Differentiating downloadable games

High speed internet has birthed the cheap downloadable game. If you’ve played video games in the past five years, you’ve no doubt played one: priced under $20, only a few hours in length, as opposed to priced at $60 with a few hour campaign and a multiplayer mode. In many ways these downloadable games should be the short stories of the video game world: smaller, bite sized, just as breathtaking as bigger titles.

But it hasn’t worked like that, not really. Most downloadable games are shorter versions of longer games: awkward first novellas instead of short stories. They feature much the same padding between amazing moments as longer titles but they end quicker; either that or they are homages to the retro, 2-D platformers that grasp for the greatness of classic titles.

The short story, as a literary form, is different from the novel in a way that a downloadable game isn’t different from a big budget. Both forms of games try to tell the same type of sweeping, long form narrative, but the downloadable titles attempt to cut the “fat” out of the experience.  For every well developed ‘Splosion Man we have many Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonances.  For every quality game we have two incomplete full games.

What I’d like to see is a downloadable title that copies the best bits of the short story. There’s a number that already do, to varying degrees, and they’re among the most successful titles released at lower price points.

The most important thing about the short story is that it is concise and compact but does not compromise the story it’s telling. Novels can have bad chapters; short stories, writers say, can’t have bad lines. There’s not enough space to have words without meaning. It’s the same with downloadable games: the most successful display convincing economy. Braid, for instance, is a brutally efficient game. Everything is where it is for a reasons that become obvious as you play. The graphics, the sound, the design all contribute to the themes it’s trying to present; like I talked about last week, games like this are at their best when every element works together. Braid, video games preeminent short story, works like an oiled machine. It’s not perfect, of course: it’s hard to look past those pesky walls of text it uses to tell its narrative.  A more cynical commentator would damn it for those.  But in a world where downloadable games so often appear slapdash, it’s brilliantly done.

Another important aspect of the short story is scope: not too big, not spread too thin, but not too small as to have nothing happen. Critics of the literary short story might say that nothing ever happens in them (and, personally, I think they’re on to something), but there’s still a very specific scope to them. That’s Bastion‘s greatest success. It tells a story big enough for the time it has, but does so without compromising on key points: characters, explanation, and plot. It’s deadly efficient, too, with every element building up the central tentpoles of its narrative except for its pretty but sometimes out of place graphical style.  Even so, that inefficiency is countered by the narrator, who’s voice adds so much to the game, even if it’s a little “cheap”.  We can’t fault it too much for that: like Braid it succeeds where so many others have failed.

More than one hook is necessary, too. So many games like Limbo fail to remain in our consciousness like the greatest short stories because, while it’s got one brilliant hook (the spider) it doesn’t have anything else. It’s important to go somewhere. If nothing happens, nothing must happen in a way that keeps our interest, through mystery, suspense, or action. A game cannot be truly compelling without that next moment. The present can be good, but the game is only as good as what it offers the player in the future, and in that sense games like Limbo fail: they only give us one thing, one plot to care about.

Obviously, the type of game I’m describing is incredibly difficult: dense, efficient, complex but also accessible. It’s a challenging idea but one many developers have jumped on and risen to the challenge of. Further, it seems the type of game that’s significantly easier for one individual (or a very small number) to make than many. For instance, games like Terry Cavanaugh’s VVVVVV and Christine Love’s Don’t Take It Personally, Babe offer all the elements of good short-form gaming and were the product of one person, one author. There’s a certain charm to auteur theory in regards to the short video game, because it seems one person can provide all the elements of a digital short story much better than a team can.


  1. Fernando Cordeiro

    The Spider! Is it a metaphor for dead people with 8 legs? WHAT DOES IT MEAN???

  2. Casey

    That’s a good point! The comparison between short stories and full length novels is a good one, and particularly apt for the most memorable indie games such as To The Moon.

    • Tom Auxier

      You win the “Remembering a game that should have been mentioned in this post but then wasn’t!” prize!

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