“I’d like to play more games, but I don’t have the time these days.” It’s a familiar refrain for players of my generation, who once sank whole days into management games, but now actually work in management, who once defeated bosses but now sell their every waking moment just to please them. The games that are most likely to fall by the wayside are role-playing games. Due in part to their origin in vastly overlong high fantasy novels, RPGs are some of the most time-consuming videogames that have yet been devised. Cash-rich but time-poor players are likely to have seen the beginning of many RPGs, but will have glimpsed the end of very few.
It’s one reason why Shadowrun Returns is such a refreshing game. The product of a hugely successful crowdfunder in 2012, it’s a hybrid cyberpunk-fantasy RPG which can be played to completion in something like 12 hours. After this length of time, many other games will barely have freed players from the torment of fighting hordes of rats with a wooden sword. RPGs tend to be bloated with myriad fetch-quests, wild-goose chases and shaggy-dog stories which greatly inflate their length and complexity, in a misguided attempt to replicate the capital-E “Epic” style of some long-forgotten Lord of the Rings knockoff.
RPG players tend to clamour for “depth” in games, but in practice this can mean the mass-production of identikit quests and locations which artificially bulk out or complicate the experience. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but even in excellent RPGs a large proportion of the - to use a terrible term - content is rarely seen. For example: today, just 7.5% of those players who own the enhanced edition of Neverwinter Nights have the achievement for completing the game’s first act. There’s something to be said for an RPG which is actually modest in its aspirations, and which aims to be completed, not just dipped into. There is a case to be made for an RPG which is not deep, but actually shallow - an RPG like Shadowrun Returns.
It took just 28 hours for Shadowrun Returns to be crowdfunded back in March 2012. Jordan Weisman, who devised the original Shadowrun tabletop game in the misty past of 1989, had asked for $400,000 but eventually secured over a million bucks from backers. At this point, Weisman could have made off in a helicopter and could have soon been sat on a beach somewhere, earning 20%. Instead, his company Harebrained Schemes set out to make an engaging role-playing experience in the Shadowrun universe, and crucially, one that was to be modest in its scope and ambition. An achievable development cycle, and an achievable game from a player’s perspective. This was done when the game shipped in July of 2013.
The Shadowrun fictional universe hinges on a critical lesson learned by Weisman back in the day: that while cyberpunk and fantasy tropes can be deeply uninspiring by themselves, they can be given a new life by lashing them together. Returns is set in Seattle, in a world where corporations rule the day, vast wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, obnoxious advertising is omnipresent, and people would prefer to bury themselves in simulated experiences rather than confront the grim reality of the doomed society outside. So far, so realistic - but there’s also a fantasy element, because all this can be experienced while playing as a dwarf.
More simply, Shadowrun Returns is an equal parts combination of William Gibson and J.R.R. Tolkien, with each set of familiar elements tempering the more embarrassing aspects of the other - mostly. Following the customary brush with race science on the character creation screen, the player is thrown almost immediately into the action. At the point where most RPGs would usher your dwarf into a bewilderingly huge and open world, Shadowrun shunts you into a transparently linear sequence of scenes, with very little in the way of distractions or side quests. Instead of being in the far distance, rarely to be seen and apt to be ignored, the main quest line is a short leash, persistently tugging the player to its conclusion. Yes, those expecting a fully-featured and responsive world will be disappointed by Shadowrun Returns but conversely, it is a relief to know that every part of the game is carefully crafted and not part of an interminable surrender to feature creep.
Across the whole of its design, Shadowrun Returns is geared towards providing a solid, but not overly ambitious 12- to 15-hour campaign. One good example of its reduced feature set compared to other RPGs is its near-total lack of any concept of loot. Most games of its type virtually drown players in trinkets from beginning to end, but in Shadowrun most of the items that can be found are quest items. If your dwarf is focused on melee combat, they will find that there are only around six distinct weapons of this type. The only meaningful difference between them is their damage output, and they’re not found in the bottom of a dungeon that takes 40 minutes to clear. Instead, vendors simply gain access to sell improved weapons as the player progresses through the campaign.
The game has a similar approach to character improvement. Shadowrun is party-based, but the various deckers, street samurai, and other Neuromancer cast-offs your dwarf can recruit don’t level up per se. At each juncture when a new team needs to be recruited, the familiar faces will have improved their skills and equipment to confront the tougher missions further on in the story. It’s simple, it makes for easy switching to a team of allies your dwarf feels comfortable with, and it saves a whole lot of everyone’s time.
Make no mistake - there’s a place for long, epic RPGs. Without mammoth roleplaying experiences like Baldur’s Gate and Morrowind the genre would be greatly worse off. At the same time, developers shouldn’t always give in to the demands for longer and longer games, especially if it would mean padding them out with quests and locations that aren’t as good or distinctive as they could be. There is much more to our experience of a game than the number of hours that we sink into it. Shadowrun Returns isn’t the best, or most important, or most innovative of RPGs - however, its story is one that a lot of players have seen the end of, and there’s a lot of value in that.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.