When speed produces reality

Though I had long suspected it, yesterday I realized that I have been playing NBA 2k12’s My Player mode on the easiest level setting. Having played the game long enough, I understood what increasing the difficulty setting would entail. The ability to make shots, defend well, and improve in the clutch are all a series of real-time algorithms. Your success in any area of the game depends on your ability to manipulate a handful of actions to achieve the optimal opportunity. (For example, when you’re running the fast break, forcing a pass to a corner three-point shooter–you can direct players to positions on the court by throwing certain passes–is often unsuccessful unless the player intends to go to that spot organically. It is too easy to throw those passes and you’re penalized for making the easy–read: wrong–decision.) Increasing the difficulty in the game, therefore, makes it harder to manipulate those algorithms in order to create the best outcome.

On lower level settings, you can begin to predict what the AI is going to do. There’s a limited number of animations that it processes and after playing for several hours, gaming the system becomes a habit. But it’s not until you up the difficulty that you realize why: speed.

I often noted when leveling up my character’s attributes that there’s a significant leap at every 0 and 5 (75, 80, 85, 90, etc). As you improve your passing ability, the accuracy of your passes does not necessarily increase, but you will notice more opportunities to make passes, the logic being that great passers will see things that other players don’t. Your ability to make those passes relies on how quickly you recognize the actions/animations and can execute the proper pass. Though you see more opportunities, you’re likely going to miss them the first several times that they appear. It’s not until you’re conditioned to seeing these openings that you’re ready to make the proper play at the proper time.

NBA 2k12, regardless of your player’s abilities, is rendered to look like real basketball. So how does the game begin to unveil these new opportunities without looking unrealistic and more importantly, make them look organic? The answer is speed, more precisely, the speed of animations. This revelation doesn’t really come to light until you increase the difficulty setting, where animations begin firing significantly quicker, offering both less room for error and more opportunities for new animations.

Pretend, for a moment, that the following cosine wave is the time it takes to perform any given animation in NBA 2k12 (we’ll use, for example, a player driving to the basket) on the easiest level setting:

The only way to make the game easier (other than allowing someone to hit an inordinate amount of shots) is to increase leniency. If NBA 2k12 played at the actual speed of an NBA game, 90% of all people who play it wouldn’t be fast enough to keep up with the pace and movement of the game. That’s why professional athletes can do what they do. So the game slows down individual animations and allows players to react to them at their own speed. If, on the lowest difficulty setting, it takes three seconds for the animation of someone driving to the basket to completely run, that doesn’t allow for much more time for other, subsequent animations to also appear.

One of the complaints I’ve always had about the game is that players do unnatural things. They take shots at inopportune times, take extra dribbles allowing defenders to recover, and various other illogical actions that wouldn’t occur in the real world. But it’s clear that those wonky animations arise because the speed of the game restricts itself from processing more realistic behavior. If Carmelo Anthony performs his “drive to the basket” animation in three seconds, given the time constraints of basketball (the shot clock, offensive and defensive three second rules, etc) he may have to force a shot in an unnatural position because he doesn’t have time to perform another animation–the first took too long to perform.

Now imagine that the speed of the animations has been increased (ie, more difficult level setting). Assume the first wavelength below represents the same drive to the basket animation as the graph above. However, now the game possesses the processing time to including a second wavelength/subsequent animation:

Not only can Carmelo Anthony now drive to the basket, but the game can process another animation. In this scenario, Melo can get himself out of a hairy situation if he, say, drives into traffic and needs to perform a double clutch reverse layup.

But this dynamic goes both ways. Now, forcing opponents into unsuitable defensive positions is much more difficult. On lower level settings, performing a few dribble moves might trigger a specific defensive animation from your opponent that frees you for a shot for, let’s say 1.5 seconds. But when the defensive player corrects himself more quickly, your window for opportunity decreases significantly. Where a stepback jumper move may have produced a 1.5-second maximum probability of making the shot (ie, you can press the shoot button at any time in that period), with increased difficulty, the defender will more quickly recover from your stepback move and defend your shot more closely, giving you only a half-a-second window to take your shot at the optimal level.

The reason I bring this up is because this is how real sports work. As great players work their way through progressively more difficult competition, the game becomes faster. They dominate at lower levels of competition because they can anticipate and read what their opponents will do–in addition to overpowering the competition and hitting an inordinate amount of shots. (I have always felt that NBA 2k12 approximated college basketball much better than professional basketball because of the reliance on set plays, picks, and unathletic, unnatural shots. It’s clear now that it was simply the speed of the game that was a hindrance to a professional hoops simulation.) But when they get to the pro level, windows of maximum performance narrow, more opportunities arise to make plays, and teams/players are more severely penalized for reading a play incorrectly.

Think for a moment about David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay about Roger Federer and the physics of tennis, “Federer as Religious Experience“:

After a July 7 semifinal in which Federer destroyed Jonas Bjorkman — not just beat him, destroyed him — and just before a requisite post-match news conference in which Bjorkman, who’s friendly with Federer, says he was pleased to “have the best seat in the house” to watch the Swiss “play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis,” Federer and Bjorkman are chatting and joking around, and Bjorkman asks him just how unnaturally big the ball was looking to him out there, and Federer confirms that it was “like a bowling ball or basketball.” He means it just as a bantery, modest way to make Bjorkman feel better, to confirm that he’s surprised by how unusually well he played today; but he’s also revealing something about what tennis is like for him. Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high-level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.

This is how NBA 2k12 is structured because of its emphasis on speed. At a lower level setting, everything seems slow. Your player isn’t actually any more talented than any of the computer-controlled teammates/opponents. There’s an objective scale that places your character in a spectrum of everyone else in the league. However, the game opens up slowly for you, making passing lanes appear to hover for inordinate amounts of time and defenders to sag off of you for just long enough to get a good shot away. As you increase the difficulty, those windows close and the game feels more frantic but I would suspect, with more time playing these difficult level settings, those openings will appear more frequent and substantial as well.

It’s a testament to the development team that they’ve been able to produce such a dynamic. NBA 2k12 was already one of the best sports games on the market but it’s also the only one to get better (and more realistic) when the difficulty is increased. In other sports games, increasing the difficulty usually means your opposition will have insider information about the plays you’ve called or have superhuman powers. But NBA 2k12 bases its entire structure around speed, allowing it to increase the difficulty and realism without making the game artificially harder.

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Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 review

I reviewed the new Tiger Woods game over at PopMatters. The takeaway:

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13’s new swing mechanic, the series’ most dramatic shift to date, makes the game similarly unfun but unfun in a golf sense, not a repetitive one. Gone are the days of mindlessly pulling back the left analog stick and slamming it forward for maximum power. The new swing mechanic relies as heavily on pace and rhythm as it does on basic human dexterity. This shift is akin to the difference between a button-mashing Street Fighter player and someone surgically attacking withTekken 3’s Yoshimitsu.

Transitioning to this new system, especially early on, presents a host of problems. Timing your swing correctly affects your distance and accuracy—to say nothing of putting. As you spend more time with the game, you start to get into a rhythm, but a single missed shot and your round can quickly take a nosedive. Putting, meanwhile, may be the most frustrating aspect of the game. The precision with which you must control your backswing and follow through is frustratingly realistic, but it is also a welcome change to a franchise that has for too long been stuck in neutral.

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The art of grinding

(Do not Google image search “grinding”. It is very weird)

I know the southeastern region of the Final Fantasy VII universe well. There’s a small, uninhabited island in the archipelago that harbors Mideel–a primitive, wood-structure town that is built around a hot spring–that became my exclusive location for dozens of hours of play, leaving only to pick up supplies at Mideel when absolutely necessary.

This forested island is unexceptional. Patches of tees freckle the otherwise flat grasslands. But what makes this island such an integral part of the journey centers on its inhabitants: a large, praying mantis-like creature affectionately referred to as Head Hunters.

Head Hunters do not appear to be particularly high in protein or nutrients, or so you would assume from their scaly exterior. They aren’t a delicacy to be bartered for at markets around the globe. They’re not friendly, either, as you might assume from their name. But what they lack in charisma, they make up for in quantity. This island, despite all laws of nature, harbors an endless supply of Head Hunters who either eat sparingly–resources on the island are scarce–or cannibalize their own and reproduce at a extraordinary rate. And like most animals in resource-strapped environments, they travel in packs.

Maybe because of this fearsome pack mentality or because of how rare Head Hunters are in the Final Fantasy VII ecosystem, the one thing they do offer is experience points. Loads of them. With an endless supply of Head Hunters comes an endless supply of experience, the ideal setting for the least ideal aspect of RPGs: grinding.

You don’t travel to the outlying island of the Mideel territory for nothing. Whether you’re leveling up to battle the Ultimate Weapon or sharpening up for your final encounter with Sephiroth, there’s usually a reason to trot around the island in search of roving packs of flesh-eating, man-sized insects. The exercise itself, however, is tiresome.

Grinding in Final Fantasy VII, like in most RPGs, is a tedious droll of button mashing. Hours upon hours are spent fighting the same monsters, performing the same attacks, and trying to find ways to end the battles as quickly as possible (Is the use of a summon–and its subsequent animation–faster than manually attacking all of the enemies?). But you have to do it.

The one thing that makes grinding tolerable is the anticipation and eventual trials and error. There’s an end game that you’re grinding toward and eventually, you get so sick of fighting Head Hunters that you try (and usually fail) to take on whatever bad guy is patiently waiting for you.

***

The ending of the iOS release Infinity Blade is never in doubt. From the very beginning of the game, you know who the bad guy is, ostensibly where to find him, and what your objective is. Like any good “RPG” (about those scare quotes later), there’s a twist ending, or three or four twist endings, depending on your perspective, but you’re always fighting toward a clear goal. This, like your imminent encounter with Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, is at least a motivating factor for you to continue grinding.

What makes Infinity Blade so structurally interesting is that the designers have taken the worst part about RPGs and created an entire game around it. Despite all the fancy touchscreen swordplay and impressive environments, Infinity Blade is nothing more than endless grinding. Even after killing what appears to be the game’s antagonist, you’re sent back into the endless cycle of repetitive baddies and gold hoarding.

But Infinity Blade is brilliant and addicting in a way that making a game solely about the uninhabited islands of the Mideel archipelago could never be, and it accomplishes this through two features: muscle memory and item collection.

The first is simple enough; it’s why people like iPhone games in the first place and why Wii Sports was supposed to revolutionize gaming but ended up being a tech demo. People love one-to-one anything, and when you’re slashing your way through a forgotten castle of oversized, headless ogres and knighted henchmen, the fun only escalates. Learning the intricacies of attack patterns and when to mount an offensive becomes the primary goal for the first few hours of play.

The latter caters to the guilty pleasure of most all video gamers: getting new shit. In Zelda games, all you want is the Master Sword. The Call of Duty/Battlefield online multiplayer model captivates players largely because of the unlock system. Working toward and collecting all the weapons in games like Final Fantasy VII is a goal in and of itself. Gamers love new things, even if they’re ostensibly the same as their old things but just look a little different. There’s always a feeling-out period where you watch the cool new animations and marvel at how much more powerful your character is. Infinity Blade has that in spades with dozens and dozens of new swords, helmets, suits of armor, and magical rings. Equipping any of these weapons or pieces of armor tweaks your character’s attributes and feigns “role playing” when in reality there’s a very clear delineation of best and worst weapons/armor/etc. Regardless, gamers love new unlocks, and Infinity Blade’s endless grinding offers both random item drops from defeated enemies and gold-hoarding to visit the “shop”, which is really just a menu that can be accessed at any time. I assume item requests and exchange of goods is handled via carrier pigeon.

It’s a testament to the design team or perhaps an indictment of gamers’ tendencies and habits that Infinity Blade is so successful. But the game also tweaks the grinding model in one subtle way that is missing from games like Final Fantasy VII: it gets harder. Enemies start attacking more quickly and doing more damage, just as you’re memorizing their skillset and wiping them out with ease. The game becomes a blend of traditional RPG grinding and old-school platforming that’s based on memorization and tactile abilities.

When you’ve finally taken out the last enemy, there’s a sense of accomplishment, and the anticipation for that feeling is what drives the game forward. Despite its clear limitations (both environmentally and with the repetitive attack sequences of enemies) Infinity Blade continues to refresh itself and mask its true beginnings.

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Super Mario RPG: Humanizing the Plumber

What do you really know about Mario? He’s an Italian plumber, desperately in love with the Princess of his native land, which is populated with evil turtles and walking mushroom. Realistically, Mario should have no shot with Princess Peach who is taller, better looking, and, ya know, a princess. But like every Step Up movie ever made, the kid from the streets has some inexorable skill bursting from his seams that helps him win the heart of his betrothed. Mario’s skill: jumping, like pretty high.

That Mario has any chance with Princess Peach or perhaps more importantly that a middle-aged Italian plumber who has to split rent with his brother is the most suited member of the Mushroom Kingdom to save the oft-captured Princess from the country’s primary villain, Bowser–whose motives remain forever shrouded; is he looking for ransom? If so, Mario’s incessant coin collecting would seem to solve this problem with less flattened fungi and murdered turtles–raises a number of questions about the Mushroom Kingdom itself. Who are the hapless inhabitants of this kingdom and why is their hero a mustachioed plumber?

Released in the US only 136 days before Super Mario 64 and consequently the Nintendo 64 console, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was the final Mario game released on the Super Nintendo and, despite rave reviews, was largely overshadowed by the 64-bit, 3-D masterpiece to be released shortly thereafter. But Super Mario RPG may be the most important Mario game ever, barring the original Super Mario Bros.

Theon Weber would argue that Super Mario 64 is the greatest game bearing the Mario name. As he explains in, Born With All You Need to Know,

Exploration was never a part of earlier Mario games. Even the near-flawless Super Mario Bros. 3 invariably directed the player left-to-right across two-dimensional landscapes, and the goal of every level was to reach the point of extreme rightness.

While Super Mario 64 changed this design geometrically, it still maintained it spiritually. Though the castle and various maps in Super Mario 64 were three dimensional spaces open for exploration, they remained independent, secluded trials to the ultimate goal that you were working toward: finding the Princess and consequently Bowser. Though the spatial dynamic of the series had changed, Super Mario 64 was fundamentally equivalent to its predecessors, except, of course, Super Mario RPG.

Though it may simply be a function of the RPG genre, Super Mario RPG was only linear insofar as there was a plot that needed to be progressed. If you wanted to earn experience and grind out a few levels, you could do that in any part of the world. If you had a gambling addiction and wanted to test your luck on some Yoshi races, that was available as well. But the open-world design–or perhaps semi-open–is only a catalyst for Super Mario RPG’s greatest achievement: character and world building.

Before Super Mario RPG, and even in most/all of the subsequent releases in the Mario franchise, the only information we had about Mario or the Mushroom Kingdom was what was apparent via gameplay: Bowser is bad, Mario loves the Princess, walking mushrooms were the enemies, etc. Despite Mario being a popular culture icon, the world he existed in was a nebula of random ideas. Games like Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced new enemies and backgrounds, and Super Mario 64 allowed you to explore Princess Peach’s castle, but this was akin to overhearing a conversation and presuming to know the whole story.

Super Mario RPG offers a glimpse of neighboring territories, socioeconomic dynamics, cultural tendencies, and dialogue–of which, importantly, you are not in control. Moleville is a small mining town populated by the lower class, moles who spend all day toiling in the mines in fear on an imminent collapsed shaft. Monstro Town is populated by reformed monsters, including the previously perpetually malevolent Goombas. The Mushroom Kingdom is inhabited mostly by scholars and salesman, explaining why a gruff plumber could be their most valiant fighter–though this still calls into question why Princess Peach is human.

Rose Town, however, may be the most interesting location in all of Mario lore. After entering the house of a local, you find a child playing with his action figures. Appropriately, there are figurines for Mario and Bowser, legendary combatants to all who live near the Mushroom Kingdom. But fighting alongside Mario is a foreign character, Geno. Though he eventually comes to life and joins your party, the dynamic is an interesting one: though Mario is a legendary character, he’s not the only show in town. Mario’s reputation as a remarkable leaper precedes him everywhere he goes in Super Mario RPG, but in Rose Town, the locals have stories and heroes of their own.

But the dialogue and story of Super Mario RPG itself are series changing. Bowser and Mario befriend one another, Bowser is shown to be something of a sissy, and the introduction of a bunch of new characters to the Mario lexicon are all permanent additions. This is something that Square and Nintendo understood when they designed the game: Super Mario Bros. 2 was a wacky Japanese knock off that got labeled as a Mario game, but it introduced Birdo, a character that has appeared in a number of Mario games, including Super Mario RPG. Geno and Mallow and Moleville and Rose Town and Smithy–ostensibly the game’s primary antagonist–are now all part of the Mario universe and, though they haven’t appeared again, are all very much a real part of Mario’s history.

Super Mario RPG did more world and character building than the dozens of preceding and subsequent Mario titles. The game doesn’t dismiss the series’ history as much as it rewrites it. Taken as a stand-alone title, Super Mario RPG is probably a one-off anomaly that earns cult classic status, but as a prominent member of the Mario lineage, everything that happened throughout the game, whether consciously addressed in subsequent titles or not, colors the experiences and personalities of Mario, Bowser, and the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom and its outlying provinces.

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Grand Slam Tennis 2 review

It’s been a while, but I wrote a review for PopMatters, this one on Grand Slam Tennis 2 for XBox. The takeaway:

Playing without the fear of the side and endlines makes Grand Slam Tennis 2—and in effect, most tennis games—much more like Checkers than Chess. Defensive shots are a rarity as the ability to return balls on the fly to exact court locations presents little challenge. The game becomes an exercise in tedium: forehand left corner, forehand left corner, backhand right corner. Game, set, match.

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Battlefield 3 recon gameplay video

A friend of mine who also plays Battlefield 3 was curious how I was able to attack flags in the game as a recon/sniper. Playing as a sniper in the game, if you’re going to be effective, takes a different rhythm than all the other classes which have access to automatic weapons. In an effort to show him how I played, I took some video of a round on Kharg Island. Without the capability of recording directly from my TV, I set up my iPhone in front of it. I’m geeking wrong, I know.

In any case, the few tips that I always tell people about playing recon/sniper, and that you can see in this video are as follows:

  • When running through a level, always have your pistol out. Should you happen to run into someone, it’s much better to already have your pistol drawn. If you spot someone from far off, it’s easy to change to your rifle and attack that way.
  • Never take a direct route to an objective. Doing so usually puts you in dangerous situations against more powerful enemies.
  • When taking an objective, stay to the outer edges of the objective and limit your angles of attack: back into corners, find cover, etc. This way, you can more easily manage an attack using just a pistol.
  • If possible, set up a T-ugs when taking an objective. I attempt to here, but have my character spec’ed wrong (I had the MAV set up, which I briefly pull out before putting away).
  • Use your sniper rifle as much as a telescope to investigate areas before moving in as you do a weapon.

Those are the basic fundamentals that I stick to when playing as a sniper.

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On 100-hour video games

Since October 25, 2011, I have played at least 123 hours and 45 minutes of video games, an exact number that I can reference because my Battlefield 3 Battlelog tells me precisely how long I’ve been playing. Among other stats, the game tracks how many people I’ve killed (3,526), vehicles that I’ve destroyed (407), and matches that I’ve won (320). Throughout my time playing the game, I’ve run the gamut of emotions, from exhilaration to terror to frustration to hope to disappointment to excitement.

But Battlefield is not the only game I’ve played since October 25. I’ve logged at least double-digit hours into Skyrim, Skyward Sword, and NBA 2k12, and I’ve also played Bastion, Warp, Grand Slam Tennis 2, and a host of other games. Video games, both as a form of entertainment and cultural exploration, have largely taken the place of movies, music, television, and reading for me in the last 12 months. As such, I take exception to a recent review of Dark Souls written for Slate.

I’ve never played the game, so any comments about its gameplay or story are lost on me, but the review grapples with another question: Is a 100-hour video game ever worthwhile? The takeaway:

Indeed, more than any other medium, video games blur the distinction between a depicted act and participating in the act itself. Dark Souls insists that players participate in their own undoing by burning hour after hour in search of the small burst of relief that comes after each round of punishment. Everyone who has played a game of this length knows too well the hollowness that waits at the end, brain numb, uncountable weeks and months piled on the trash heap at their backs, and no idea of what to do next. Why did I do that? Why did I keep playing? What was I after? Where am I now?

These are questions victims ask, people taken advantage of, left with less than they started out with. The purpose of art is the opposite of this, to leave you with more at the end than at the beginning, to give you something you can carry with you. There’s no reason video games can’t provide that, and many do. But none of them take 100 hours.

Author Michael Thomsen broaches the crux of the argument (medium) without actually discussing it. Video games are unlike any form of traditional art, which is one of the reasons why so much literature is dedicated to proving whether it is or isn’t art. Regardless of your opinion on the topic (IMO, yes, they obviously are), you should believe that video games need to be approached differently than other forms of artistic expression. Would you critique a live concert and Modernist painting the same way?

Despite video games’ status as artistic expression or even simply entertainment, its closest analog is actually sports, which is one reason why sports games have always been so successful. Both are rule-based institutions that require you to play within (experience and react to) the confines of the game. Obviously, competitive video games (online FPS, sports games, etc) harbor this comparison more readily, but even single-player games are governed by a set of rules and strictures that require compliance.

Thomsen essentially proposes that the use of hours without tangible gains leaves you hollow and numb, but frankly, those are the beliefs of someone who has either never (or sparingly) played video games or someone who has been playing the wrong games his entire life. Put aside the ability to share stories from your adventures–games like Skyrim are ripe for this, but even Battlefield offers players stories to share with fellow gamers–video games offer experiences, which are far richer than he’s acknowledging.

Games will always struggle to be accepted as a proper artistic medium because of a player’s involvement in the final product. If the purpose of art, as Thomsen argues, is to ” to leave you with more at the end than at the beginning,” dismissing the experiences games offer–and the evocation of real human emotion–discounts the medium as a whole. Video games now often force the player to make decisions, invoke empathy and a host of other emotions, and offer progressive storylines that can sometimes be bent or broken depending on a player’s choices. But it’s how you get to your ultimate goal that sets games apart. If you don’t recall any specific moments from a game, you’re just playing a bad game.

This is also why players often replay games. I can think of at least a dozen games in which I’ve run through the single-player campaigns multiple times to find new secrets, pathways, storylines, and events. Video games are more about how you’ve completed them, not simply completing them.

The review also implies that the stories that drive games aren’t valuable on their own merit*. Does the fact that you control the action of Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy VII diminish the game’s storyline?; Do you feel robbed of your time when you’ve finished a Joseph Conrad book after hours of dedication? Thomsen’s retort against this argument would be that the experiences offered in games can be portrayed in far fewer hours to the same effect, which is bullshit, or at least very hypocritical. Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway can range the gamut of human emotions in few words and fewer pages, but that doesn’t mean Tolstoy or James Joyce are lesser for it.

Ultimately, it’s a combination of the story and experiences that define games. If you’re playing Skyrim just to kill some dragons, collect some skrilla, and help settle a civil war, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a reason games extend beyond 100 hours, and while many games do carry on too long, condemning an entire medium to a certain preferred length is just as ridiculous as saying no book should run longer than 140 pages.

*EDIT: After a Twitter discussion with the author, his argument is that games can run 100 hours, but no existing games really warrant it. I still find his conclusion (“The purpose of art is the opposite of this, to leave you with more at the end than at the beginning, to give you something you can carry with you. There’s no reason video games can’t provide that, and many do. But none of them take 100 hours.”) problematic. The implication drawn from the conclusion, given the original question (Is a 100-hour game ever worth it?), is that this upper limit to game length applies more broadly. Placing such a limit on game length discredits stories that may need 100+ hours to complete.

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