I don’t make a habit out of agreeing with the Penny Arcade guys, but Tycho made a really good point on Monday. It’s something that’s bugged me ever since I moved out here and started working in videogames.
The problem is the weird dollar-to-hour value ratio people use when talking about games. You’ll frequently see a game review, or just public opinion of a game, focus on how the game is “too short.” Not that it was shallow, or ended too abruptly, just that it “only” took three-to-nine hours to finish it. (Yes, Half Life 2: Episode 1 took some reviewers nine hours to finish, and it was still “too short.”)
More often than not, this complaint will come immediately after the comment that the game was very well-written, had great dialogue, a great setting, and well-developed characters. But still, “too short.”
What I like about Tycho’s post is that he finally put into words what bugs me about this — it’s turning games from works of art into commodities. You pay x dollars for a game, you’re an American with an inflated sense of entitlement, therefore you sure as hell better get y hours of entertainment out of it.
What other art form does this? I’ve never read a book review that dinged the book because it was less than 300 pages long. I’ve never seen a movie that was only an hour and a half, and then demanded half my money back, because I got twice as much entertainment time out of The Lord of the Rings. Often you’ll see the exact same people who get all up in arms whenever Roger Ebert or somebody dismisses games as being incapable of being works of art, then go and complain that they paid $60 for Dead Reckoning: Vengeance of Kain 2 and only got 20 hours game time out of it.
There are three possible solutions, as I see it:
- Introduce “standard” game lengths. Television is broken up into blocks of thirty-minute and hour-long programs, and people don’t seem baffled by that. Board games generally list play times on the box. Publishers can start releasing games of standard 4-hour, 12-hour, etc. lengths, and have QA report the “average” length of time it takes to play. If the people want filler, give them filler, and see how they like it.
- Report the game length in reviews, but don’t make it qualitative. Game review sites love their decimal-accurate scores, so those aren’t going away. But a so-called “videogame journalist” should be embarrassed about writing good thing after good thing about a game, and then giving it a sub-par score just because it’s “too short.” Tell the readers it only took you x amount of time to play, and then review the game on its own merits.
- Suck it up, people. We keep hearing how the average age of videogame players is going up; last I heard, it was around 23. People that age should have enough discretionary income that they don’t have to be such tightwads with their entertainment dollars. I can understand a twelve-year-old’s being disappointed that the game he spent his allowance on didn’t last him more than a couple of days. I’ve got a lot less sympathy for the dude who’s got a job and shouldn’t have that many hours to spend on a game in the first place. If you want videogames to be treated as art, then stop treating them as products.
The thing is, for me, I want a game that suits the quality of its mechanics. And that doesn’t mean short is bad. Max Payne, clocking in at something like 7 hours, was *perfect*. I could shoot, I could shoot in slo-mo, and they had just enough narrative twists and turns to keep it interesting for exactly the length of the game.
Halo, they had a couple of interesting mechanics that got boring as shit halfway through the game. No one complained it was too short, they complained that the middle of the game sucked.
I don’t want a game that’s 60 hours, that’s padded out by more walking around and doing boring shit. I’ve got a job, a dog, and a wife. I like reading, and watching movies, and other things. I want my gaming time to be spent *efficiently*, where every moment is totally fucking awesome.
Note that “totally fucking awesome” doesn’t actually mean *fun*. Epic, tragic, funny, whatever. Bring on the variety of emotions and experience that challenge what we’re used to games being. But don’t, whatever you do, saddle it with an extra ten hours of walking to the next goddamn cutscene, okay?