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A few short years ago, we hadn’t even begun to fathom the idea of downloadable console games. We previewed our games by subscribing to official console-branded magazines that included demo discs, and we awaited new console releases with a measure of uncertainty, asking employees in stores like Babbage’s when their stock would come in.
Today, games exist that cannot be preordered, resold, or placed on our shelves. They’re becoming as much a part of our gaming lives as major disc releases, and their quality is often comparable. Yet a strange thing occurred to me recently: I don’t think the gaming world is ready to crown a downloadable game as the year’s very best game, even if it is in fact the best.
Well, why the hell not?
With the recent release of Limbo, I’ve noticed quite a few unsettling discussions crop up over and over again. One of the most common is in regards to the game’s length, which many have suggested spans anywhere between three and eight hours depending upon one’s personal pace and desire for completion. Nearly every reviewer mentioned length as a possible drawback of the game, even if that reviewer found it to be just the right length. Some outlets took points off for this, while others didn’t.
Because of this, I can imagine December rolling around and a lot of people saying “Yeah, Limbo was great, but it was far too short to be game of the year.” This could happen with any given downloadable game, as the vast majority of them (Puzzle Quest 2 excluded, which never freaking ends) have shorter running times than major disc releases.
The problem is that no one really seems to know how to discuss game length with any semblance of rationality, instead resorting to the “cost/length=value” argument that is a ridiculous oversimplification of a game’s true value. Length is always a valid point in the judgment of a game, but it goes deeper than the idea that “games should be long.” Hell, we’ve all played games that were way too long and adversely affected our enjoyment of them. The only time I’ve said “This game was too short” was when a game was so fantastic that I wanted more. This isn’t a bad thing, people.
Game length shouldn’t be a reason to disqualify a title from contention for game of the year. Not every game needs multiplayer to extend its life. Not every game needs hundreds of collectibles. Sometimes, a game begins and ends and that’s all there is to it, and it is still incredible.
Furthermore, we’ve all noticed this sort of stigma regarding downloadable games. We often treat them as if they’re somehow less important than major releases simply because they don’t come with a nice box and instruction manual. I’ve ever heard people say “If it were any good I’m sure it would have been a full $60 game.”
With the idea of downloadable-only games still in its infancy, these sorts of thoughts can be forgiven. Hell, to some extent, it’s true. A strikingly large number of games released for Wii-Ware, XBLA, and PSN range between the mediocre and the terrible. Many are remakes that don’t come up in game of the year discussions. Even the fact that there’s no physical product can affect our perception of a game’s quality and value. Come December, we may be scanning our shelves to remind us of those great games we played earlier in the year, and we’re not going to find our downloadable libraries there.
But while we can forgive a certain amount of stigma surrounding downloadable games, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to break that stigma moving forward. After all, we’re moving toward a future where games are going to be distributed in brand new ways (OnLive, anyone?), and the lines between major release and “downloadable” or “indie” game are going to blur. Before long, press and marketing will be the largest thing separating major and minor releases, and we all know that the hype train often doesn’t work out in gamers’ favor.
So, come the end of 2010, I would love to be surprised by the gaming community. Am I saying I want Limbo to win game of the year? Not necessarily. It’s not my game of the year, and there are still a lot of months left for better games to take that title. But I think a lot of people may be hesitant to consider it for the title not based on its quality but based on its distribution model. And that just seems silly, doesn’t it?