On Video Game Length

In recent memory, video game length has exploded exponentially, much of that expansion attributable to the rise in popularity of the open-world genre, now dominating the landscape; no longer is it sufficient to tell a complete, coherent, and moving story, but now instead an impression is in place that a larger game is a better game. This impression is not universally held, but the existence of this perception is at times distressing, as is this supposed correlation between game length and overall potential enjoyability. The inclusion of ample secondary content is at times welcome, greeted with particular eagerness whenever an individual is particularly enamored with a particular title, its mechanics – a prolongation of that enjoyment is an excellent thing. But for players who are not so engrossed, the inclusion of sometimes-superfluous content can instead prove tiresome, insufferable, a hurdle to overcome on the path to completion. Player flexibility and freedom of choice is certainly present – any player can walk away from a title at any given moment, if the content is proving tedious and unenjoyable – but a terrible dichotomy is in place, when a game boasts compelling features and those which are somehow less dazzling, uninspired; the latter attributes are endured when the existence of the former is realized, when engagement has been achieved; periodic flashes of greatness encourage patience in the duller, and sometimes more frequent, moments. Open-world games particularly suffer from this dichotomy – not all content is perpetually engaging or abounding in depth. Indeed, a certain imbalance or instability is in place – the game’s central narrative, the content centered around it, may excel, being the recipient of greatest attention, and accordingly there are some aspects of design which are underdeveloped, recipient of lesser attention; it is inevitable that a lengthy, highly ambitious title will fail to realize all of those ambitions; a bit of surgical removal would elevate these titles, while briefer video games largely manage to avoid such frustrated ambitions in their embracing of focus and cohesion. Most critically, they preserve narrative agency, which is oftentimes discarded, and with great consequence, in larger, more open-ended titles.   

Reflecting this trend, a title may begin with a stylish introductory cutscene or two, serving to introduce the protagonist, secondary characters, and the explorable world. Before matters broaden, and before greater control is afforded the player, efforts at world-building usually transpire, alongside the inclusion of basic tutorials to introduce the various gameplay mechanics. Oftentimes, these sequences can be remarkable, owing largely to their highly focused nature. But in a traditional lengthy open-world title, that narrative resonance is promptly discarded as the game world opens up, as freedom is afforded the player; those strengths are susceptible to swift disintegration. Consider a title like Grand Theft Auto IV, which does boast a compelling narrative, abounding in mature themes all tinged with darkness, punctuated sometimes by levity, writing generally being of a high caliber. Niko arrives in Liberty City, a well-developed environment brimming with atmosphere and grimy creativity. Departing from his boat, he instantly falls into discourse with Roman, a likable if very flawed fellow, illustrative of the immense effects America can wreak within a foreigner, distorting principles, priorities. A brief driving tutorial commences, and then the pair arrive at Roman’s hovel of an apartment in an equally rundown area of the city. The narrative soars even from the first, owing to the excellent writing and the voice acting which makes both cousins endearing, likable. And then, these strengths are discarded as greater freedom is given the player. Niko’s struggles to adapt in a foreign, cynical nation, Roman’s struggles in that selfsame nation; these threads are postponed, Niko permitted to explore that first borough at his leisure, taking in the sites, hunting for collectibles or hidden weaponry, serving as a taxi driver, coming to grips with the central controls; these freedoms worsen the narrative, a damning, frustrating admission when considering the narrative excellence promised in these opening moments.  

Certain of this side content can indeed be compelling, owing to the soundest of the game’s central mechanics – driving is intuitive and satisfying, while gunplay, once guns are eventually obtained, is punchy and impactful. Merely navigating the world offers its own pleasures, Liberty City generally crafted with immense attention to detail; enjoyment is to be found in this secondary content – it is not all superfluous or pointless, perhaps because in this precise title ambition is relatively reined in; the map is not littered with collectibles or objectives completable in mere seconds, devoid of depth, needlessly included. But if this content were spurned, not only would game length grow more manageable and inviting, but the central narrative would instead be enhanced, its strengths heightened; the narrative resonances promised at the opening would be realized. Instead, secondary content is over-incentivized – pilot a taxi for hours and watch as the total stock of funds gradually grows to escalate. Acquire a police car and adopt the role of vigilante, hunting down petty criminals or those of some renown, characters present in the game world merely to be hunted down and slaughtered, serving no real practical purpose, their inclusion pointless. Satisfaction is to be found here, when the tracking process is a protracted one, when the ultimate target is well-defended or well-prepared for an assault, but were vigilante missions removed, a greater sense of focus would be achieved. Grand Theft Auto IV is anomalous, though, a relic of time when open-world games knew some restraint. It is an epic in narrative, and this side content, while abundant, is not overabundant; a perfect balance has been struck, and the value of this equilibrium has since been discarded, as open-world bloat has exploded, dealing sharp blows to narrative resonance. Consider the Just Cause series, where the narrative is not only hollow but is practically non-existent, pointless secondary content highlighted and made object of sole and greatest attention. A bit of calculated pruning would be beneficial here – linearity need not be embraced, but focus absolutely must be.  

None of this must be interpreted as an outright attack against open-world games, amongst the greatest games constructed embracing a larger, more open-ended design philosophy. On the extreme end of the spectrum are those which embrace this philosophy whole-heartedly, affording complete and total control to the player, Bethesda titles instantly springing to mind. Oblivion has been a game of great personal significance, so it is regarded with great fondness. Brimming with content, it somehow managed to eschew repetition, even as superficially repetition seems a great likelihood – environments are recycled, a few different dungeon design templates repeated ad nauseam, dampening somewhat the joys of exploration with the realization that complete novelty in construction is absent. Committing similar mistakes as other open-world titles, certain side content was lacking in depth, though this shallowness was largely scarce in this precise title, the game instead abounding in charm and in heart – the various joinable guilds all boast compelling narratives with engaging mission scenarios, and despite their plurality and distinct identities, the central narrative is also one of strength, even as it can be indefinitely postponed – or tackled directly within the game’s opening hour, after the emperor’s slaughtering, the removal from prison. The amount of freedom on offer here is unparalleled, and the game’s almost indefinable charm makes enjoyable what might be otherwise enjoyable – the game’s immense length, its oftentimes substantial degree of content, is an asset rather than a hindrance. Here is a perfect illustration of the complexities of length: if the central experience resonates on a personally profound level, if constant enjoyment can be derived, then the experience can never be too long. But if this resonance is not achieved, as is so often the case with the modern open-world title, a genre prone to the generic, then excessive length becomes not an asset but becomes instead a flaw. The immense flexibility in character construction present in an Oblivion or a Fallout, when coupled with this total freedom, results in considerable replayability, the changing from one class or character build resulting in an oftentimes dramatically different overall experience. The appeal of these games, endlessly replayable, is justified.         

At the opposite end of the spectrum are very brief titles, rejecting the overwrought nature characterizing many open-world games or those with generally expansive, lengthy narratives. Accordingly, these games manage to a avoid making the mistakes which inevitably accompany overreaching, oftentimes showing greater emphasis on focus, concision, and they often benefit from this hyper-focus. It would be unfair and inaccurate, meanwhile, to dismiss these games as inherently less ambitious than a game of more protracted length. Rather, these ambitions are merely directed in a different manner, one common thread linking these briefer titles being a certain visual inventiveness, aspirations for the artistic, the creative, and the striking. A perfect illustration is Limbo, with its bold, monochromatic aesthetic and emphasis on the interplay between light and dark, greatly elevating the overall gameplay experience with its artistry. The narrative is barebones and unintrusive, a far cry from the more cutscene heavy narratives which continue to dominate. So the aesthetics are striking, the narrative minimalistic. But most notable about Limbo is its brevity, the entire experience completable in but a handful of hours. The advantages of this briskness are immense, the narrative broadly being greatest beneficiary, as a constant, never slowing pace is achieved; gone is the stop / start nature of a conventional open-world game, where enjoyability flourishes one moment and then is promptly displaced by the unenjoyable and the uninspired the next – wonderful consistency is achieved, and no systems ever grow to outstay their welcome. Focus, critical focus, is embraced to the last, and the narrative is thus more easily remembered, comprehensible. It is difficult to remember the precise nature of a narrative event which transpired some fifty hours previously. That is a simple fact of human memory. But having a beginning and an end so closely positioned to one another makes more meaningful and complete the entire narrative. The Boy’s story in Limbo is thus almost filmic, being one singular, well-shaped entity. Grand Theft Auto IV, so lengthy, can sometimes seem a Frankenstein of pieces, some well-developed, others less so, the game suffering from its ambitions, the narrative being greatest victim. Larger narratives generally may be more prone to failure, though when they do succeed that success is magnificent – amongst perhaps the greatest sagas told in the medium is Ezio’s saga, chronicling an entire lifetime over three distinct video games. Such successes are rare, more succinct narratives more prone to success.  

Brief video games and long video games absolutely must coexist, just as linear games and open-world games must coexist, each having their own individual merits, individual potentials. Longer titles can at times appear insufferable and needlessly protracted, mundane content outweighing moments of genuine brilliance. Briefer games, if they are developed and executed expertly, are often comprised strictly of brilliance, owing to their heightened sense of focus, their spurning of padding and pointless side objectives. Suffering most from padding and pointlessness is of course narrative, which weakens as player urgency weakens, as more and more time is placed between the player and the central narrative being communicated. Niko’s story may start off compelling, but once its progression has been delayed for countless hours, then the appeals of that narrative, its inherent strengths, are lessened. But longer titles are potentially inexhaustible sources of enjoyability, which can not be said of shorter titles. Limbo is absolutely a masterpiece, alongside Inside, Brothers, or Braid. These games are experiences, at times affecting the player in magnificent ways. But while they may inspire contemplation and remembrances in the future, their source of enjoyability is finite. Replaying Limbo, even after a span of years removed from first completion, will never be as impactful or magical. Oblivion or Skyrim, though, can be perpetually magical, endlessly played and replayed. If the player is engrossed with these systems and these game worlds, if they derive constant enjoyment through the act of playing, then these titles must be reckoned magnificent achievements. And so they are, even as they are widely removed from briefer, more linear titles. Even MMO’s are present to complicate these matters, in that they can offer devoted players a lifetime of enjoyability, packed with content and oftentimes ever-expanding, ever-evolving. Games exist largely to create such pleasures, and if an MMO or sprawling open-world game brings a player pleasure, then absolutely they should cling to that title, even if it is devoid of artistry or is uninterested in communicating some grander, finite message; large games and small games each have their own worth. Regarding personal preference, in recent times I have been drawn to these briefer titles, enjoying their succinctness, their easy completability; given the speed with which these titles are bested, they require less time investment, and are accordingly less intimidating affairs; starting some epic RPG or open-world game, knowing that the experience can take dozens or even hundreds of hours, is inherently frightful. Once the plunge is taken, the payoff may be immense, certainly, but still the fear persists. The artsiness which often characterizes briefer video games is another asset, though the larger, more ambitious scope of larger video games tempers this artsiness, even if those ambitions are realized only inconsistently. A balance, then, is required if continued gameplay freshness it to be achieved – the large must not eclipse the small, the small must not overwhelm the large.  

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