Serious Play | Player's Experience: In-Game Time and Real-World Time

Updated: Mar 20

Originally published on Serious Play's blog.


What in-game and in-person elements determine how much time we’re willing to spend on a particular objective, narrative, or sequence in a game? Similarly, how does a player’s relationship to the time passing within a game and the time passing in the world around them affect their experience playing a game? As an avid open-world RPG player, I have often considered how these competing timelines might affect the player’s experience. How does an hour of gameplay translate into games’ internal timelines and how might this translation speak to players’ feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, or fulfillment?


When I tuned in to the Lunch Zone’s most recent stream of Disco Elysium, I admit, I had never heard of the game or seen gameplay of it. While I was admittedly launched midway into a narrative, the game’s extensive dialogue and decision-making system can clearly make for a long-term endeavor. During the stream, Nathan read the dialogue aloud and made important conversational decisions with Kelly and Laya. Nathan mentioned that the constraints of the play session—playing for an hour on stream as opposed to playing alone or at home, for example—affects the experience of in-game time, to which Kelly and Laya pointed out that by reading the dialogue aloud and making decisions as a group, naturally the progression of the game would be slower. This got me thinking about the ways that we as players change our practices in response to situational changes—playing with friends, playing on stream, grinding a particular game to achieve a specific goal as opposed to playing through a narrative for the first time. Specifically, it got me thinking about the way that we see and value the time that we spend playing a game based on these situational variables. Given that Disco Elysium is comprised of a series of decisions, roll checks, and slow physical movement through a complicated narrative space, it would make sense to take the time and consider the various dialogue options and its implications, even if that requires the player to extend their gameplay time.


This tension between time spent in the game and the passing of actual time can lead to complications in player satisfaction, as Destiny 2 is currently experiencing. In a recent article for Forbes, Paul Tassi discusses Destiny 2’s massive puzzle, the Corridors of Time, highlighting Bungie’s recent announcement that the puzzle would disappear two weeks after its introduction. This means that players only have a two-week window of real-world time to put in the real-world hours required to complete the puzzle. These limitations reduce the likelihood for players to have the opportunity to complete the puzzle and earn the rewards. As a PhD student, I have to accept that there’s no way I’m going to get these rewards. Given recent reports that these rewards are underwhelming considering the amount of time required to complete the Corridors of Time, I was curious about how a player’s expectations (I hope to complete X goal) for a timed play session would affect the player’s experience of in-game and real-world time.


So, I decided to put it to the test. As I mentioned, I love massive, open-world RPG games. Since I am slowly making my way through the new Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, I chose to give myself a set period of uninterrupted game time. As a player, I am meticulous and admittedly, downright annoying in my need to complete my narratives laterally and search every nook and cranny of an open-world space before I feel accomplished. I complete sub-plots as they appear and refuse to leave areas until I’m satisfied that I have looted every crate, gathered sufficient materials, and engaged with every NPC capable of holding a conversation. Therefore, I thought that Kakarot might serve as a useful first test to see how my experience of uninterrupted play through a narrative saga might affect my experience of real-time. In the two and a half hours that I played the game, I carefully combed dialogues, new areas, and completed a major narrative arc that took place over the course of an in-game year and a half. The extension of in-game time, interspersed through a long series of main and sub–quests, paralleled the slow ticking of my timer, long forgotten as I worked my way through the narrative. I was surprised when my alarm went off, convinced I had played long past my little experiment’s constraints. This balance of slow play and narrative time skips ultimately simulated an extension of my experience of playing the game, especially because of the longer lulls of searching areas or grinding to raise different characters’ levels.


With games like Disco Elysium, Destiny 2, and Dragon Ball ZKakarot and Disco Elysium, players’ patience pays off. Perhaps more importantly, these examples suggest that as we mod how we play a game—in groups, with audience input, on stream, alone, while watching someone else’s stream, playing without interruptions—our experience of the game itself and the world around us can shift dramatically. Games like these and others, such as The Division 2 continue to incorporate mechanics that force or encourage a player to alternate their gameplay pace, shifting players’ experiences and expectations for the next time they sit down to play.

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