Over at Polygon yesterday, Ben Kuchera posted an opinion piece arguing that, for his current lifestyle and time constraints, shorter games are more fun. After reading through his article, and ruminating on the subject, he may have a good point. With some qualifications, naturally.
Now, it’s worth noting that he does go to great pains to recognize the allure of longer, “open world” style games like Elder Scrolls, Fallout and the like. And numerous players have left these types of games incomplete, with the last Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, seeing just shy of a third of its players complete the main questline.
I’m just as guilty of it myself– I’ve started several characters in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, only to abandon them with some partial progress into the main story of the game. I’ve shied away from stepping into Skyrim, because I know my own personality and playstyle– I’ll play til the mid-20s of leveling a character, and then feel “analysis paralysis”– wherein too much choice in a given situation (kill that, go there, deliver this, build a house, get married, find the hidden packages) makes me feel like I have too much to do in a given game world to make a real impact on anything.
But that’s not the only reason put forth by Kuchera in his piece: he focuses instead on time constraints that are just part of life as an older game enthusiast with children. In that lens, his statement regarding shorter games providing him an outlet for his hobby in his limited time is more than understandable– but I think it could be taken further.
Now, an admission: I’m a total story-focused player. I like to play games where there’s a strong narrative, some twists or turns to the arc of the player’s character or character’s group. I enjoy shooting gallery FPS’s and longer games, too, but the allure of a good story well-told will always catch my attention. Call that a bias if you like– I call it preference.
That’s not to say an on-rails experience is out-and-out better; in fact, both open world and on-rails games can be great, but for wildly different reasons. And when you have limited time to experience a game’s story and world, the on-rails style can have its appeal shine just a little brighter.
Take Telltale’s The Walking Dead games, for example. While the game does present a largely on-rails experience by every measure, with the ending changing only marginally dependent on your choices, those choices you do get to make carry more weight. When playing through the first season of the game, never once did I consider re-starting and going for a “do-over” if a choice went bad, because every conversation carried the choice that you yourself would make in such a situation.
And they elicited that response from the player beautifully, in setting a timer on all conversational responses. So those were your instincts that propelled the gameplay, your personality put into Lee, and your story being told. Adding it all up, the game counts for maybe 10-12 hours of combined gameplay. But those hours were tighter, more tense and more emotionally evocative than have personally affected me in a very, very long time.
That ending (which I won’t spoil here for those who haven’t played, but do yourself a favor and play the game. It’s worth it), even though it’s the only one available, carries such impact, such emotion, and such an honest catharsis, that I can’t honestly imagine even wanting it to end another way. As an observer of this story, of course I wanted it to end another way, but that’s why it hurt to watch that story end.
Padding it out with side-quests, hidden packages or other MacGuffins would’ve only reduced the story’s execution. Shorter games, when executed well and telling a well-paced story, can work better than the super-huge, 60 hours-plus games.
That preference I mentioned above is what led me to mild disappointment that the latest Alien game, Alien: Isolation was overstuffed with tone-deaf third act gameplay. It’s understandable that the studio thought to add that extra padding. Since just as many people are into Aliens as are into Alien, and you want to please as many as possible with your game upon release.
But when reading those (very different) reviews, the tension and dread involved in the first two acts of gameplay are what drew me to the game. The tone shift to “one woman army” in the third act, by these reviews, would undercut that tension and everything that came before. For some, that can be cathartic in itself– the relief inherent to a “who’s the god of pain now?“– but the story appears to suffer as a result. And because it’s so tacked-on, per the Polygon review in that first link, its purpose leads one to believe it’s there to hit an “hours of gameplay” target, and not to serve the story.
Which brings us full-circle back to the original point: If this game were shorter, and were ended let’s say, seven hours earlier with an Alien-like, last-ditch escape from the Sevastopol, would its story and execution be stronger and thus, more satisfying?
For me, and possibly for more than a few of you readers, I think the answer’s yes. And I think the framing of that question, if games were largely shorter, would we find them more satisfying, applies to a great lot of games out there and those yet to be released.
Either way– make your case in the comments! Discourse is always welcome.