Oh my, those last two bits I've written were awfully dry, weren't they? I mean, this is still going to be a totally srs blog about totally srs things - I'm completely starved for good topics and then a blog gets written and I don't agree with some parts and that's totally not how it works and my god I can't just let this sit here and THESE WRONGS MUST BE RIGHTED - but I'll try my best. A dick joke in the title's a good a start as any, right? (As this post is a direct response to the blog linked below, I'll assume you've glanced over that article's finer points, or maybe even read the whole thing if you're a super cool person)
I'm honestly a bit hesitant to strap on my high-brow argue-boots and stomp around the well-worn "what game length is best length" Astroturf, making only a few more insignificant marks among the hundreds of much more comprehensive and well-stated opinion-prints, but as much as I may want to issue a bunch of half-hearted excuse-mes and I-know-you've-heard-this-before acknowledgements in what is no way a means to try and not write a proper intro paragraph, I can't help but lay down the wholly subjective law on something as crucially fundamental to game design as the amount of time a player is intended to be enraptured in front of the glowing screen. Fortunately, kona, in his nice little essay on this very subject
, has given me a wonderful set of points to counter and work off of, making the part where I organize my thoughts much simpler and straightforward. Thanks, man!
As noted, games these days do seem to be a lot shorter than in the past. As noted, a significant contributor to this trend is how much useless, redundant, cumbersome, and/or repetitive ass-poo is being excised as our standards rise and our technology advances. As noted, game designer's continuing insistence on aping Hollywood narrative structure necessitates more truncated campaigns in order to better serve the story's pace. This is fine
. "Length" in and of itself means little when that extra time is spent trudging through identical corridors and hobbling back and forth across the same barren, static landscape - "filler," as it is often referred to in modern parlance.
What grabbed my attention, though, was this little sentence - "Quite simply, if games are to truly make the next step and finally offer up our 'Citizen Kane,' there needs to be more care put into storytelling." I could write a whole article on this notion - I probably will on another slow week - but the next assertion, detailing how shorter games would more easily accomplish this, I just can't accept. The thing about Citizen Kane
- why film critics adore it as frequently and vigorously as young viewers (like myself) wonder what the hoopla is for - is that it's not simply a good story, but that it's a brilliant film, taking advantage of the medium's unique qualities to craft a means of portraying Kane's meteoric rise and decaying soul that you simply can't do
any other way.
Pictured: Another timeless, evocative masterpiece of film, for what are many of the same reasons, I assure you
If a video game is going to achieve that same significance, it can't be content with plucking out and flash-cloning the same kind of storytelling methods; it has to present its narrative - if the best way of doing what it wants to do even falls under the category of narrative in the first place - in a way unique to its own qualities of interactivity. Restricting itself to a shorter structure simply because that's what movies
do, and movies
are, you know, pretty good sometimes, can only stifle, if not completely prevent, that kind of achievement.
The fact that movies are (or perhaps were, depending on your perspective) the primary form of entertainment for gobbling up all our hard-earned free time, on top of being the second most advanced form of visual media, is likely the reason why we can't stop getting away from the need to do what they do, but there's a little something else I'd like to divert your (probably already-wavering I'm sorry man I'm trying) attention to, and that's the humble "book" - feel free to look it up on Wikipedia if the term's unfamiliar. There are some that you can boldly charge through in a couple of hours' time, but for the most part, if you're one of the six or seven people left on the planet who reads with regularity, you're going to eat up a few chapters, put it down, come back later, consume some more, etc. Sound familiar? Just as a novel's length does not preclude it from "hav[ing] some decent character arcs," the same applies to the video game.
Perhaps what seems like a growing impatience for lots of words on a page has some relevance; the CNN article kona cited indicates that gamer attention spans are horrid at best and shamefully abysmal at worst, informing us that that only 10% of ~23 million players finished 2010's quite lengthy (and quite excellent) Red Dead Redemption
. And yet, while he attributes the blame to developers who don't know how to focus their storylines, I can't help but feel a good bit of it simply falls to people's inability to stick with and finish something that's not
movie-length, be it a video game or something completely different. Should, then, developers chop off the ends and move toward shorter narratives simply because that's what 80-90% of gamers don't have the time or patience to become so absorbed? I can't think for a moment that such a thing is a good idea; it'd be an arbitrary limit borne solely out of monetary and market concerns, which are two things that (for a pretentiously elitist snob like me) need to stay far, far away from developers' creative direction unless absolutely necessary.
Two of Metroid Prime's biggest strengths are how its world slowly opens and expands as you grow and evolve and the sense of personal presence and consequence - something its relative length actually augments
Then there's this little bit - it's mentioned that older games used to be harder, and were thus "lengthier" not because they were filled with more content (however repetitive and bland) but because when you played one of those games, you died. A lot. In many ways. Then you ran out of lives, and then you had to start the whole level -if not the whole game
- over from the beginning. Difficulty is an equally important and fundamental limb of a game's anatomy that I'll try not to lovingly caress and dissect in this piece, but the go-miss-restart-go-miss-restart-go-miss-restart-oh-suck-it-game mentality has faded away because it's an incredibly frustrating way to play a game
; a tenacious little leech of a hold-over from the arcade days where the objective of the designer was to prevent
you from finishing it so you'd feed the machine more coins and allow the greasy pizza shop owner to buy himself a prostitute and a new bottle of shampoo. In a time where challenge was quite literally the only incentive to continually play a game, that was okay; but in this modern era, when developers actually want a person to experience everything their game has to offer, intense difficulty (primarily as a means of extending a game's length
, that is) is a design choice equally as lazy and artificial as tossing in four context-less fetch quests in a game's second act.
Kona concedes in the last paragraph that the Skyrim
s and Mass Effec
ts are fine and deserve their place, and likewise, there are plenty of people who take the very things I've lamented above and make shining gems out of them, from Uncharted
's captivating nods to adventure films to Super Meat Boy
's gleeful delight in making the player hate everyone and everything around them, but thing about each of these games is that they don't really seem to think about length. They know what they're doing, and they do just that, adding as much as they need - no more, certainly, but also no less. VVVVVV
, agonizingly frustrating as it may be, remains engrossing not because it makes me want to punch several holes through my monitor, take a sledgehammer to my computer, burn all the little pieces in molten lava, and then buy another so I can do the same thing all over again, but because it's varied and creative level design means I'm constantly encountering new surprises and twists on its simple base mechanics. Portal
kicks butt despite its short length because it chooses to feature only two (okay, three and a half) characters and deliver them over a focused arc, while Red Dead Redemption
, mentioned above, includes loads and loads of colorful individuals, painting a narrative tapestry that's necessarily longer but all the more detailed and captivating for it. Neither is wrong, and neither is right; neither is the "way" to do it, and neither is the "way" not to do it.
And yet, writing off these longer games either because the majority of people don't have the time or patience or because of some rose-tinted longing for the past is, I say again, a painfully arbitrary and stifling limit on the creative potential of the medium. Imagine what'd happen if they tried cutting out more from the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings
because movies aren't "supposed" to be two and a half hours long. Madness.
(Okay, yeah, you could've gotten rid of Aragon's elf lady; seriously what was that all about)