The Neverending Road
Dragon Age 2 makes two cardinal sins in its futile attempt to artificially lengthen the game. Both of them serve only to highlight its unimaginative design. Firstly, most enemy encounters are merely hack-&-slash fests, featuring dozens of enemy soldiers in high speed, fluid combat, rather than the mostly thoughtful encounters seen in Origins, with the only notable exception being a section in the Deep Roads. In addition to that, enemies would regularly spawn in the middle of a fight, without any rational explanation to how they got there. While the tactical combat in Origins could easily become sluggish due to the occasional overabundance of it, the developers had at least realized their game stood much stronger with a tactical combat system, rather than a boiled-down action-combat system as the one seen in DA2, which requires a minimal amount of tactical and strategic thinking. Why the same developers decided to create two such a drastically combat system puzzles as well as saddens me.
A game that succeeded in creating the above, without relying on unsatisfying combat to fill the gaps that the above-mentioned points should cover, is Planescape: Torment. Torment is well-known for the fact that a significant amount of the combat in the game can be avoided, particularly through dialogue, and relies more on what the player shapes the Nameless One into, and how the player through his exploration of the mysterious City of Doors, Sigil, slowly unveils the Nameless One’s history and background. Combat mostly becomes peripheral, and even in the very last, climactic encounter it is even possible to resolve it through dialogue or other non-combat means. The characters you did fight seemed like actual people, with their own raison d’etre and this made the encounters a more special experience, and that is one central point to creating satisfying combat encounters. As Joss Whedon comments on his blog on screenwriting tips, no character should feel like he/she is only a placeholder to move the story on. Every character, even measly a measly non-essential NPC, has to be unique in some sense. While a player who has maximized the Nameless One’s Strength can easily complete the game and get and get an enjoyable experience out of it, emphasizing other non-violent skills encourages a different style of play, rather than simple bashing. Without using filler combat to enhance the game’s length, Torment still managed to give the appearance of an epic and character-changing journey, and is today regarded as the one of best RPGs to see the light of day.
The second cardinal sin that Dragon Age 2 made can be found in the level design. Players have to navigate the old caverns, sewers and dungeons a million times over. Only minor things were changed in the areas when revisited–corridors being blocked off, and objects being added, removed or changed altogether. But any ‘seasoned’ map reader could deduce that this cavern was designed almost exactly like the one before it. Another location this was particularly noticeable in was the Wounded Coast, in which a rather large amount of the quests, side as well as main, took place. Every time the player returned to this locale, the map would return to a blank slate, as if he/she had never been there before. Essentially there’s no harm in reusing core locales, for example revisiting the same districts of Kirkwall, the city in which most of the game takes place, wouldn’t feel old as long as the same minor areas weren’t reused as well.
Bioware, the developer of DA2, released a game a decade ago that succeeded far better at making its level design feel unique. Baldur’s Gate 2. Due to its hand-painted backgrounds, that easily rival advanced, but barren 3D visuals, every location becomes unique as a consequence (check out the walkthrough at Gamebanshee, there are plenty of more map images that showcase this). In addition, the maps were open-ended, as evidenced by the very first dungeon you find yourself in, and filled to the brim with not necessarily connected quests, whereas the locations in DA2 were far more like to have the player start at one end of the area, and then fight his way to the other end without
Unifying for the examples stated is that for a game to succeed at creating genuine length, as opposed to bloated mess of DA2, practically every encounter and area needs to be unique in some sense for the epic journey to save the world to actually feel epic. But should length even be required aspirations for games? At the other end of the spectrum of length we find two experiments. DICE’s Mirror’s Edge and Valve’s Portal. One of them benefits greatly from its short length, the other doesn’t. Care to guess?
Mirror’s Edge was a wonderful little experimental parkour first-person game. I won’t call it a shooter, but rather an FPG, as the shooting parts were fairly uncommon, and could (and should) generally be avoided. The player takes the role of courier Faith, who runs packages through a dystopian city for a slightly shady boss. Naturally, this doesn’t please the rulers, and through some fairly intense chases Faith has to evade enemy police officers ultimately unraveling a deeper conspiracy and saving her sister. The game can be completed in the span of a few hours, whereafter you can delete the game and go on to something else. Only the game ends so abruptly and quickly before you can truly achieve that immersion. It doesn’t feel like there’s any form of closure. It’s merely a lead-up to a sequel.
Then we have Portal, widely loved for its dark humor and wonderful personality. In about the same time span as Mirror’s Edge, or less if my memory is correct, Portal delivers one of the most memorable rides in video game history. Even among people who otherwise loathe short games, I’ve seen fondness for this one. Why? Because it delivers everything it has on its mind in a few hours and secondly because it gives closure. It doesn’t feel like we’ve been robbed of some hidden experience after we’ve finished the game. Sure, we’ve just received a sequel to it, but there wasn’t anything directly leading up to it. The only thing a sequel could really is explore things hinted at during the first one (note: I haven’t played Portal 2 yet, so cannot comment on the contents). If the first Portal hadn’t been a huge success, Valve could’ve just quietly not made a sequel, and even fans of the first one wouldn’t feel cheated that they didn’t get the full story.
What differentiates the two games in terms of closing the story is that Mirror’s Edge leaves the objective uncompleted, whereas the objective in Portal, i.e. destroying GLaDOS, has been achieved.
There can be no doubt that a large part of the reason to Portal’s success, was that it was part of the Orange Box, served as a neat little exotic dessert once the player was done with Half-Life 2, and tired of Team Fortress 2. This brings to another widely used argument against the shortness of games. The economic one. “Why should you pay 60$ for a 6-hour game! That’s preposterous!” Such sentiments are understandable, but also in part a sign of McDonaldization of society, more specifically calculability, in which the argument is that “more is better” and the consumer quantifies the enjoyment one would get out of. Indeed, often there’s just too little content in those games to justify a purchase, or they go the Mirror’s Edge route and tack on a few challenges to extend the life span, but ultimately you need to judge the gaming experience not through the time you’ve spent on it, but through the joy, beauty and enlightenment it has brought you. Don’t judge an experience on the length of it, but rather the quality of it. Most people probably cherish the memory of their first kiss or a particularly awesome rollercoaster ride more than a half-decent rerun of fair TV-show that has brought them some, but not that much enjoyment, even though the rerun might have lasted longer. Extending a game’s length unnaturally with filler is, like I’ve written, just like spreading the quality and innovation over a larger area. The butter is spread thinner, and the toast is saddened.
I think Braid creator Jonathan Blow said it perfectly in his blog: Why can’t video games give me a powerful, high-density experience, so that after 3 hours I am satisfied, I feel like I have had enough? Wouldn’t that be cool?” Read the full post (just a short snippet) here, where there are also more links to other comments regarding short games. Like Jonathan Blow I am in no way trying to dismiss long games, only the people who blindly dismiss short games based mostly on the quantity of the content. There are many other critical points that can be raised against some shorter games, but length should not be one of them. Judge them like you would any other game.
Lastly, if the video game business is going to achieve greater acceptance in general society as anything else than casual distraction games, I think we need to embrace the shorter format. If we are to lure in anyone who has not in some way grown up with video games, they need to not occupy tens of hours of those people’s lives. Length should preferably not be a factor when the critics’ harsh judgment falls over a game, as it is rarely directly responsible for a game’s true quality. Instead, the quality is found in the game’s ability to create unique and memorable experiences.
For more reading on the matter, check out these interesting articles, from Arstechnica, TheSixthAxis, Gameinformer and RPS.