Journey: The shortest "Game of the Year" in gaming's history
I remember the times when no game was too long for me. I even remember dismissing the notion of a game, a good game, ever being called "too long" absurd. How can something good ever out-stay its welcome? I remember playing for days, for weeks, weekends and evenings disappearing into maws of games like Civilization, Fallout, the Ultimas, the Final Fantasies.
I was a kid back then. I remember when I was reliant on pocket-money and games journalists with their ratings to help me decide where my 50 bucks would go this month: Would I spend them on books, records and movies -- or a single game? If I was to shell them out for a game, it had better offer some serious playing time.
Because, you know, while, as a kid, I was always short on money, there was one thing I definitely wasn't short on: time.
Kentucky Route Zero: A mature, intelligent episodic adventure game - adult-sized entertainment
I remember the outcry when game length started to decrease. I was older then, but I still found time for games. Suddenly, major single player games were "only" 15 to 20 hours long, and gamers and press ritually voiced their disappointment at even shorter games, offering "only" 8 to 12 hours of single player campaigns, but making up for that -- or trying to -- with ubiquitous multiplayer modes that were Frankenstein'd-on to bolster play time, but would mostly be orphaned and deserted within weeks of release.
These days, even more years later, my life has changed again. Today, I can easily afford games -- but, being on an adult timetable, my spare time has shrunk drastically. I'll soon be a father, I have a job, colleagues, a busy social life, and I find it increasingly hard to reconcile these activities with my love for games.
The Walking Dead: Episodic, short games can have emotional impact, too
These days, I recoil at games advertising their play time in the double digits. I grew weak and binged on Skyrim, but consequently shunned XCOM, Ni No Kuni and any other game boasting of "hours and hours of fun." But let's be honest: I avoided these games not because I strictly didn't have the time -- in recent years, I found amazing (or shocking) amounts of time to watch many complete seasons of TV series I love -- but because I didn't really feel like spending this time on games. Because, as Jamin Warren of Kill Screen put it, "Games are too Damn Long."
Let's face it: Most games are too long because they are artificially lengthened. They are blown up to ridiculous lengths by drawn-out tutorial-sequences, cinematics, copy-paste-level design and often overloaded with "filler." One of the reasons for this is to justify the traditional pricing structure. The reasoning goes like this: If an AAA-game is sold at $60 or more, it had better offer at least 8 to 12 hours of single-player experience, if only to still compare favourably to a night -- or, in this case, three or four nights -- at the local cinema -- popcorn included.
The funny part? Most players don't even finish these games. So this might sound revolutionary, but ... why not make shorter games?
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger: 5 hours long, at a low price: A possible way to go for AAA?
The games that impressed me most in the last few years were short and intense, and, most importantly, could be finished in one or, at the most, two or three evening sittings - Portal, Dear Esther, The Walking Dead, Braid, Limbo, Papo & Yo, The Unfinished Swan, Journey, Kentucky Route Zero, and, most recently, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. Games that offer relatively short, but original experiences. Games that can be experienced on those nights when my significant other has gone out with her friends, when I have a few hours to spare. Games that don't demand to be mastered in boring tutorials, but instead concentrate on telling their story -- or, conversely, can be played in short sessions and started again without the tedium of repetition, like the Rogue-like-likes Spelunky, FTL or The Binding of Isaac.
It is no coincidence to see that most of these games are Indie games, and that's because AAA has ignored the short form almost completely. (The few AAA offerings of the short form come exlusively as DLC -- Minerva's Den comes to mind, or The King Washington episodes -- which means that you have to own the original long-form games to be able to play these smaller games.) It's okay for Indie games to be short because they are the work of smaller teams and so by nature are accepted to be more limited and -- most importantly -- a lot cheaper than AAA games.
There seems to be an interesting cross-media paradox: The rise and success of high-quality TV-series like Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones has opened audiences' eyes and shifted paradigms: Many viewers now regard the traditional 90 minutes of movies as too short a frame to tell a compelling story. In games, a different paradigm shift is needed: I'm looking forward to the next generation of short games fully making use of the powerful short-form, telling a compelling story in two or three hours, cutting out the filler and doing away with the conventions rooting games firmly in teenage consumption patterns. I want a game that respects my limited free time, that teaches me its basics in minutes, not hours of tutorials; a game, in short, that respects its players as adults, both in regard to content, quality and the time investment needed to enjoy it.
Limbo: Short, but gripping
The average gamer, we are told repeatedly, is between 30 and 40-years-old. This statistic is often taken as proof that the medium has "matured" -- but, speaking from experience, many of these older players abandon their hobby of many years when time becomes more valuable. Too valuable, that is, to spend on the way most games treat their players.
As long as games don't get much shorter and learn to respect their adult audience in this regard, they'll inevitably keep losing this audience. Or, to put it more dramatically: If games don't adapt to their mature audience's time restraints, they'll likely stay as immature as their traditional teenage consumers. Shorter games, targeted at a more mature audience in both length and subject matter, could lead to a new quality in these games themselves: Without the need to stretch their ideas to those 8 or 10 hours, game creators could deliver gripping, to-the-point experiences - and, with lower prices and a shorter format, also reach larger audiences.
Successful games like Journey, Gunslinger or Limbo are the first to realize that there is a market for these shorter, cheaper but, as a result, more concise gaming experiences. I'm looking forward to more of these adult-sized games.