavour. Sure, it can take a long time to read a book, but a book doesn't require you to be chained to one place. You can take the book to the park or the pool or the coffee shop. You can read the book while waiting for friends or for a bus. The book conforms to the contours of your life, while the game demands your life conform to it. There's mobile gaming, but I've yet to play a mobile game that has a story like those in the Mass Effect games.

Movies, of course, are more demanding than books. You have to sit in a dark theater paying attention. That said the commitment is small. It's a few hours at a time. And if you're home you can multitask more, which is nice, and something you can't really do with a game. You can binge watch a movie franchise or TV show to catch up with the next installment/season but doing the same with a game franchise is an extraordinary time sink. 

Movies and TV shows are also social in ways that narrative games are not. Watching a TV show with a friend is enjoyable; watching a friend play Bioshock Infinite gets real boring real fast. Books aren't social, but again books fill in gaps in social time, as opposed to replacing it. 

None of these things truly get to the heart of why I don't replay narrative video games. The real reason is simple: narrative video games are work. I cannot simply enjoy the story, I have to go through all the fetch quests and the level grinding and the melees along the way that serve to flesh the game out to the sort of length gamers expect. Instead of tight, three hours experiences, most games meander and bloat to dozens of hours. Which is fun the first time through, as you're exploring the world and uncovering and living the story. But the next time it's much less fun. Running around The Citadel upgrading weapons loses its luster the second time around, even if you're playing as a FemShep this time. 

Even the action bits, which would have been a highlight the first time through, can become drags on replays. Because they require hand-eye coordination, some of these sequences can be just pains in the ass to get through, and there's nothing quite as disheartening as entering a game battle that you know from experience will be difficult and tedious. With most games you can lower the difficulty level, but nerfing the action only makes it that much more boring, an unengaging time waster. Imagine having to perform menial tasks or acts of skill every time you wanted to watch the next scene of a movie or read the next chapter of a book. You probably wouldn't revisit them very often.

It ends up being the very things that make video games unique - their interactivity and player agency - that makes them unattractive as repeated experiences. This raises the question of whether or not repeated experiences are important; is it vital that a narrative piece have a 'rewatch' quality? 

I think it is. It's not the most important aspect of judging a narrative work - god knows there are plenty of great books I loved but will never reread - but revisiting a work is how you truly get into analysing it. Your first experience is always colored with discovery and surprise; it's on the second readthrough that you can fully dive into some of the deeper thematic aspects, reapproaching the text with educated eyes and knowing what you're looking for. Every time you reapproach a work you're recontextualizing it, which is why your opinions on movies will change over the years as you revisit them. The movie remains the same, it's the context of you that has changed... and that context has been changed by your initial act of viewing. 

One-and-done is a fine way to approach narrative art, but great narrative art must invite revisiting. Gameplay itself ends up being a huge hurdle to that kind of revisit, which is why I think a game like Telltale's The Walking Dead -which has exceptionally minimal gameplay but exceptionally maximal storytelling and character building - is the true future of narrative video games. Basically they have to become less video gamey.