Written for The Escapist Magazine, recreated with permission.
It’s a common enough situation for many gamers: After what must’ve been hours of play, there’s only 15 minutes left until another engagement like school or work pulls you away from your game. It’s not enough time to accomplish much of anything in most games – but that doesn’t stop most of us from trying.
This seems to me like a perfectly illogical action. In an FPS, it’s barely enough time for a few gunfights, let along an entire level. In an RTS, it might allow for one last push into your enemy’s base, but not much more. You could explore a few more rooms of a dungeon in an RPG, but you’re probably not going to make it to the boss. These 15 minutes are the last cathartic moments of fun before responsibility sets in.
Why are we so fond of these final moments of gameplay? Considering the many hours we spend with most videogames, how did these 15 minutes becomes so crucial, so necessary? Maybe it boils down to something unique to the modern human condition.
There is something about that duration of time that is inherently acceptable to us. Fifteen minutes seems to be roughly the smallest unit of time we can devote to something that requires intense attention. TV infomercials sell workout routines promising a “new you” in 15 minutes or less a day. We frequently hit the snooze buttons on our alarm clocks once or twice, since 15 minutes is just enough time to get another wink of sleep without worrying about being too late for work or school. It’s the spare change of time: There’s no chore in devoting 15 minutes toward something, nor are there repercussions for spending such a paltry amount of time frivolously. We can always make room for 15 more minutes.
Casual games seem to have run furthest with this idea – their entire system of gameplay is designed around 15-minute chunks of playtime. But this concept hasn’t been lost on AAA titles. Most Valve games come with auto-save features, and titles like BioShock and the Halo series give you frequent checkpoints. When reality is closing in on the horizon, there’s still incentive to progress in these games. Even in the worst case scenario, when you die right before a checkpoint, in the back of your mind you know it’s only a few more minutes until you can play that part again.
Videogames are increasingly designed with these micro – milestones in mind. A game might take dozens of hours of time, but in a quarter of an hour players can crush the boss, delve a little bit deeper into the Cavern of the Ancients or finish a short quest in an MMOG. Progression is almost guaranteed. Without these small incentives, it’s almost hard to imagine how older games were compelling in the first place. The Command & Conquer series and Valkyrie Profile provide examples of older games in which it’s exceedingly difficult to accomplish anything in such a short period of time.
But this phenomenon goes beyond mere progression. There’s a deeply ingrained belief in all of us that 15 more minutes might be enough time to experience the Next Big Thing in a game – a powerful new weapon, a jaw-dropping action set piece or a dramatic boss fight. TV shows often resolve their frequent cliffhangers in this amount time, and it is usually in the final minutes of the show that you find the shocking revelations that set you up for next week’s episode. The same holds true in videogames: One more level will reveal a new skill or allow us access to new and beautiful scenery. The lure of the unknown is much harder to resist in these last moments.
The irony is that because it’s so easy to commit to just 15 more minutes, it becomes an excuse to play for another hour. When a game is truly great (or perhaps just truly addictive), 15 minutes becomes the equivalent of the gambler’s $20 buy-in – which is to say that it’s never just $20 more. In fact, many games are designed so that 15 minutes is merely a gateway to hours of commitment. The best games will distill their entire experience for the player into that brief window of time. The intensity people once felt on their last quarter at the arcade is now available to gamers every 15 minutes.
Games are an immersive medium, and it’s only natural that they have a tendency to pull you in a little deeper than you initially intended to go. The time limit might even contribute to the allure of these experiences: The pressure grows, and with it the intensity and excitement. Sure, it would be more reasonable to stop, but what use is logic when there’s so much enjoyment to gleaned from those last few minutes? So kick back and keep playing a little bit longer. Even if you don’t end up making any progress, you might find something spectacular waiting for you just past the next checkpoint. And all it takes to get there is 15 more minutes.