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How To Start Playing A Massive Video Game Backlog

stressed emoji over a blurry steam library

Illustration: Kotaku / Valve

It’s called a backlog—that long list of games you’ll “get to someday” but ignore in favor of re-running roguelike dungeon crawler Hades yet again. Maybe you’re planning for your backlog to swell soon amid the bombardment of new releases. Maybe it tripled in size thanks to a recent Steam sale. Whatever the case, a gargantuan backlog can be overwhelming to the point where you don’t even want to try to tackle it, choosing instead to fall back on comfort food.

That needn’t be the case. A big backlog can be a manageable beast, so long as you know how to approach it. The following advice should help you start off on the right foot.

This article was originally published on December 12, 2020.

Assess the situation

When weighing a backlog, the first thing you need to do is figure out what you’re working with. If you know how long it’ll take you to beat each game in your library, you can come up with a plan of action. Thankfully, there are plenty of resources that can give you a good idea. For one thing, reviews on your favorite gaming website will tell you how long it took the reviewer to make it to the credits (alongside any other optional objectives).

A more comprehensive option is, a compendium of 54,000 games, all complete with respective hour counts. For each game, the site will offer up a rough estimate for how long it takes to hit the credits, how long it takes to beat the game and dabble in side-quests, and how long it takes to wrap up a completionist playthrough. Though the tool hits quite close to the mark, it isn’t perfect; if anything, it underestimates completionist lengths by a few hours.

For instance, the site lists Spider-Man: Miles Morales as a 16-hour-long completionist run. It took our reviewer 20 hours to knock everything out, a figure inline with other reports. Ghost of Tsushima, according to the tool, requires 57 hours to finish every objective. Doing so took me a bit more than 66 hours (though our reviewer pulled it off in a little over 55). Meanwhile, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is listed at 117 hours for a completionist play-through, when clearly that number should have six or seven extra zeroes tacked on the end.

Every gamer plays games at a different speed, of course, so you’ll never find a bullseye figure for exactly how long a specific game is. Still, resources like this can help give you a solid idea of what you’re looking at.

Start big

You might be inclined to treat your backlog like it’s a boss fight: by taking out the minions (smaller indie games) first so they don’t distract from the big bad (Red Deads, Witchers, anything with a Ubisoft splash screen). That’s the wrong approach here. Instead, you should tackle the time-sink games before moving on to the bite-sized ones.

If you won’t take it from me, take it from science. According to a 2017 study out of Harvard Business School, prioritizing smaller tasks can actually make you less productive. (Yes, in this case, a gaming backlog is a task.) The thinking is that checking off the little things will give you a distorted sense of progress; you think you’re making a lot of headway into the big picture, but you’re really just procrastinating. When you get around to your main goal—the one that requires the heaviest lift—you’ll be fatigued.


You could finish Gris, the gorgeous platformer from Nomada Studio, in under three hours, and not even leave a dent in your backlog.
Screenshot: Nomada Studio

Think of it in the following reductive terms. Your backlog consists of five games: Gris (three hours), Astro’s Playroom (three hours), a Transistor replay (six hours), Bugsnax (eight hours), and, belatedly, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (100 hours for the main story and some, but not all, optional content). Finishing the first four means you’ve checked off 80 percent of the items on your list. But those four items account for just 16.6 percent of the total gameplay time you’re facing down. Not so much progress when you consider it like that, right?

Learn to quit

There’s another benefit to starting big: You’ll learn whether or not that massive open world is the game for you. If it is, fantastic! The resulting 60 hours will feel like a breeze. If it isn’t, hey, you just cleared up a whole lot of space on your console. (We all know how tight modern consoles, including the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X / S, are when it comes to storage space.) The only question is figuring out when to throw in the towel.

There’s an old adage that you should read 100 pages of a novel before deciding whether or not to call it quits. Such a figure doesn’t exist for games; since everything clocks in with a different hour count, there’s no one-size-fits-all figure. Personally, I’m of the mindset that playing a dozen hours of an open-world game—or a staggeringly massive role-playing game—is more than enough time to figure out whether you like it or not.

With streamlined games, it’s a different proposition. Do you need to make it 10 percent into a game to see if it clicks? Maybe 20 percent? Anything beyond 25 percent feels unreasonable, like you’re putting more into a game than you’re getting out of it. It’s a fraction you’ll have to pinpoint yourself, but whatever you end up with, knowing a rough hour count before you start playing—and sketching out those calculations beforehand—can give you an idea of when you should (or shouldn’t) walk away.

This is all to say you should become accustomed to the idea of giving up. It’s human nature to want to see things through to the end—to finish the book, to sit through the movie, to watch the entire show, to beat the video game. Screw that! Quitting is good. If you’re not enjoying something, there’s little reason to give it your hard-earned time, especially if doing so will prevent you from spending that time on something you might thoroughly enjoy.

Consider a games-on-demand service

Don’t sleep on the various games-on-demand services at your fingertips, all of which can mitigate the sunk-cost factor that can arise when you dabble in many video games. For $9.99 a month, Xbox and PC players can access more than 100 games via Xbox Game Pass. (A $14.99 tier also comes bundled with EA Play, a similar library including games from that mega-publisher’s library.) Meanwhile, for roughly the same price depending on what tier you choose, PlayStation users can sign up for PS Plus, a near-identical service. Popular games land on these Netflix-style platforms constantly. While the monthly costs certainly aren’t free, they cost less than throwing $60 at a game you might dip out of.

Accept failure

Trying to beat every interesting video game that hits shelves is an insurmountable task. Pulling that off would be like trying to eat at all 27,000 restaurants in New York City over the course of one lifetime; short of discovering the Philosopher’s Stone, you literally cannot do it. There simply aren’t enough hours in a lifetime to do so. Once you come to terms with that reality—and how it pertains to the tens of thousands of games that exist—you’ll be in a better mindstate to get your backlog under control.

Read through the Kotaku backlog of backlog-themed articles:

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