The two games I have been playing lately have been Far Cry 4 and No Man’s Sky. While I can and have played NMS for 3+ hours at a stretch, I struggle to play Far Cry 4 for more than maybe an hour. This is in spite of Far Cry 4 being the more entertaining game on both a micro and macro sense.
On reflection, the reason seems obvious: breakpoints.
Far Cry 4 is technically an open-world game that allows you to run wherever. However, there are definitely a lot of story-based missions that have clearly defined beginnings and endings and checkpoints inbetween. While they are not necessarily spaced far apart, there comes a time at the end of a mission that you begin thinking about how you’ll be spending another 30 minutes sneaking/guns-a-blazin’ through the next one. Why not just hit Save & Quit and take a break instead, eh? The end is as good a place as any to quit.
Conversely, No Man’s Sky is a lot like Minecraft insofar as there are no particular breakpoints. Turning in Missions sounds like a good time… but as soon as you turn them in, new missions appear to replace the old ones. And, oh, this one just requires you to exit the space station and kill one pirate ship. While you’re out there, the planet in the background has the Trading Post destination for that other mission clogging up your log. Ooo, it’s been a minute since you’ve seen a planet with water, so maybe go collect some Kelp Pods… et cetra, et cetra.
This phenomenon is not new by any means. Anyone playing MMOs knows it intimately, insofar as the breakpoints offered by dungeons, turning in quests at a hub, winning a PvP match, and so on.
What has become more interesting to me now, is how these breakpoints affect my perception of the underlying game. Like I said at the beginning, Far Cry 4 is objectively more fun. I know it’s more fun. But when I sit down to game in the evening, I find myself hesitating on the Far Cry 4 icon. If the game is so fun, why can’t I play it for more than an hour? What does it say about a game that I feel somewhat relieved when it’s over, and I boot up something else afterwards?
When I think back on the MMOs I have played, especially with WoW, I recognize that while there were breakpoints in certain content, there were a variety of alternative activities that allowed one to unwind. Raid for two days a week, spend time farming mats the rest. Complete a dungeon, go back to town and look into enchanting your new gear. and so on. Far Cry 4 technically has some elements of that – collecting herbs, selling vendor trash, etc – but obviously the game isn’t exactly designed to give you as full a break as an MMO.
The other interesting thing about breakpoints is how I used to feel like games without them would lead to faster burnout. It seems to make intuitive sense that the longer you leave a candle burning, the faster it goes out. Instead, I feel like all the abrupt starts and stops in Far Cry 4 have decreased the mental shelf life of the game. It is almost as though my mind only recognizes the number of intervals, and not the total length – playing an hour at a time is the equivalent as as playing four hours at a time. This certainly makes sense to me in terms of FF14 as well, when I kept running into content walls that all but required me to stop playing for the day.
Perhaps breakpoints aren’t as good as I once thought.