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The After-Dinner Video Game

Telltale Games and the rise of the single-sitting game.

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Here are three statements you can make with reasonable confidence:

A typical movie is between 90 and 120 minutes.

A typical television show is between 25 and 55 minutes.

A typical album is between 40 and 70 minutes.

Here is a statement you cannot make with any confidence whatsoever:

A typical video game is between X and Y minutes.

As anyone with any experience in the medium knows, the range of times it takes to play any one game is so huge and also so fungible as to be nearly undefinable. A single game of QWOP is frequently over in seconds; Super Mario Bros. can be beaten in less than five minutes; a game of Skyrim can easily stretch past 100 hours; a career in World of Warcraft can last actual years.

The games with the most easily definable lengths are probably single-player narrative games, like, the recent hit The Last of Us, which according to How Long to Beat, takes players an average of 14.5 hours to complete. Games of this type tend to fall in the 8- to 12-hour range, although, of course, there are exceptions. Because these games aim to tell discrete stories, it probably makes more sense to talk about them in terms of time, and yet, rarely are such titles experienced in one go.

Take The Last of Us. Playing a press copy, I beat the game in three four-five hour sittings over consecutive evenings. For each session I was in a different mood, with different surroundings (my roommate sat in for a few hours in the second one), experiencing different parts of the game. That probably makes such a playthrough most similar to the way we read an engrossing novel. And yet I doubt most people have the time or patience to take in a game, or a novel, in such quick succession. Instead, my feeling is, we play games like this in fits and starts: an hour here, thirty minutes there, maybe a few hours on the weekend.

It's worth asking if that's the best way to experience a single-player narrative game. The Last of Us has some natural breaks, to be sure, but nowhere near enough to accommodate naturally the irregular windows of time in which adults game. My most memorable, and satisfying, game-playing experience of the last year was with Telltale Games' smash The Walking Dead, which is split into five separate episodes. IPad in hand, sunk deep into chair, I played one episode a night, for five consecutive nights late last year. The game follows an overarching story, but each episode has an obvious structure, themes, and focus. It feels, more than anything, like episodic television.

That's why I was unsurprised to find out, as Telltale's senior PR manager Job Stauffer told me, that the company aims to create narratives that can be started and finished in the time after dinner and before bed; the hours in which most of us do our Netflix binging. Pierre Shorette, a writer at Telltale who worked on the last episode of The Walking Dead and is now working on the followup, The Wolf Among Us, told me that there is no set length for an episode of a Telltale game. Rather, he said, the studio takes however long is necessary to tell the given story.

The Walking Dead certainly bears that out. Some episodes are fully four hours long; some are closer to two. Gone Home, the new indie gem, takes around three hours to play. That's short enough to play in an evening and also short enough to replay easily after the memory of the thing has faded.

But the snag here, and crucial to any discussion of gaming, is in the context of games a value proposition. People are comfortable spending $12 for two hours of entertainment in the movie theater (or $2 for an episode of Breaking Bad on Amazon Instant. And yet gamers are used to an incredible value-per-dollar for their entertainment. Skyrim cost $60 when it was released; if you play it for 100 hours that's 60 cents per hour of entertainment. Gone Home costs $18, which is, say, $6 per hour. It may seem ridiculous to quantify games in this way, particularly ones of real artistic merit, but this is undoubtedly something that gamers do, accustomed as they are to Steam sales and Gamestop discount bins. And yet as indie studios proliferate and try to find success outside of the App store, it's likely that we'll be looking at more games that are less than five hours that cost between $10 and $20. So the question is, ultimately, would you pay a little more per unit of time to experience a game that you can play, satisfyingly, in a night?

Another way to look at this is from the perspective of the occasional, or casual gamer. This gamer may not have rigidly defined expectations in terms of length; in fact, this gamer may be daunted by games that claim to offer 50 or 100 hours of play. Indeed, a three hour game may ensure that a larger group of people actually complete a game. Too many times I've found myself in the position of having to take a break from a massive, 60-hour game, only to forget what's going on when I return. The single-serving game solves that problem. (And for those who take a break between episodes, two words: "Previously on.")

Normalizing a game length that suits people who don't structure their time around games might be the most revolutionary thing about Telltale's after-dinner model. That's why the question of the future in the medium may not be "What game are you playing?" but "What game did you play last night?"

Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.

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