Why Short Games End Up Longer and Longer Games Are Too Short
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
It’s amazing what you can get used to when you’ve experienced it enough times. Like first-person-shooter single-player campaigns. This generation has gotten me so used to solo experiences lasting maybe six hours on a good day that, nine hours into a replay of DOOM 3 for a review of the BFG edition, I was hit with a sudden rush of memory, a shocked nostalgia for the way things used to be. A solo FPS campaign — for a game with multiplayer, no less — that can last beyond nine hours. Who would have thought? It certainly made me remember the “good old days,” like some aging bigot who hates everything new.
Game length is among the most pressing issues for vocal electronic entertainment consumers these days. Games cost $60 in most circumstances, and for that money, the hardcore consumer demands an experience worth his or her time. Recent releases like Dishonored have come under fire for a narrative campaign that lasts six hours, with no multiplayer mode tacked on. To some, it doesn’t matter that the game can — and arguably should — be played through multiple times in order to experience all the gameplay on offer. At its base line, gamers see a six-hour solo mode with no “replay value” and tell it to take a walk. Meanwhile. we commiserate on the good old days of gaming, when titles last long enough to justify the asking price.
Interestingly enough though, it was brought to my attention that, content-wise, perhaps we weren’t getting the great deal we thought we were getting back in those golden years. For instance, I was informed that the current speed run time for Doom 3 was 1hr 9min, while the speed run time for Call of Duty: Black Ops was 2hr 54min. Now, that says nothing about either game’s quality, but it does say something interesting about the amount of content on offer. Despite Call of Duty being famous for leading the vanguard of short solo campaigns, you can actually beat a “longer” game from the good old days in a third of the time it takes to beat Black Ops — at least when you strip away everything and focus solely on the base amount of interactive content. Even weirder is the fact that, to the average consumer, Doom 3 is still the longer game. I beat Black Ops’s campaign in about four or five hours when I reviewed it. As I’ve already said, I’m over nine hours into Doom 3 on my latest playthrough.
Now, Chris Schilling ably pointed out that a lot of Doom 3 is spent running backwards as you fire at oppressive enemies, while Black Ops II encourages you to push forward at all times. As the speedruns demonstrate, pushing forward in Doom 3 is going to net you results that demonstrate less core gameplay than Black Ops. However, not many gamers will push forward. Doom 3, for all its criticisms, can be a pretty scary game at times, fostering as it does a constant sense of paranoia as enemies jump out from literally anywhere, and often take quite a beating before going down. Not to mention the various secret passages and hidden crevices, usually littered with crucial ammo or armor. Although Doom 3, at the bare-bones level, is a shorter game than Black Ops, it still takes longer to beat due to encouraging players to take their time, explore, and pay attention to little details. Ultimately, it’s all about the pacing, and if the last generation of games demonstrated anything, it’s that what we want isn’t necessarily bigger, lengthier games. We want games that pace themselves, and encourage us to take our time.
Metal Gear Solid is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Now that’s a short game. A damn short game. According to the Speed Run Wiki, the current record for Metal Gear Solid on Extreme difficulty is 1hr 54mins. Less than two hours, for a game people happily paid full price for back in the day. Now that’s really not a lot of gameplay, but Metal Gear Solid is so intensely focused on story, that people still get their money’s worth from the complete experience. Yes, I fully grant that the running time is boosted almost entirely by cutscenes, but it’s never mattered to fans. They’re there for the story, the characters, and the weirdness. There is plenty of that to go around, and despite the game being shorter than most solo campaigns these days, it still feels lengthier, and inherently worth the cash.
The further back we go, the shorter games actually were, but the longer they lasted. I was a Genesis kid growing up (or rather, SEGA Megadrive kid, since I grew up in England), and I wasted days playing the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, and Golden Axe. Nowadays, I can get maybe an hour out of each of them. Back then, however, I’d play them for days and days. Some of them I just replayed a lot, others used difficulty without saves as a way to pad out the gameplay. It didn’t matter how it was done, though. Thanks to the way it made you replay or pace yourself, the running length was tremendous compared to something like a Call of Duty solo campaign.
So, what does this say about modern games? It seems to suggest that games aren’t shorter these days, at least in terms of actual content. To put it more elegantly, current-generation games actually offer bigger worlds, lengthier stories, and campaigns that take you longer to beat if you try and rush through them. However, where they fail is their lack of encouragement for players to take their time. They no longer have the art of pacing nailed down, be it through oppressive foes that send you running back through bloodstained hallways, or stories that make people want to sit down and pay attention. At least for the big, AAA, run n’ gun shooters, the constant compulsion to drive players forward and get the campaign over and done with leaves the player feeling a little short-changed.
This is not to say every game suffers from this. BioShock was a terrifically intimidating experience when it first launched in 2007. It encouraged the player to prepare before heading into battle, scoping out the environment, picking fights wisely, and rigging everything in one’s favor before the trigger was pulled. It offered a huge amount of flexibility and experimentation, and so it could take the average player a lot longer to complete. A huge emphasis was placed on the elimination of the hulking Big Daddies and acquisition of their Little Sister companions, and since each one of those struggles was an exhausting fight of wills, it made you want to take your time and pace yourself. In essence, BioShock didn’t offer a huge and sprawling world, and it didn’t really offer much more content than many other solo campaigns. It was all in the delivery, the presentation, and the pacing.
This is why “short” games end up longer, while “long” games end up feeling too short. It’s not that there’s less content — it’s just not presented that way. Whether that encourages you to give modern games more slack or harsher criticism is up to you … but I thought it was interesting, nonetheless.