I played a game start to finish today. It’s about 2 PM as I write this so it wasn’t an all day marathon session or a speed run. In fact, I’ve done a few non game things today. I had a conference call at 8am for work, did some chores, cleaned my car out, and yet I still had time to start and finish a new game at the intended pace and while I wasn’t going for a completionist finish I feel that I did enough to have “completed” it. The game was Gone Home, a story focused, pseudo walking simulator and is definitely worth checking out if you have two or three hours to spare. I don’t really want to talk about the specific game though. Rather I want to use it as an example of why these shorter games have a lot to offer and can do some things better than a forty or even a ten hour game.
The length of these two or three hour games is often seen as its biggest weakness and I think that’s unfair. While other entertainment mediums, such as literature or film, have their own terminology and stylistic school of thought for entries of varying size like short stories or epics games are often judged by the total hours you can get out of a particular title. Greenman Gaming (online game store similar to Steam) even added a “dollars per hour” metric to its site to let customers judge a game based purely on expected play time vs cost. I’m not saying it isn’t a valid metric. In fact I’ve often argued that for the amount of time you can get out of some titles gaming is an extremely good value as an entertainment medium. But it isn’t truly indicative of a games value. So many open world games have touted their massive map sizes and potential playtime but turned out to be mostly empty and heavily padded with needless busywork. Games should only be as long as they need to be. A title with a two hour story doesn’t need eight hours of additional content packed in to meet some arbitrary cost of content average. This will.only dilute the core work and turn a potentially great work into something mediocre. On the flipside, a large work filled with solid content shouldn’t be cut down for the sake of brevity. They both have their place. As players we should allow a game to stand on it’s own merits first, looking at the whole and evaluating if it accomplished what I set out to achieve before we dissect its constituent parts. We should do this while limiting preconceived notions about what is and isn’t a valid amount of content. Gone Home is a great example of this. I went into it not knowing how long it would be. I knew it was a shorter game but didnt know to what extent. To be honest the two main reasons I played it were it was free one month on Xbox gold and I was installing a game on my PS4 so had some time to kill. Little did I know that it was the perfect game for me today. It told a very good story in a way that was engaging and well paced without feeling the need to add extraneous features or cut content that would have made it better. It is what it is and it was clearly comfortable with that. That shows in a lot of ways that you often see missing in titles with artificial run times. It was competent in how the mechanics and story fit together. The environment was well suited for the experience without seeming bloated or restricted. The confidence the developers had in what they were making as a cohesive product was evident in the details they included without being overbearing. It just worked. Contrast that with many “open world” games that have whole chunks of gameplay revolve around traveling huge distances over long periods of time where nothing happens between bouts of player engagement. Does three minutes of passing scenery between quest objectives really add to a game? Usually not. It also shows that the game makers truly understood what they wanted to accomplish from the start. They wanted to tell a story about a character and they wanted to tell it through exposition that was backed up by environmental storytelling. It didnt need frantic gameplay, a leveling system, crafting, or a multiplayer mode. A lot of games that have those dont need them either but they get added on because someone thinks the game needs more, regardless of if those pieces truly fit.
As a busy adult with a lot of demands on my time I dont to play as many games as I would like. I have to make decisions about what I will invest my time into and what will go unplayed. Its sucks and I dont like it but that’s life. If I make time for a game I want that time to be well spent. If you have a game that can be completed in a handful of hours, embrace that and make those hours great. Dont waste your time, or your player’s, with content that downt truly add to the experience. It’s not the size that counts, it’s how you use it.