The Long and Short of It
Games are too damned long. If I wasn’t certain of this before, I am now, as I stare at a stack of holiday titles I’m yet to break from their shrink-wrap prisons. Yet, despite my certainty, titles are still often criticized for being too short. And because this sort of unwarranted sentiment is so widespread, it encourages developers to pack our games with content we don’t need or want. Shouldn’t, with few exceptions, games be judged by what’s there rather than what’s not? Whether a title clocks in at 5 or fifty hours isn’t the issue, but rather how those hours are spent. If a game keeps me engaged from start to finish, I don’t care how short it is. In fact, let me enjoy and savor an 8-10 hour game, rather than slog through a 40 hour one. More often than not these days, I find completing games, even the good ones, can feel like work by the time the end credits roll.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a short game, but its pitch-perfect pacing, eye-searing visuals, eardrum-rattling audio, and balls-out action demanded I play through it multiple times. I didn’t even get into the bottomless multiplayer modes, didn’t need to—I got my money’s worth out of the short, but sweet solo campaign. Could it be completed in one sitting? Sure, but it filled its limited space with unparalleled quality. Bioshock offered a similar quality-over-quantity experience. It didn’t even offer a multiplayer component, but its solo campaign was so packed with detail and narrative excellence that its 10-15 hour campaign offered more depth than most games twice its length.
Many games are ruined or at least hurt by excessive length. Because developers have been programmed to think more is better, we’re often saddled with mediocre content, added to pad-out a game. We’ve all encountered the worst offenders: duplicate boss battles, re-hashed level assets, non-sensical time-filling quests. Devil May Cry 4 was a very good game that would’ve been a lot better had it not been guilty of many of these length-padding tricks. The first half of the game, as good as it was, lost some of its spark when you realized the second half was brimming with the same bosses you’d already fought, in locations you’d already been to. Shave five hours off the entire package, and you’re looking at the best Devil May Cry entry to date, but with the pressure of having to stick to the status quo and be a certain length, it sacrificed quality for quantity.
The absolute worst offender in adding filler-feeling content is the tacked-on multiplayer mode. Where was it written that every game must include online competitive play? In many cases, publishers are robbing quality content from the solo experience in order to put time and resources into building a half-baked multiplayer mode that’ll do little more than add a bullet point to the back of the box. Bioshock’s main man Ken Levine put it best in an interview last year with TeamXbox: “It’s very hard to do a ground-breaking game and do [good multiplayer] at the same time. We only want to do ground-breaking crap. If we can’t do it ground-breaking, I’m not just going to do something like, 'Oh, and by the way, there’s a multiplayer mode'…so, guess what, we’re not going to put it on the box.” Amen to that! Despite the cries of “too short”, Levine’s logic is actually reflected strongly by the online community: just log onto Xbox Live at any given time and see how many people are playing anything other than Halo, Gears or Call of Duty. Even Grand Theft Auto IV’s maps are often a ghost town. There was some potential in Crackdown’s cooperative mode, but a year later, and guess what: no one’s playing online. I can’t help but think if they’d scrapped the co-op idea altogether, the title’s single player world wouldn’t be so void of assets and detail. If you're going to go for the trifecta--great solo, multi, and co-op play--then you better be prepared to play in the same league as Gears of War 2, Resistance 2, and Call of Duty: World at War. If you can't compete, stick to one thing and do it well. Left 4 Dead just proved you can release a AAA game without a dedicated solo campaign.
The games hurt worst by extraneous length are the mediocre ones; Golden Axe: Beast Rider was universally panned for a variety of reasons, including repetitive combat and lack of enemy variety. But many of the games’ flaws really don’t register until you’re several hours in. Hell, it’s actually quite a bit of fun for about six hours or so, but by adding artificial length, its weaknesses begin to take center stage. If it never gave gamers a chance to grow bored of its limited combat and enemy types, it likely would have been better received. Middling quality titles hoping to become better by adding mediocre content or tacked-on modes usually end up shooting themselves in the foot. Now, instead of just having a bad game, they have a long, bad game. This actually brings me back to where I started in the first place, with the “too short” criticism being made at all. It always cracks me up when I hear or read a game critique that totally rips a title apart, then concludes by saying the game is also light on content. If a game is that terrible, do you really want more of it?
Now, despite my disdain for long games that have no right to be long, I totally appreciate an interactive experience that packs the content like bacon at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. A good RPG, like Fallout 3, requires more time to develop its characters, flesh out its story, and realize its scope. That’s not to say all RPGs need to be 50+ hours, especially when half that time is spent having uninteresting conversations with NPCs, and doing slightly varied versions of the same quest over and over again. The absolute best RPGs, and I’d place Fallout 3 and Fable 2 into this category, give players a choice: take the shorter, critical path, or explore every nook and cranny till you realize the sun has risen and you need to get to work.
What I'd hoped would be a cohesive editorial on why games are too long has devolved a bit into a rant by a madman, frustrated because he doesn’t have enough time to play all the games he got for Christmas. If gamers were to take anything away from this, though, it’s this: Stop and smell the polygons. No matter how short a great game, enjoy what’s there. And if it’s a bad game, be thankful it’s short. For developers: I beg you to stop padding your titles with artificial length. A multiplayer mode in Legendary? C’mon, seriously? Oh, and we don’t need to fight the same boss three times to discover what a badass he is. And we hate fetching a key to unlock a door, only to find a treasure chest behind said door, which requires we backtrack to find another key. Pack your games with groundbreaking, quality-oozing content and we won’t bitch about the length. Promise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go clock hour 30 in Far Cry 2--damn, another jeep of bad guys patrolling the African savannah? You gotta be kiddin' me!