Games, especially those that feature a narrative story arc, need to be shorter, and that gamers need to stop making overall game length a priority when they make their purchasing decisions.
Before I go on, let me say that this isn’t going to be a jaded rant about how games need to be shorter because I have lots of interesting things going on in my life and I don’t want to be chained to my couch. The truth is there’s nothing I love more than getting lost in a terrific title that keeps me playing until my stomach’s about to cave in or my bladder’s about to burst.
But I’m still going to argue for shorter games anyway because I think it would lead to better games. Games go on for way too long these days, and for all the wrong reasons, the biggest being gamers have arbitrarily decided there is a minimum number of gameplay hours they will accept (eight seems to be the magic number) and the longer the better. This is most likely because the concept of ‘value’ has become completely twisted around in most gamers’ heads; they’re no longer asking the right question, which is “How satisfied will I feel when I’m done?” and are focusing instead on “How much game time can I squeeze out of this thing?”
This is like going to a restaurant and not caring how good the food is but rather how much of it you’ll get. I get that budgets are limited and that getting your money’s worth is a priority, but making purchasing decisions based on quantity rather than quality has a trickle-down effect to the development level. This is why almost every title has a collectible widget or a multiplayer mode or a bevy of achievements, regardless of how well it all fits in with the overall fiction of the title. It’s also why certain titles drag on endlessly, with levels that feel like the end but lead to yet another environment and another one after that; by the time you’re done, you’re almost glad to see the credits roll. It happens even with great games like Uncharted 2, a game I reviewed and loved, but thought could have ended sooner than it did.
Length isn’t a consideration with every title, of course. Titles like Tetris and Pac Man can go on endlessly because of the nature of their gameplay. RPGs, multiplayer focused games like Call of Duty, and open-world games like Grand Theft Auto can engage you for long periods of time with great success. Many games also deliver an experience that is both long enough and good enough to satisfy your brain and your wallet; Assassin’s Creed and God of War are but two examples.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not arguing against long, involved games; rather, I’m arguing for shorter, more tightly paced games that come in, say what they need to say, and then have the grace to know when to walk off the stage. This is especially critical because narrative urgency is missing in a lot of story based games these days, and many gamers spend more time wandering around doing meaningless activities than actually advancing the story. Often, the fate of the world is hanging in the balance, and we’re all wasting time opening every desk and scouring every corner looking for hidden objects.
I think if you free developers from the constraint of meeting certain time limits or designing extraneous bonus material, they could tell their stories in a more organic fashion, letting characters and plot points develop and end naturally. Doing this would also force gamers to actually stay on task and invest all of their energies towards solving the crisis at hand, leading to a more meaningful involvement and investment in the story. This is why Half-Life 2 is one of my favorite games of all time: it did a terrific job of clearly establishing a goal, and everything you did brought you one step closer to achieving it.
Remember that while there are fundamental rules that govern effective storytelling, length is not one of them. Google the term ‘flash fiction’ if you don’t believe me: not every story needs to be a novel, and not every game needs to be a massive epic sprawled across hundreds of hours of playtime. I don’t know about you, but I would rather play a three hour game with a focused pace than a meandering ten hour game that takes forever to get me to the end, no matter what my social calendar looks like that night.
Let’s go back to my restaurant analogy again: in this scenario, gamers are hungry diners, developers are busy chefs, and games are the main course. Sometimes, you do want that belly busting dish that comes in a portion big enough to feed a family of four with all sorts of side dishes; there is a certain joy in gorging yourself and still having some left over for lunch the next day, especially if you’re paying top prices when the check comes. But my point here is that it is possible to also have a meal that isn’t nearly as substantial, but the quality of the food is so good, and the dining experience is so memorable, that you don’t think twice about how much you have to leave on the table when you get up.
The question I’ll leave you with then is this: if a video game could leave you as satisfied as a gourmet meal, does it really matter how much of it you were given or how long it took you to consume it?
[GamePro Senior Editor Tae K. Kim thinks the narrative is the most important part of any game, and dislikes filler material because it dilutes the overall experience. He also has vowed to eat at the French Laundry at least once before he dies, and you can bet he won’t think flinch when the check arrives.]