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There’s more to dodging the coronavirus at home than stacking up your streaming queue, collapsing into the deepest recesses of your sofa, and making your way through that mountain of movies you somehow missed in theaters. As the days pass and the stir crazy sets in, you’re eventually gonna want something to do — even if that means just sitting up a little straighter with a game controller in your hands.
Luckily for us, there’s never been a better time to be a self-quarantining gamer. Despite video gaming’s reputation for vacuuming up those valuable productive hours, some games reward our investment better than others — and none better than the ones that take their sweet time telling a good story, while slyly hooking us in for an immersive experience that merges us with what we see onscreen.
When you really dig into a single-player adventure that offers no short cuts between the opening credits and the 40-plus hour path to the finish line, time really can appear to melt away. And hey, time’s what most of us actually have on our hands these days for a change — so why not dive right in? A lot of games could have made our list, and if you manage to get through these, more are just a download away. But at the end of the day, these are the currently-available marathon games that have us in no big hurry to head back outside.
Horizon Zero Dawn
No one was ready for what Guerrilla Games had waiting in the wings when Horizon Zero Dawn landed on the PlayStation 4 in 2017. A developer known previously for its Killzone shooter franchise, Guerrilla managed to hit a sci-fi grand slam on its first foray into open-world action, serving up a story of secret destiny centered on instantly likable protagonist Aloy and her fascinating, bread-crumb discovery of who she really is…and was.
Set in a once-devastated North American landscape so far removed from its 21st-Century past that the visible remains of civilization feel positively archaeological, one of the joys in HZD’s 40-plus hour playtime is recognizing familiar landmarks and cultural markings underneath all the overgrowth. But with a whole menagerie of robotic techno-animals stalking you and your primitive, bow-wielding tribal peers, you won’t be able to gawk too long. Aloy’s tight, customizable combat skills never flag in a sprawling game that conceals a wholly unique science fiction story beneath tons of natural beauty — not to mention the deadly tech creations that linger from a bygone age. HZD earns every single one of its story twists and turns — and when the credits roll, you’re almost guaranteed to go frantically scrolling the internet to find out when the likely sequel is coming out (hint: we still don’t know!)
How long: At least 40 hours, but there’s no rush. With DLC and generous exploration, expect to hang around for 80.
Biggest thrill: The first time Aloy steps inside one of the game’s hidden underground “cauldrons” — and we feel like we’ve entered a dark neon version of The Twilight Zone.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Don't let the cute characters fool you: this one's a beast. If you’re looking for a completely unique time sink that’s a little off the beaten path from all the Fallouts and Witchers of the gaming world, it’s hard to do better than the most expansive JRPG ever to hit the Nintendo Switch. Released at the end of 2017, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a Switch exclusive that follows in the footsteps of 2010’s Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii — widely praised by critics as one of the best Japanese RPGs ever to grace a Nintendo console.
Set in the clouds, where your only secure footing can be found on the surface of massive sentient beings called Titans (some the size of an entire floating continent, complete with trees, lakes, and mountains), your ragtag gang of party members embarks on a main story that, even at a quick pace with absolutely no distractions, will likely take close to 50 hours to complete. Add in the incredible diversity of side quests, optional superbosses, and engaging ways to keep leveling up, and it’s easy to spend well more than 100 hours on a single playthrough — all while slowly growing more and more invested in the story of hero Rex, who ends up becoming far more than the plucky, wide-eyed orphan who unwittingly backed into developer Monolith Soft’s ambitiously-scripted fantasy tale.
How long: If you hurry, 50 hours. If you don’t, 100 plus.
Biggest thrill: The stunning ending (no spoilers!), when Rex and the gang watch the Titans literally transform the world as they’ve known it.
Now things are getting weird — but in the best possible way. If Hideo Kojima is gaming’s version of David Lynch, then consider NieR franchise mastermind Yoko Taro its Jim Jarmusch. When Square Enix handed Taro the reins to his very own current-gen game, the quirky auteur went out and recruited Bayonetta developer PlatinumGames to lend Automata the tight, focused gameplay controls that Taro’s previous adventures in the Drakengard series (as well as the original NieR itself) had sorely lacked.
The result is a riveting, genre-bending story about sentient robots abandoned by their maker on a forgotten world, and your two-party team of Matrix-cool humanoid synths’ quest to liberate them — or repeatedly die trying. Combining a kitchen sink’s worth of play styles, NieR: Automata jumps breezily from top-down space shooter to sword-slashing action RPG in the blink of an eye, and it features some of the most inventive and — there’s no avoiding it — difficult bosses of any game this generation. It’s almost impossible to put a ceiling on how long you can play NieR: Automata, since Taro tucked away the game’s true ending behind no fewer than five main storyline endings (plus an additional 21 secondary endings, for an entire alphabet’s worth of 26 finishes). Put it together with a headphone-worthy musical score and a truly unique sci-fi tale of robots who suspect they’re meant for more, and NieR: Automata will have you passing the hours without ever glancing at a clock.
How long: Pick a number greater than 40 hours. There’s so much content here, you could be at this for weeks.
Biggest thrill: Stepping into the Desert Zone for the first time, hearing the musical score swell to a crescendo, and realizing just how huge a world this place really is.
Bethesda’s retro take on America’s 1950s-vintage future gone very, very haywire is one of the most memorable settings in all of gaming. And when you’re sheltering in place while weathering a real-life pandemic, there’s something evocative and soothing in Fallout’s cheekily post-apocalyptic portrayal of a shattered, nuclear-blasted landscape. Hey, things could be far worse, right?
Set in the Boston ruins, Fallout 4 is the obvious choice as the latest current-gen game in the single-player Fallout universe, and it’s an incredible open-world sandbox that’ll have you rearranging your sleep schedule for weeks. But the same can also be said of both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, the two single-player games from the previous console generation. Both hold up extremely well today, and if you don’t mind a PlayStation Now subscription (or simply popping in a game disc on the backwards-compatible Xbox One), both are ready to go on current-gen consoles. Like Skyrim and the other games in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls fantasy RPG series, all the Fallout games’ maps are massive, there’re discoveries big and small lovingly hidden in nearly every corner, and — especially in first-person mode — they’re as immersive as the inner sanctum of a flooded Vault-Tec vault. War never changes…but stomping around in its irradiated aftermath sure is a megaton of fun.
How long: Assuming you do even a handful of side quests, 50 hours at a minimum. But getting to know Boston and its far-flung outer reaches can keep you occupied for weeks on end.
Biggest thrill: Finding out the secret that lies beneath the abandoned Museum of Witchcraft, to name just one.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
Square Enix’s JRPG masterpiece came at the very end of the PlayStation 2’s life cycle (the PS3 had already been announced when it released in March of 2006). Despite Final Fantasy XII's popularity and wide critical acclaim, it’s a game that slipped through the cracks for a whole lot of fans. So when Square decided in 2017 to completely overhaul the game and give it a trove of amazing new features for the current console generation, one of the tightest, most ambitious JRPGs of any era got a welcome second lease on life.
There’s no place in gaming quite like the land of Ivalice, the magic-infused world where you’ll be spending your time. Often characterized as a cultural cross between Star Wars and the Ancient Near East, it’s a species-diverse place where swordplay and air travel coexist. It’s all in support of an ambitious story about wresting the reins of history from the gods themselves — as well as the evil, empire-hungry bad guys who would beat you to the punch. Each member of your all-human party gets their moment to shine bright in a story featuring some of the best English localization and voice acting you’re likely to see in a video game (not to mention a beautiful orchestral score). Even better, this is one of those games that does such a stellar job of integrating its mind-blowing amount of side content, that it’s extremely easy to get lost for hours in layers upon layers of well-scripted diversions. There’s easily more than 100 hours of content in Final Fantasy XII, and the Zodiac Age update seats it confidently alongside current-gen RPGs that, though newer, often haven’t aged nearly so well.
How long: You’re wrapping things up fast to beat this game in 50 hours. Do everything, including superbosses and all the killer side quests, and expect to triple that.
Biggest thrill: Watching voice actor Gideon Emery breathe life into the Han Solo-like Balthier, one of the Final Fantasy series’ most memorable characters. Oh, and watching the world come to a heart-stopping silent halt, The Last Jedi-style, when a key character makes an explosive sacrifice at the top of a tall tower on a distant shore.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Before it was a Netflix hit, The Witcher universe was a vast, lore-rich world that already was satisfying millions of fans’ itch for an immersive dose of high fantasy done right. Boasting one of the biggest game maps and longest stories of any game on consoles to this day, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt firmly established Geralt of Rivia as the kind of role-playing hero who’d feel right at home in a good old Game of Thrones-style sword fight, and it drew a new generation of readers to the Andrzej Sapkowski novels on which CD Projekt RED’s gritty franchise is based.
Like Final Fantasy XII before it, one of Wild Hunt’s biggest achievements is its sneaky success in packing in so much high-quality and well-integrated side content. It’s all but a certainty that you’ll lose sight of where the main story ends and the fun optional questing begins. The first time you zoom out on the world map and realize just how vast a place The Continent is, you’ll pretty much resign yourself to endless late nights tracking down monsters while forgetting — both as Geralt and as a gamer — to rest. (Hint: keep track of how long you’ve been playing by watching Geralt’s beard grow, and admire the degree of detail that CD Projekt RED managed to pack in.) Wild Hunt is a game for people who don’t mind a seriously deep investment of both time and emotion, so if you’re a fan of the Netflix series but never dipped a toe into what came before, get ready to look at The Witcher in a whole new way.
How long: Go fast and get done in 30 hours or so. Take your time, and you could still be playing this game when your next birthday rolls around.
Biggest thrill: Hard to pick just one, but we’ll go with a parallel from the Netflix series and say it’s the moment when Geralt and Ciri finally come together.
The Last of Us Remastered
Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat, since the main story can be comfortably wrapped up in a tidy 20 hours or so — but not a second is wasted in Naughty Dog’s gripping tale of pandemic survival that finds an unlikely friendship between two of gaming’s most iconic characters.
Joel and Ellie’s race against the cure-obsessed militants who suspect Ellie holds all the answers takes players from one emotionally-charged set piece to another. And it’s impossible not to become more invested in the growing bond between the two, thanks to the game’s inventively-designed back-and-forth combat formula that makes full use of the duo’s distinctly separate, but equally vital, skills. Originally released for the PS3 back in 2013, the game comes alive with the PlayStation 4’s remastered version, which also includes the Left Behind prequel DLC. Better still, revisiting The Last of Us serves as a great primer for the hugely-anticipated sequel, which is set to arrive for the PlayStation 4 on May 29. Plus, of all the post-apocalyptic games on this list, The Last of Us feels closest to home these days — not just for its story of pandemic illness and familiar, modern-American setting; but for the human story that propels the game’s beating heart.
How long: 20 hours; 30 if you’re thorough.
Biggest thrill: Joel’s whole go-for-broke surge into the heart of enemy territory in Salt Lake City.
Red Dead Redemption II
No one approaches interactive entertainment like Rockstar Games. For sure, Red Dead Redemption II doesn’t have much in the way of sci-fi or horror (with a couple of delightfully hidden exceptions), but what it does have is a vice-like ability to take hold of your mind and transport you to a created world that, even after the credits have rolled, you'll be in no hurry to leave.
It’s hard to peg how long it’ll take you to finish Arthur Morgan’s tragic tale of chasing an impossibly fading dream, but once you’re a few hours in, it won’t matter. The game map of RDR II comes loaded with so much carefully-curated content; so many “aha!” moments of completely missable discovery, that if feels as though every blade of grass and every fish in the water has a secret history of its own. You can spend untold hours blithely ignoring the main storyline, stalking pronghorn antelope just for the sheer fun of it, or lying in wait for the next stagecoach to rob. But when you do decide to get back on rails with the plot, you’ll be in for a story that transcends its medium, and makes one of the most compelling cases we know of in the whole “games-as-art” debate. That goes double for the music, which features Woody Jackson’s haunting original score set against a completely authentic American folk songbook. In all, RDR II isn’t so much a game as it is an experience. Don’t get in a hurry: experiencing it all can take weeks...and even then, you probably haven't experienced it all.
How long: About 50 hours, going through the main story at full gallop. But if you want to fully explore everything, get ready to sign your whole life away — this game is vast.
Biggest thrill: When you’re fighting back tears during a pivotal late-game moment…and you realize that’s not a Willie Nelson impersonator doing the singing.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
You really thought we were gonna leave Link off this list? Nintendo’s first full-scale commitment to outfitting Hyrule as a true open-world, anything-goes sandbox is as liberating as the breath that billows under Link’s sky-slicing sailcloth. Like a couple of other big-name games here, there’s a good chance you’ve played Nintendo’s newest Triforce masterpiece at some point. But with a world this huge, and with secrets this deep, you might be surprised at what you discover on a return visit to Breath of the Wild.
The best way to enjoy this game is to find a horse and go exploring, and let the story unfold along the way. Sure, plowing through the main storyline can get you to Ganon way faster than you might expect, but it also means bypassing nearly everything Nintendo so carefully built into every one of BOTW’s thousands of nooks and crannies. The world map rivals even The Witcher’s for size and diversity, and Nintendo ingeniously finds a way to capture that old-school Zelda magic by secreting away hidden treasures and Easter eggs that almost always reward your gut feeling that there’s something just over the next rise, around the next corner, or behind that suspiciously fragile-looking boulder. Unless you’re a speed-running expert, it’s also plenty tough, making survival strategy a key piece of the puzzle in a way that previous Zelda games never tried. There’s no way to fully explain Breath of the Wild's winning formula, so the best thing to do is take your time, hide every clock in the house, and settle in for a long and joyous ride...while we wait for Nintendo to drop more news about the sequel.
How long: Assuming you jump through the story hurdles Nintendo’s lined up to get to the end, about 50 hours. Completionists, though, can spend 200 hours or more in BOTW’s gigantic sandbox.
Biggest thrill: The first time Link takes down a Guardian Stalker. No, wait! — defeating a silver Lynel. Nooo, maybe it’s looking up to the sky and realizing there’s more to that gigantic dragon than just background scenery...