The Long-term Appeal of Short Games

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A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of playing Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn. I had many good things to say about my experience, but looking back there was one thing I forgot the mention: its brevity. The game took approximately 6-7 hours to complete in its entirety, spread over the course of two days. Now for some that might seem like a negative, but honestly I found it quite refreshing. In a time where single player is either a forgettable afterthought or a massive 60+ hour campaign filled with collectibles and side missions, it was nice to have a game that could be completed over the course of a few days but still feel unique and satisfying.

 This image represents about one tenth of the games I’ve yet to finish.

This image represents about one tenth of the games I’ve yet to finish.

Many gamers, myself included, are no stranger to the idea of having a massive backlog of unfinished games. Some games are just so involved and packed full of content that you simply never get around to actually completing them - not necessarily because of a lack of interest, but rather you take a break to try something new and convince yourself you’ll finish it at a later date, only to get caught up in the cycle all over again. The trend followed by AAA studios nowadays when it comes to single player games is that “bigger is better.” Maps need to be larger, players need to have more choices when it comes to the story, there need to be more secondary quest lines and unlockables to discover throughout your journey, and countless other diversions that can extend the lifespan of a game well past the hundred hour mark. That being said, this is in no way a bad thing. I find it incredible that we live in an era where games have eclipsed, in scale, anything I would have thought was possible when I was a kid. The fact that games like Red Dead Redemption 2, where you can quite literally get lost in the world, exist is nothing short of amazing. At the same time, I’ve been playing The Witcher 3 for close to three years now and still have yet to fully complete the main story. No, there’s nothing inherently wrong with long games, but sometimes I wonder if my time wouldn’t be better spent playing something short and sweet instead.

 One of these day, Geralt….but today is not that day…nor is tomorrow most likely.

One of these day, Geralt….but today is not that day…nor is tomorrow most likely.

This ever increasing abundance of content stems partially from the fact that developers need to justify to their customers the investment of a full price game. If you’re paying sixty dollars for a single player game, you expect to receive an acceptable return in hours of entertainment. The competition between game companies seems to revolve around how much you can put at the players fingertips using the resources at your disposal. It is for this reason that shorter games seem to be almost exclusively indie titles. The restrictions on manpower and financial assets means that an indie developer can’t possibly hope to deliver an experience on the same scale as some major studios. This means thinking outside of the box in order to deliver a product that resonates with players but at a fraction of the scope. Games like Journey, Limbo or The Stanley Parable can all be beaten in a single sitting but are still incredibly memorable in their own right. The last time I can think of a major developer delivering something similar in brevity and quality was Valve with Portal in 2007, but even then that was only released as part of The Orange Box.

The overall length of a game is a poor indicator of its quality, and if anything, some games actually benefit greatly from cutting down on it. I feel that many horror games are better served with relatively short playing times; Outlast from 2013 is one of my favorite examples of that. The whole game is about 6 hours long, perfect to play with a group of easily frightened friends over the course of an evening. It never starts to feel stale or boring, which is something I can’t say for Alien: Isolation, an otherwise spectacular game let down by the fact that it simply starts to overstay its welcome. Hiding from the alien and whacking androids with a wrench starts to feel less scary and more clinical after 18 or so hours.

 Oh no, there’s the alien…again…guess I’ll try hiding….again…

Oh no, there’s the alien…again…guess I’ll try hiding….again…

Obviously, if you’re looking for a massive open world, engaging storytelling, deep gameplay mechanics and a plethora of side activities, then you probably have no problem with dumping tons of hours into a game, even with the knowledge you may not finish it in the foreseeable future. And that's perfectly fine; all I’m saying is that between full-time jobs, relationships and other responsibilities, sometimes it’s nice to actually complete a game within a reasonable amount of time and still feel fulfilled. So next time you’re about to consider jumping in and finally finishing Fallout 4 for the third time, think about all those small, short games you may have glossed over in the past and you may be pleasantly surprised.