1992. A Link To The Past. I’m anxious. I’m counting the items I’ve already collected and I’m freaking out. I’ve played for 20 hours and I’ve already collected 60 per cent of the items. Does this mean the game is only 30 hours long. No. God no. I need this game to be longer. I need this.
That was 1992. 23 years ago. I was a child. Time was an abstraction, the summers stretched into infinity and blah blah blah. I’m an adult now. Are we still talking about game length like it’s a thing that matters?
I can’t believe we’re still talking about game length like it’s a thing that matters.
2002. The video game I spent the most time playing: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. A game that could probably be completed in — oh, I don’t know — two hours?
2008. The video game I spent the most time playing: Metal Gear Solid 4. A game that could probably be complete in — oh, I don’t know — five hours if you skipped the cut scenes.
I’ve played through Super Mario World over a dozen times. I’ve played the Tanker level in Metal Gear Solid 2 around 20 times.
I played Journey one. single. time. It was probably the most valuable two hours I’ve ever spent playing a video game. How do you put a value on that experience? How can we possibly judge video games in this strange way? How is this a story?
Reports are swirling that The Order: 1886 is short. Five hours short. Outrage. Chatter on Twitter. I am reading this ‘outrage’ and it is embarrassing. Flat-out embarrassing. Why are we still like this?
In no other medium does this matter. I watched Big Hero 6 at the cinema. My wife and I went. We didn’t get much change out of £20. At no point after the movie did my wife or I feel the need to Tweet/Facebook/blog/snapchat about the utterly disgraceful 108 minute running time. Did you know that my copy of Dorien Gray is only 208 pages long? That’s bullshit, Ulysses was at least 700 pages!
There are news stories about the length of of The Order: 1886. A couple of weeks back Jonathan Blow tweeted that he did a speed run of his current work-in-progress The Witness in six hours. There were news stories about that. People clicked on that link. People thought that was worthwhile.
This exasperates me.
It exasperates me because I thought we were past that. Surely we should be past that?
The value of art is not defined by length. It should not be measured by the time you spend consuming it. That’s how it is with every other medium besides video games. Why should we be any different?
Is it about the cost of games? I don’t think so. Games can be cheaper than a night out or two tickets to the cinema.
Is it a symbol of our immaturity as a culture, as a medium? Maybe.
More likely it’s a bad habit we can’t shift. A need to treat video games like toasters, as things we attach all sorts of numbers to in an attempt to dissect them in the most banal way possible. We’re so used to discussing games like this, engaging with them on those terms, that we just can’t help ourselves.
But we should probably try to help ourselves.
This obsession is holding video games back. It’s stuffing games like The Last Of Us with needless combat encounters that subvert its otherwise well-told story. It’s forcing series like Dead Space to abandon taut, tense experiences in favour of bombastic action sequences for no other reason other than that’s what we expect. It made The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword a bloated mess of fetch quests. This is why we collect feathers in Assassin’s Creed.
Games are not content buckets.
Allow me to rephrase that: games should not be content buckets. It’s 2015. I can’t believe we’re still upset about the length of video games. That’s depressing. But more importantly it’s harmful.