It’s an old discussion on the video gaming interbutts, talking about lengths of games and how important that is to their overall quality. The discussion has changed somewhat, what with the indie scene becoming a pretty big thing and production of mainstream games growing in scope and resources, but talk of this has been around for pretty much as long as I’ve been a cognizant part of the sphere. Even now, people will decry games for being too short, games will use their epic scale and 100+ hour playtimes as selling points, and longer games are generally considered superior to shorter ones.
From a market-based perspective, I can see a lot of why that is. With the mainstream publishers putting their games out there for $60 a pop, which equates to several hours of work for most people, I can understand how people would be seeking a certain level of value for their investment, and for those who use playtime as a measure of value, well, it’s not a bad measure at all.
And yet. Time doesn’t really seem to be a great indicator of the quality of experience. I was struck by some of the recent games I’ve been playing. Final Fantasy XII, where, although I still enjoyed it more than I expected, I was still hit with the impression that it was built with developmental efficiency in mind. Like, given the legendary development difficulties in the game, they ended up trying to get the maximum amount of playtime out of the resources they had available. Led to large gulfs of time between notable gameplay experiences, probably one of the biggest weaknesses in the game. On the other hand, Prince of Persia Sands of Time was a very compact experience. It would have been easy for them to stretch that game out, see some more variations on established iterations between the platforming segments, puzzles, what not in order to stretch it out. But they didn’t. Combat aside, most features that come up only appear a handful of times at most. It feels like a game in which they had all their ideas in a list, highlighted the good ones and only used those, and as soon as they ran out of the good ideas they capped it off and called it done. It’s a very deliberate, satisfying experience throughout, and feels like it’s constantly refreshing and bringing up new concepts. It’s not a long game, but most of it is very well designed, missing a lot of the flaws that drag a lot of it down.
Most pieces of media out there have constraints as to how long they’re supposed to be. Most novels are going to shoot for around 80,000 words. Movies are around two hours in length. Comic arcs get around six issues of 21 pages each to tell their story. Television shows have to fit story arcs into episodes of 30 minutes or an hour each, or if they’re telling an overarching tale, they still have to match that to the length of the run or season. And yet what if your story doesn’t fit the mold, exactly? You have to cut it down or stretch it out to fit into the timeframe you’re looking at, but both ends of those have negative repercussions on the quality of the work. Video games are one of the few story telling mediums where it’s largely acceptable for the work to be just as long as it needs to be. When it’s done, it can be done, it doesn’t have to meet any artificial timeline in order to be produced. We should be taking advantage of that. Many do. Yet even then, there’s a push to make things longer and longer, get more of that time value out of it, regardless of what it does to the quality. And when there’s backlash against that, I feel like it is ignored.
I think part of it all comes down to one’s style of play. The video games medium has grown into a very diverse one. Yes, even with all the clone games and ripoffs coming out. Yes, I know 2018 seems to be the year of the Battle Royale mimics, but there’s more than just that out there. Trust me. The medium has something to offer for any of a variety of personality types and playstyles. However you like to game, there’s plenty out there for you. In my case, I maintain a collection. Once I acquire a game, it becomes part of the collective. I’ll generally buy games when I can get them on the cheap years after they come out, and I’ll play them for the first time months or years after I get them. At the same time, all those games are a part of my life, and I’ll always come back to old games somewhere down the line. I cycle through them. So the whole value proposition is quite a bit different for me. Cost doesn’t matter to my enjoyment of it, because I generally work on a different framework disconnected from the price. Playtime is not so important, because I’ll play games multiple times over during the course of my life.
I’ve seen people on Steam logging thousands of hours into multiplayer games. I enjoy plenty of the 40-100 hour epics myself. Yet there’s also a big place in my heart for the games that can confidently present themselves as a concise experience. Those Sands of Times, those Shadow of the Colossus’s, those Superhots, the endless amounts of quality games checking in at single-digit hours. I’ve gained a special appreciation for short games as part of this quest I’m on to beat all the games I’ve owned, where they serve to counteract the lag I start to feel when I get bogged down in this sea of RPGs I’ve built for myself, but even beyond that, they form a very important part of the gaming sphere. There are definitely places for those epic games. There are tons of great games that will take you 70+ hours to get through, and more power to them. But let’s hold some respect for the games that deliver in short form. If a game can boil itself down to what it does best, and deliver that while resisting the temptation to weaken itself by taking on hours that don’t fit, that is something to be valued.
Now that I have less free time I am less critical of shorter games. Heck, a lot of good titles ended up feeling repetitive because they overstayed their welcome. I think developers feel that they need to make their game last otherwise they will get bashed for not being value for money. Given how often stuff goes on sale though it’s not tough snapping up shorter games for less than full price.
Honestly, it’s not. It’s a bit harder if you’re working on console, but even then, it’s not difficult to get games on the cheap. Except on Nintendo’s systems. Still frustrated about that.
You know, for some time, I’ve been entertaining the idea of writing an editorial about bad trends in gaming that started from good games, and the idea that “more time = more content = best game ever” could be one of the trends I end up highlighting. I think a major reason why bad trends tend to flourish in this medium is because developers are not exactly in a situation where taking criticism to heart is easy. To wit, it may seem obvious to us that quick-time events are terrible, yet a lot of complaints against them fell on deaf ears for the longest time. Communication is key, and given how close mainstream gaming critics are to the developers themselves, you can expect them to ignore legitimate issues when writing positive reviews. Meanwhile, independent critics are vitriolic to the point where many people, developers included, have difficulties discerning legitimate issues from minor slights (or worse, instances of letting their biases completely dominate their judgement). However, I also feel I’ve seen evidence here and there that AAA developers aren’t exactly great at taking constructive criticism either, so we have that to deal with as well.
As for me, I find the question of how long a game should be is best answered on a case-by-case basis. I noticed that while people complained about the short length of Gone Home, such complaints generally aren’t lodged toward Portal despite being relatively the same length (or at least not to the same degree). I think it’s because Portal manages to do a lot more with its short length, and having no filler really counts for a lot. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Persona 4 is one of the only 100-hour games I’ve played that earned almost every moment (if not the only one). Meanwhile, Metal Gear Solid V became extremely repetitive as it makes players go through the same motions over and over until it ends. In the end, I think I’m going to side with you on this one; a game should be as long as it needs to be.
I think criticism is particularly tricky to take when you’re making creative works. You’re generally putting features in to attempt to communicate something, avoid something, or in the case of video games, drive a specific type of player involvement. And you’re building it in as part of the total package. But the people experiencing it don’t know that. They don’t have the context for it. They isolate the feature, and either raise or raze it based on it’s own merits. But you’ve still got that desire or need to accomplish what that feature was supposed to accomplish. There’s a concept behind it that you still need to get out, and the feedback, although helpful, doesn’t get at that concept. And then of course there’s the fact that if you deliver what they tell you to, most of the time the audience doesn’t think about it as deeply as you should be as a creator, so things aren’t going to work out for them as well as they think they will in their heads.
And then, of course, as you mention here, internet discourse has just gotten so polarized. Professional reviewers don’t often stray from certain metrics of opinion, don’t give real critiques at all until after it’s already out there, and generally, as you said, ignore legit issues thanks to the context of the rest of their situation. With those of us hobbyist game whisperers, negativity rules the roost. Like, I’m pretty sure Mass Effect has weathered a storm of controversy from its fans with every single piece of media it’s come out with. I imagine it’s really hard to find an opinion you can trust.
Case-by-case is exactly how it should be. And I think that’s one of the great things about the medium is that you can have things of nearly any length. Some ideas have legs, and can last for those hundred hours of content. Others are great ideas, but don’t have the complexity to actually work for more than a couple. Trying to prioritize a specific length above the concept itself is going to weaken it. Games should be long enough. How long that is really depends on what it has going on.