Since a bunch of Gameological staffers are headed out on vacation next week, myself among them, I hope you’ll indulge my use of the What Are You Playing This Weekend? space to talk about something a little different: something I’ll call “summer break games,” for lack of a better term. I’d bet that many of you, like me, had the experience of getting deep into one particular game during the dog days of summer when you were growing up.
I’m not talking about 24-hour binges that turn you into a zombie, but rather about games that you tuck into at a steady, leisurely pace—for a couple hours or so after the day’s barbecuing/swimming/summer job/whatever activities wind down. The relatively huge timescale of summer vacation allows you to take this more relaxed approach. All those shorter vacations that checker the calendar are too abbreviated for you to build up momentum on a truly deep game. And when you’re occupied with school or work, free time is unreliable and intermittent. But for a student in the summer, when you’ve got a seemingly endless stretch of days before you, you can afford to take your time and discover huge games in easily digestible chunks.
Not all huge games are created equal, and certain works make better summer break games than others. I came up with a little list of criteria that I think makes a game fit well in an extended vacation. For all you major-deciding, thesis-writing eggheads out there who are going hit the books again in a month or so, feel free to borrow my criteria—and to suggest some of your own.
A good summer break game should reward you for putting time into it. You could read this as another way of saying “it should be a long game,” but it’s not just that. I fondly remember playing through the dystopian role-playing game Final Fantasy VI (pictured above) one summer, which at 80 hours plus certainly qualifies as a long endeavor. But another year, many evenings were given over to the snowboarding slopes of SSX, which is not really “long,” per se. It does, however, have a long difficulty curve that makes gradual mastery a pleasure. So you want to ask around for games that, in one way or another, keep giving something back to you after many repeated visits.
Because you’ve got other fun things to do, you also want a game with well-defined stopping points, so that you feel some sense of accomplishment or progress even if you just play for an hour or two. My lazy summer self welcomed the boss fights in Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night, for instance, because they punctuated the addictive exploration of Dracula’s castle with moments where I could put the controller down, satisfied with my heroic, huge-eyeball-slaying exploits. A game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, conversely, can be tough to manage in the same way. You’re always getting new things to do, and your work never feels finished. Don’t get me wrong; I love Skyrim. I’m just wary of its ability to consume my days. A summer game is more fun as a dependable treat on the side than it is as the main course.
This one’s optional, but I find it’s best when a summer break game is not something you’d otherwise be likely to play. What better time than the sweltering, lazy days of August to try something new? Because let’s be honest: Once the usual grind starts up again, you’re not as likely to experiment. You’ll be tired, and you’ll be stressed, so you’re going to seek out games that you think you’re going to enjoy. And there’s no shame in that at all. But with the luxury of added time, you can afford to take a risk and maybe discover something. As a tyke, Dragon Warrior introduced me to the concept of building a character by “leveling up.” That was cool and exciting. Another summer, I spent a number of nights on the chess-like battlefield strategy of Dynasty Tactics. Turns out it wasn’t my favorite kind of game, but even still, I got a kick out of learning something new.
My years of dicking around for three months every year are behind me, but the spirit of summer break remains. I’d like to hear about your summer break game recommendations past and present. And, of course, tell everyone what you’re playing this weekend.