Game length has been a hot topic lately, especially in the wake of the The Order 1688 reviews. Superbunnyhop recently covered this topic, observing the schism between Portal and The Order. He looked at how Portal’s two hour length was perfect but The Order’s six was not, which basically boiled down to expectations, companies, and price tag. None of this I can really argue against but it made me think about how we view games as all being equal, which is obviously wrong. Skyrim is nothing like Fortix. I’m not even talking about their genre, mechanics, or theme. I’m talking about their purpose in a gamer’s library. Skyrim is a main game, Fortix is a filler.
For those unfamiliar with the board game scene, a filler game is a shorter experience designed to be played between more involving games. They usually have simpler game mechanics and are lighthearted, though that doesn’t mean players won’t get heated. They can function as warm ups, cool downs, palette cleansers, or even primary games in time constrained play sessions. Despite being simpler and shorter they are adored by the board game community. A quick search on BoardGameGeek yields topics praising filler games as well as lists compiling personal favorites (I love Knizia’s Revolution and will take on all challengers). While board games are the easiest comparison, all forms of media have both short and long experiences. Harry Potter and War and Peace coexist as does The Other Guys and The Hobbit. Even television shows come in 15, 30, and 60 minute varieties.
So why do short form games get such negativity when other medias understand their purpose? Part of it is the idea of entertainment hours per dollar. This idea permeates the video game culture and is extremely harmful. Very rarely is length brought into the discussion of other forms of entertainment and, while I don’t know for sure, I feel it has something to do with other media being accepted as art. A movie’s length isn’t questioned and is simply assumed that it was the perfect length for the story that needed to be told. The same goes for books. Television is a bit of an outlier with this theory though as each episode is tweaked to fit a time slot, though multi-episode story arcs solve this problem a bit. Despite that they still aren’t gauged by their length. Games aren’t seen as art, yet, which hurts the way we think about them. Too often games are viewed as products or toys, entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Going back to The Order, I have yet to see anybody talking about what they took away from the game, instead simply focusing on its length.
I do find it interesting in that we look towards the generic shooter for a “proper” games length, usually sitting around five or six hours. I fail to see how The Order, at four hours, is worse than the latest Call of Duty, at five. Is that one hour difference really the separation between a good game and a bad game? What happens if we stop comparing games to shooters and begin using adventure and role playing games? Does Battlefield’s six hour campaign suddenly become criticized because Skyward Sword lasts 35 hours? Or, taking it to the next level, is any game worth it if we hold Skyrim as the test? The answer to all of these is obviously no. There is no set amount of time a game needs to aim for in order to be “good”. This kind of evaluation — if you can even call it that — is what caused so many developers to artificially extend the length of their games by adding additional levels that do nothing but drag the game out. So many games in the 2000’s were criticized for doing this and yet now it’s just as bad to do the opposite.
We cannot continue to to review games based on an arbitrary concept of length. It is meaningless without context and simple comparisons to the length of other games tells the reader nothing about the game itself. There are other concepts that are impacted by length, such as pacing or plot holes, but neither get mentioned often enough in game reviews. Instead of stating that a game is too short or too long, we need to start asking if the duration suits the game or if it suffered because of it. Not only that, but what could be done to improve the issues caused by it. If we can stop imposing artificial length requirements on games then hopefully developers can stop feeling pressured to artificially stretch out their game and begin making games as long as they need to be.