Maybe it’s not about the hours
I got to the Dark World in A Link to the Past in an afternoon.
I’m aware the debate over game length has raged for so long that it’s old enough to drive. I also acknowledge that games just run longer than they did 25 years ago. Yet replaying A Link to the Past and reaching this critical story moment so quickly was genuinely mindblowing. This game felt massive to me as a kid. Even when I wrote my Zelda list, I still internalized A Link to the Past as a solid 20+ hour adventure. All this time, I thought I wasn’t playing as many games because I was an adult with less free time. Have games really gotten so much longer that my childhood favorites feel minuscule in comparison?
After surveying other retro games and comparing them to recent releases, I realized that maybe the great game length debate has precious little to do with the number of hours we’re spending in games. It’s how we’re spending those hours that counts.
The miracle of pacing
To demonstrate this point, let’s discuss two RPGs across different generations: Chrono Trigger and Omori. According to HowLongToBeat.com, both these titles are approximately the same length. Yet many call Chrono Trigger short while Omori is often criticized for running too long.
See, Chrono Trigger has fantastic pacing. You are constantly visiting different time periods and following small plots with self-contained story arcs. Battles are unique spectacles, like the Dragon Tank boss battle that plays with perspective and has several components to target. You even have inventive gimmicks popping up in rapid succession, like the trial scene or the racing minigame. Chrono Trigger is a beautiful game with rock-solid gameplay that is filled to the brim with ideas, so you never get bored enough to let your mind wander thinking about how long it is.
Meanwhile, Omori’s pacing is all over the place. Its main story is fantastic and contains genuinely spectacular moments. However, an unholy amount of time in Omori is spent in a barebones RPG dreamworld that functionally grinds the plot to a halt. There’s relevant stuff in there, but it stretches roughly ten minutes of symbolism into ten hours. These segments are visually spectacular, but the gameplay isn’t robust enough to sustain several hours of play. The RPG stuff here isn’t terrible, but it feels agonizing because it blocks off the game’s major selling point.
To be fair, the issues in Omori almost certainly stem from Kickstarter promises. But that illustrates the point. It’s obvious when games are deliberately padded out or drowning in slow animations. This kind of filler content might have been welcome when we were younger, but it feels unnecessary in the current gaming landscape.
Do we want for playtime?
Memes of Steam Backlogs date all the way back to when I was Cblogging here a decade ago (oh no I’m old!). Even disregarding this, I wonder why we continue to value games that are specifically long.
I’m not going to say free-to-play games are great, but if you’re looking to kill time, we have so many options now. Want to endlessly grind? Warframe is still going strong. Want a long RPG? Final Fantasy XIV has that free trial you always hear about. Fortnite, Destiny 2, Apex Legends, Genshin Impact; there are a staggering number of ways to fill time in the modern era. And if you’re allergic to F2P shenanigans, Itch.io and other indie portals exist.
It’s not that filler content can’t exist in premium games. There just needs to be a distinction between the meat and the potatoes. Breath of the Wild does a really good job of this. Your main story objectives are clearly marked, with shrines serving as the major side distraction for you to pursue. Meanwhile, the Korok Seeds are fun little distractions that are clearly separated from the previously mentioned goals. Collecting every Korok Seed veers closer to the “filler” category, but because it’s clearly treated as such, it isn’t detrimental to the game.
The longer a game gets, the harder it is to keep you engaged in a cycle of rising and falling action before you just want to see the end. To me, this is the heart of why we pine for shorter games. A title like A Link to the Past packs so much into its playtime that it feels complete despite its brevity. You still have a fun world filled with secrets to explore, but you get those rushes of discovery and excitement consistently. The more a game’s scope expands, the harder it is to curate that experience.
It’s okay for games to end
I do think it’s important to not stigmatize long games. Titles like Elden Ring genuinely pull off immersive worlds filled with fresh ideas and enemies, and games like these should be celebrated as major events. It’s also reasonable to expect a game to last a certain length to justify its respective price tag. That said, I wonder if this innate desire for long games stems from that bittersweet feeling when games finally end.
We all have that game that we wish lasted longer than it did. Maybe it was one of your favorite games, and you long for that joy you felt playing it blind. The more games get padded, the less likely we are to have this feeling. Instead, getting to the end of a game makes you feel exhausted and drained, but is that a good thing? Being sad that something ended means it was a great experience. Maybe not a perfect one, but it’s a memory you can treasure and hold onto. I would much rather have that bittersweet feeling than feel sick of a game after dedicating dozens of hours to playing it.
There’s no clear answer to this debate. The quality of games is already subjective enough, let alone their ideal length. But the older I get, the more I desire that bittersweet feeling. That’s an experience that turns players into fans, and I’d rather get excited about new games in a series than begrudgingly accept them. As always, let me know in the comments your thoughts on this eternally raging issue. I’ll enjoy reading them with a cup of tea as I play through the Dark World in A Link to the Past, and at this rate, I imagine I’ll finish both at the same time.