Today I was struck by a notion. A particularly powerful notion, rather uncommonly potent for something of this sort: why aren’t there any two-hour games?
I know, I know. The answer seems obvious enough. Nobody likes short games, right? Especially now, with the whole global economy in such a rut. If we’re to shell out $50 or $60 USD for a new title, we want to garner more than five or six hour enjoyment, right?
Of course we do. We all want to get our money’s worth, and the only truly quantifiable means we have to measure that is with the number of hours we spend with a game. I can browse through my PS3′s memory and handily see that while I’ve invested a whopping 73 hours into Armored Core: For Answer, I’ve barely soaked 8 hours into Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2. Clearly, AC4A is the better giant-robot brawler–it’s the obvious conclusion. But this way of thinking is a fallacy, one I’ve willingly bought into for years–and I know I’m not alone.
But the gaming industry has come a long way in the past decade. Everyone, developer and gamer alike, see gaming as mainstream. It’s an art, now. It produces summer blockbusters just as well (or better than) Hollywood. Almost every time you read a developer interview, someone drops a quote about how modern games are becoming so much more like movies.
They’ve got the action, they’ve got the characters and, boy-oh-boy, they’ve got the audience. Recent polls suggest that more than 50% of the adult population in the United States consider themselves gamers. That’s roughly the same proportion of adult Americans who fell out of their homes to vote in the 2008 presidential elections.*
So if that’s true, and games are becoming more like movies, why aren’t they short like movies? The typical format of almost any game follows the same basic pattern: kill stuff, watch a cut-scene, and repeat. We can groan with disappointment that Uncharted took us only 8 hours to beat, but what if you were watching those same 8 hours play out in a theater? I’d walk out. Movies have two-hour lengths for a reason: people have short attention spans. If games are to be more like movies, let’s start with cutting down the length, a lot.
Here’s my bold new vision for the future of gaming: make the games really, really short. Allow us gamers to move from opening titles to credits in one, easy sitting. I’d love to be able to start and finish a game in the few hours I have each morning before class. And give us more control! Interactivity is the biggest (read: sole) selling point of games, and to continue with the movie analogy, why not let us manipulate more than just the action scenes.
Imagine a game with a truly branching storyline, where you control every action the protagonist takes. He or She could be a hero, or a villain–even a victim. The story could play out dozens, or hundreds of ways. Imagine watching a movie where you could decide exactly what the protagonist does (or says) at every opportunity? Give us choices and consequences with the gameplay. What I’m talking here is the kind of freedom in games we’ve been promised for years, but never actually seen.
Mass Effect promised us choices, but neglected to give those choices any real consequences. Fallout 3 promised moral ambiguity and sufficient choices to effect hundreds of alternate endings, yet delivered a system whereby we were awarded points for every evil act or good deed, drenching the entire affair in moral absolutism–and delivered one of the worst, most poorly-conceived endings in gaming history (oh, yeah, right up there with Suikoden IV). So what’s wrong? What’s keeping these games from truly becoming interactive films?
Oh, yeah–it’s the runtime. The reason games don’t have long, fully-branched storylines is, simply, that there’s too much to script. When gamers demand at least 12 hours out of the average game–and at least three times that number for an RPG–the costs involved in making a truly compelling tale where player choice has any noticeable effect is all but impossible.
But what if those twelve hours become two? Uncharted could have been four different games–each as long as a movie–with the same amount of work that went one 8-hour experience. Imagine starting up an RPG where you can save the world, destroy the world, or simply try to survive it–and imagine seeing a fully fleshed-out, scripted story no matter which path you take. I’ve got goosebumps already, I do.
Developers simply need to stop fixating on game-lengths. And gamers, we need to bloody-well stop demanding it of them. The hundred-hour game is a relic of the past, and if gaming is ever to evolve, it’ll need to move past such temporal concerns. Isn’t the industry sufficiently established now that we can hope for quality over quantity? Let’s see if we can’t get the game industry to embrace the same level of diversity and imagination that’s made Hollywood such a success–I promise you, that’s where the future lies.
*It’s a bit interesting (and disheartening) to consider that the first statistic (50% gamers) covers the entire population of adults in the USA, whereas the second statistic (50% voters) covers a smaller demographic–sans immigrants, convicts and aliens.