Why Shorter Games Still Matter
Going into the early part of 2015, The Order: 1886 was one of the first big gaming headlines – though unfortunately, for not very good reasons. The first fans to get their hands on the game at launch quickly tore through it and determined a surprising fact: that it’s not a very long game. Indeed, that some were beating it in as little as 5 hours – and that it didn’t offer much in the way of side content or easter eggs.
Almost as if in response, CD Projekt Red shortly thereafter announced that their upcoming Witcher 3 title would boast over 200 hours of content for a single playthrough. A kind of assurance to fans that they would be offering a singular experience that would take many hours and play sessions to complete.
Dragon Age: Inquisition won a number of GOTY awards this time last year – including Game of the Year itself from the Video Game Awards. And one of its most significant markers was the pages it borrowed from Skyrim‘s playbook: boasting a larger and more expansive world than what was found in the previous Dragon Age titles, with a host of peripheral content, and hours upon hours of exploration.
And even Bethesda has further clinched their hold on this particular vein of the industry: with the recent release of Fallout 4 that, in addition to its enormous sales, has been widely praised for offering the kind of experience fans have come from expect from the series (and the developer). One where any single playthrough could easily number in the hundreds of hours, all the while spent wandering, exploring, discovering, and getting lost in a seemingly endless amount of side quests and content.
Still, with all the domination of the industry leaning more toward the open-world gaming, I find myself wary of much of the basic concept. To be fair, a large part of the controversy surrounding a title like The Order is in no small part a matter of pricing. If you’re going to charge the full $60 retail price for a game, then the people who buy it want to feel like they got their value. And if you can’t necessarily promise the highest quality, many a fan wants to feel as though there’s enormous amounts of content to match the high price tag.
That’s a fair argument to be made. But at the same time, as the concept of open-world gaming becomes more pervasive across the industry, I find there’s something that is almost of equal importance to be made: and that’s time.
I strongly dislike games that waste my time. I strongly dislike it when games don’t respect the time I have – that I’m putting into this, of the quality of that time, and of how long I am to invest in this.
For me, this has proven a major factor as to why I’ve become wary of open-world gaming in general – and the need so many feel to insert it into a number of franchises.
Dragon Age: Inquisition was one of the most troubling examples to me – a fact made all the more discouraging because Dragon Age: Origins, to my mind, managed this respecter of time balanced with quality of content almost perfectly. A single playthrough of Origins could easily take upwards of 50 hours – a solid amount of content to be expected from a $60 AAA outing, while devoid of the overabundance of peripheral content that veers toward egregious filler.
Inquisition, most unfortunately, boasted a lot of filler – to the point that it dominated the gameplay experience. While the story content was solid, the time spent with it was almost nothing compared with the hours spent wandering across new landscapes in search of shards and forgettable side quests. What’s worse: not only did the series choose to ultimately replace the rich and long story campaigns of Origins with a series of interchangeable landscapes for exploration, but it made engagement with those landscapes (the open-world material; the filler) mandatory for continuation with the main story game.
The pervasiveness of open-world gaming also seems to further suggest that the quality of a game is based on the amount of time spent with it: specifically, in that the more time you spend in it, the greater the game.
One of my recent gaming experiences came in the form of Transistor: an indie title from Supergiant Games that was initially released for the PlayStation 4 and eventually ported over the PC via Steam. I bought my version for the PS4.
To be fair, there’s argument to be made that the intentions and goals of an indie title like Transistor can’t necessarily be compared to the larger ambitions of a Dragon Age or a Fallout.
At the same time, one of the things I appreciated most about the game was its respect of my time. And the fact that it’s such a short game (perhaps 6-7 hours to complete) made me appreciate the overall content of the title all the more.
I like to feel that I’ve made substantial progress in a game: and when I’ve spent a sitdown wasting time on filler content, hunting out trivial pieces of gameplay content, getting lost while trying to solve a side quest, or even just trying to navigate a too-large environment, I am left enormously unsatisfied. And this dissatisfaction is only enhanced by my continual interest in whatever it is I’m going to play next. There’s always a lot of new games to try: I have to really love something to invest 100 hours in it. And if it starts wasting my time (when I go into it know there’s still dozens more hours of this to come) I become impatient. And I oftentimes lose my drive to even continue playing the game.
What I appreciated about the brevity of Transistor was that, in knowing it was a shorter game, I didn’t feel a need to rush through things. I could stop and appreciate the smaller moments – knowing that they were rare and precious gems in this small but ambitious title. I can wander around on the beach kicking a ball listening to music and practicing my skills with the game’s combat system, or watch the sun changing colors in the sky. The game isn’t expecting hours and hours of my commitment: each moment may be my last opportunity. And for that reason, I appreciated them all the more.
I would say something similar of Batman: Arkham City, which I had the opportunity to play just a couple of months ago. It has little in common with Transistor – but it did respect my time. There was a solid balance to the game’s excellent side content with the main storyline. The side content also played organically into the larger story mechanics of the game (as well as the ending) and at no point in the process did I feel my time was being wasted. I didn’t get lost trying to get from one story location to the next – and I wasn’t forced to go around collecting Riddle Trophies (which were there, but optional, and a very, very small piece of the picture). Even on days when all I did was concentrate on taking out militia outposts, chasing down ADRs, or stopping a bank heist, I felt like my time in the game was well-spent. The games didn’t have ambitions on occupying hundreds of hours of my time: and as a result, I appreciated all the more the time that I did spend with the game.
This is a key facet of gaming I hope never goes away. Open-world gaming is all well and good, but it certainly doesn’t have a place in every game or franchise. And quality is not necessarily based on quantity of hours. Indeed, some of my absolute favorite gaming experiences have been those that were merely short and sweet.