Gaming on a Timer

On the Clock: 30 Minutes Gamer, November – December 2016

One of the unfortunate realities of updating a blog revolving around gaming on a time budget is that, sometimes, that budget runs out. Between end-of-year crunch and a series of pressing social obligations, my gaming time has dwindled to a bare minimum, which naturally means that I’ve run out of material to update the site with (at least consistently).

Thankfully, there are a few options that I’ve been checking out; mostly games that are designed with a good frequency of exit points. In specific, I’ve been playing a lot of id Software’s 2016 shooter DOOM, as well as managing to complete Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma whenever I could spare 20-40 minutes.

For a good summary on what exit points are, I’d recommend watching this Extra Credits episode, which does an amazing job of explaining the concept. In a nutshell, exit points are parts of the game where the developers have had the foresight to include ways for the player to more easily quit the game (temporarily or permanently) without feeling they are punished for it. Both DOOM and Zero Time Dilemma work beautifully to illustrate this point.

First of all, DOOM. The game is an absolute blast to play – it’s frantic, fluid, has really good level design (even if it has a tendency to lock the player in any given arena until all enemies are dead), the collectibles/secrets are usually fun to seek but don’t feel absolutely necessary, while the weapons, power ups and leveling system all combine to give the player a lot of playstyle options.

The new Arcade mode offers even more bite-sized content for those lacking on time.

However, while good examples of proper game design, the above reasons are not why I’m mentioning DOOM in this post; rather, it’s the way the game is built, with a lot of short but fun challenges and fights to accommodate players with less time to spare, as well as a refreshing lack of focus on exposition and “cinematic” cutscenes.

In DOOM, there are 9 weapons (not counting the BFG-9000 and Chainsaw), and most of them have a tiered leveling system as well as two alternate firing modes; these offer a good deal of customization and options to the player but, more importantly to this post, they offer additional challenges when their respective alt-fire mode is leveled to its maximum. These challenges include doing things such as scoring a number of headshots with the Assault Rifle’s zoomed-in Tactical Scope or killing multiple enemies with one burst from the Plasma Rifle’s Heat Blast (which stores heat from firing it in regular mode, that can be released for massive short-range area damage).

Where this “mastery” system (and to a lesser extent the entire collectibles / challenges / runes system) truly shines for me is that this progress is saved as soon as it is made. There’s no losing half an hour’s worth of progress if you die before reaching a checkpoint here; every bit of progress you make across any challenge is saved across the entire save file instantly.

This allowed me to go into the game for  short sessions of high-adrenaline gameplay, rack up a few points for the weapon challenges or rune upgrades, then exit with that satisfying feeling that I was progressing (slowly, for sure, but steadily) through the game.

Challenges a-plenty!

DOOM’s maps are also designed around this philosophy, in what feels like a deliberate attempt to allow players to have a lot of exit points from the game. The majority of the levels are designed so that the action is (mostly) contained in arenas of various sizes, while collectibles and what little narrative is offered are placed in the (comparatively) quiet interim parts used to connect said arenas. Checkpoints are always given after discovering major secrets or when completing a fight, which meant that I got to play the game in short but satisfying sessions without feeling that my lack of time hurt the game experience.

For the more narrative-inclined players, though, DOOM might not be quite what you’d want to spend your precious little time on. Interestingly, I’ve also had a blast playing Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma, a sort of cross between visual novel-esque exposition and escape-the-room puzzle solving.

While I’d normally give a plot synopsis for Zero Time Dilemma, the way the narrative is structured and the fact that it’s meant to be the capstone to a trilogy of games that are heavily dependent on plot twists (therefore having a lot of those itself), a basic outline will have to suffice; if narrative-focused games are your thing, you should really give these games a try yesterday (for reference, the two previous games are 999: 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors and VLR: Virtue’s Last Reward; which, while originally being DS and 3DS/Vita exclusives, have been slated for a package release on PC and current-gen platforms in the near future).

Spoiled for choice(s).

Boiled down to the bare basics, Zero Time Dilemma follows 9 characters, split into teams of three. As the player, you control the leaders of each of these teams, guiding them through branching paths, which are split into story and puzzle segments respectively. The genius of this system is that you, as the player, don’t actually play the segments in chronological order, but rather, you have the ability to access them in any order so long as their unlock conditions have been met (for example, solving a puzzle with one team might reveal some information about the other teams, thus unlocking further segments for those teams to explore and yes I am being deliberately vague because spoilers, duh).

The story itself is written in such a way so as to allow this non-sequential style of game to function; segments are mostly self-contained initially, with a handful per team accessible at the game’s start, while later parts mostly build up on previous segments while keeping the same average length per segment. As a result of this modular structure, the game is incredibly easy to pick up, play for 30 minutes, then walk away for the night without feeling that you’ve missed on content because of your shorter play sessions. This is also greatly aided by the inclusion of tools that track your progress and allow for easily reviewing your previous choices.

The fragment system meshes really well with the game’s narrative.

As a side note, Zero Time Dilemma is a great example of how story and mechanics can support one another, as the “jumping between events/segments” mechanic is used to enhance the non-sequential narrative style while the story itself does a good job of justifying the game’s puzzle segments. Such intertwining of story and mechanics has always intrigued me; perhaps, at one point, I might do a more in-depth follow-up post for Zero Time Dilemma in the future.

Thankfully, the gaming industry is slowly starting to realize that the overworked demographic is worth catering to; smaller, but more “valuable” (content-wise) content seems set to become the norm in AAA titles.

Which games do you play when you’re short on time? Feel free to comment below with your go-to games or other gaming alternatives for short play sessions.

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