Griftlands is one of my favorite computer games I've played in the past year. Featuring the vibrant animations that gave Klei Entertainment's other games like Don't Starve so much charm, Griftlands turns negotiations into combat — your hero, Sal, uses influence, domination, intimidation and guile to chip away at an opponent's resolve. Most enemies can be defeated without the need to ever draw your blaster.
Still, there's one thing interested buyers should know about it. The game isn't even half finished. When I first picked it up, I managed to get all the way to the night before a climactic confrontation with Sal's nemesis until the game told me, "Sorry, that's all for now."
That's "early access" for you. It might not sound like much of a deal: Pay early and get half of a video game, likely unbalanced, a bit broken and barely there. And yet, it may be one of the trends that actually makes games more fun for a lot longer.
If Griftlands had been released with everything finished, I would have played it for a few weeks — two years later — and then, when I beat the game or got burned out, I would have ditched it. Instead, I dive back into Griftlands every time it updates. In December, Klei Entertainment gave me an early Christmas present: An entirely new character thrust into a new setting, a spy-turned mercenary named Rook.
Of course, blockbuster developers have a steady stream of updates and content patches to continually rejuvenate games like Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch — usually with the intent of convincing long-time players to keep shelling out money for character costumes.
But "early access" has the added benefit of giving smaller studios a revenue stream to keep them afloat during the exhausting development process, all while giving players a steady trickle of upgrades. Because that, ultimately, is why we play: The thrill of discovery. And by parceling out those moments, the best early-access games keep us returning for years to the worlds as they're being built.
The ocean in Subnautica kept getting deeper, the dungeons in Darkest Dungeons kept getting darker, and the icy expanse of the Long Dark continued to stretch further into the ice fog. By the time the full version of Griftlands is released, I'll have played through each unfinished campaign dozens of times — repeatedly immersing myself in the world, instead of merely visiting it. ♦