These Are the Best Video Games You Can Finish in an Afternoon
You're bumming about the house, with time to kill. So kill it by starting, and finishing, a great game in a single sitting.
Imagery from ‘Firewatch’
Contrary to the words of a late jazz great, we do not have all the time in the world. That pressure, that weight on your shoulders that you carry around with you everyday: that's your body's way of telling you that Other More Important Shit Needs Doing. You've not got hours and hours to commit to staring at a screen, navigating a fantastical virtual world, slaying monsters or flying spaceships or disassembling androids or whatever the fuck the Next Big Game demands of you.
At least, that's my situation; and I know it's one reflected by hundreds of thousands of other players of these wonderful things we call video games. It's a rare day that I finish one that can't be "beaten" in a handful of sittings, adding up to anywhere between eight and 15 hours. I manage one so-called epic game per year, usually. In 2015 it was The Witcher 3. In 2016, I suspect it might be Final Fantasy XV. You know the games I mean: the long-haul, deep-dive, life-consuming experiences that eat up evenings like they're the best Battenberg cake tasted this side of the 19th century. Or whatever sweet treat takes your fancy. I'm not about to discriminate on confections.
But we do all need a disconnect from the real world, from those stresses that twist our stomachs into knots and tense up our chest like we've got car batteries attached to our nipples. And we all pull a duvet day from time to time, right? You gotta, sometimes, just peek through the curtains and decide: bugger going out there. It's full of people, most of whom I don't like, and who smell odd. Today, it's just me, several cups of tea, and anything to do that isn't work. Which is where Awesome Games That You Can Finish In An Afternoon come into your doss-about-doing-"nothing" equation.
I've never been someone who sees a "short" video game as representing poor value for money – if I've had an absolutely glorious, genuinely moving, or palpably perplexing time with an interactive experience, hands on pad and brain engaged, then whatever the price, it's been worth it. (Within reason, of course – I'm not sure I can abide some of the pre-order, special-edition pricing we've seen lately.) I don't want my games padded, stuffed with pointless #content, meaningless collectibles and irrelevant side-quests. I like them lean and mean.
Which is why Firewatch is one of 2016's best games – "so far", obviously, but almost certainly in another eight months, too. From start to finish, the debut from small San Francisco studio Campo Santo won't last much more than four hours, if that; but it's a narrative-focused, first-person adventure in which not a second is wasted, brilliantly scripted and excellently engineered of steadily rising tension. If I could recommend just one game of the year that everyone should play, regardless of previous experience of the medium, or expertise, it'd be this one. No spoilers, even now, but its compact story, told with minimal physical interactions and a whole lot of player supposition, is exemplary. With very little, it delivers a whole lot; and that it looks stunning is merely the proverbial icing.
Of a comparable length is Night School's Oxenfree, another excellently written indie title of 2016, with point-and-click-like gameplay. Whereas Firewatch teases you with the possibility of supernatural happenings, Oxenfree makes them a clear and present danger very early on, as a group of teenagers explore the haunted present and harrowing past of a former military island. Its appealingly snappy dialogue doesn't have quite the same emotional bounce as Firewatch's walkie-talkie back-and-forths, but both games provide the illusion of choice in your responses, with Oxenfree delivering a variety of endings against Firewatch's locked-in finale.
And if ghosts are your things, also check out Bloober Team's Layers of Fear from February, a linear-enough walking simulator set in a mansion full of creepy clichés and jump scares. It's the very epitome of a solid six out of ten: you'll play it, enjoy the silliness inherent in its phantoms and freaky dolls, and likewise the contrastingly brutal backstory to the protagonist's current state of mind and body, and then never play it a second time. And that's fine – while it lasts, which is around three hours, Layers of Fear is a skin-prickling diversion from the grey everyday that switches all the right horror buttons, albeit without revealing any new ones all of its own.
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There are three games of 2016 to keep you busy, all of which focus on story over slicing enemies in half with futuristic ninja swords. But, if it's that sort of experience you're after, you need only regress one console generation and pick up Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. And you really should.
Trading the Metal Gear series' emphasis on stealth for theatrical hyper-violence, Revengeance is the work of celebrated action studio Platinum Games, and the bearer of one stupid-as-all-fuck title. But get around its name and Revengance is a delight – by which I mean a devastatingly awesome hack 'em up in which "you" are the cyborg Raiden, whose Blade Mode-enabled katana can chop enemies to pieces with manually controlled 360-degree freedom (then you consume their insides, for health, obviously). Truly, there is little in melee-combat gaming quite as satisfying as precision-dissecting the opposition in this title – and if you want all the thrills without the difficulty, just pop it on easy and accelerate through its bananas story of a US President wannabe going nutso with nanotechnology. You'll slam into the credits in less than five hours.
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Another PS3/360-era game from Platinum that's well worth the paltry sum it sells for these days, and can be finished between lunchtime and teatime news broadcasts, is Vanquish, in which you fill the metal boots of Sam Gideon, a guy in a cutting-edge combat outfit with boosters attached to his arse. Sort of. Basically: this is third-person bullet-hell histrionics with a bombastic soundtrack and enough on-screen explosiveness to fill a dozen Call of Duties. And, again, set its challenge to minimal in order to drink in the carnage without constantly restarting the furious battles. It has a totally needless stealth section that drove me as close to ruin as your average Dark Souls does, but if you can overcome that, you're gold. And the credits are a mini-game, bonus.
I don't want to wallow in nostalgia, but it should go without saying that there are a vast number of 8- and 16bit games available through various online stores (and several not-quite-legal emulators) that can be started and finished inside the length of an average Disney movie. M2's 3D Classics series for the 3DS is worth checking out for short-play handheld sessions – there's the evergreen Streets of Rage 2, which can be "clocked" in 90 minutes, and the original Sonic the Hedgehog, beatable in around the same time. Nintendo kids can get their throwback kicks with Super Mario Bros. 2 coming in at about two and a half hours, and there's a lot more NES games on the eShop's Virtual Console.
Perhaps you don't want to be tested, though? You just need to unwind. There are short games to fit that mood, too. The PlayStation-exclusive Journey, for one, which is a beautiful two-hour trip from shining desert sands to snow-capped mountains, your character drawn towards the summit for reasons that make themselves clear through unspoken cutscenes. It's one of gaming's more interesting multiplayer experiences, with only two players able to connect with each other at any time, and communication between same-journey companions restricted to chirp-like noises that don't mean anything.
Gone Home is a tender story about a family divided by a daughter's love for another girl, seen through her sister's eyes – previously PC only, it came out for Xbox and PlayStation 4 in February, and you'll finish it in about two hours. Or for something equally "risk"-free but a lot more inventive, try The Stanley Parable, a darkly humorous game of fourth-wall breaking exploration, which can take multiple paths. You'll want to see all the endings, and you can fit them all into around 70 or 80 minutes. I appreciate there are a lot of episodic games that fit the single-sitting model, but what I've tried to do here is highlight releases that follow stories that can be seen in full without breaks between instalments. Hence no Life is Strange, or Kentucky Route Zero, or anything from Telltale.
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Now, I could go on with recommendations, but let's keep this to the very best, and wrap with a summary of just a few more. Play Dead's Limbo is a deliciously nasty puzzle-platformer, with around four hours' worth of play time. Thomas Was Alone is a much happier platformer that will convince you that rectangles have feelings, too. First-person explore 'em up Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is the most beautiful vision of a video game apocalypse you'll ever set your eyes upon. Grow Home (it's not a typo) is a peculiar-of-physics semi-platformer in which you guide a robot up a beanstalk (it's better than I just made it sound). Her Story is a murder mystery that ingeniously restores full-motion video to the status of a viable storytelling device; Monument Valley and 80 Days are two of the best mobile games ever made, and neither will take up a great deal of your time; and To the Moon is a retro-styled role-playing game that looks like something from the SNES and will make you cry like a child for four full hours.
And who doesn't enjoy a blub in front of a bundle of pixels, arranged into little people, little people with so-fragile relationships, once in a while? Let it out, let it all out, and that weight, it just lifts.
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