Short games: The long-winded response
The fall of 2001 was seen by many as one of the greatest single seasons in video game history. With the incredible line up of games for the PS2, coupled with the much-anticipated launch of the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft XBOX, the final quarter of 2001 was one for the ages. However, it was also the role of the season to bring sharply into focus what has turned out to be one of the most disputed topics in recent history-the value of a game. With many of the PS2's marquee games, including the smash hit Metal Gear Solid 2, averaging less than 20 hours, as well as quite a few launch games from the new systems on the block, such as Nintendo's Luigi's Mansion and Microsoft's Halo, many consumers began to worry that they were getting less bang for their buck then they used to. Certain critics felt that this was a disturbing trend that was not likely to reverse itself any time in the near future. Many of the much hyped games of the fall were knocked quite harshly for their shorter length, giving even more credence to the theory that a games value was largely dependant upon its length.
The importance of value in games
As every self-supporting gamer knows, getting your money's worth is one of the most important aspects to gaming. No one wants to spend $50 on a game only to have it collect more dust than Marlon Brando's collection of Jazzercise videos. For many years finding a game worth its price tag was difficult enough due to various factors such as poor quality production values, extremely short lived consoles such as the Sega Saturn and Panasonic 3DO, not to mention the hordes of developers desperate to make a quick buck on a shoddy licensed product (Batman for the NES ring a bell?). Most of those problems have been at least somewhat remedied over the years, however lingering traces of the industry's often rocky start still cling to this modern era like grim death. There are still games out there that showcase the ineptitude of their creators, maligning the game library of whatever system they claim to represent.
All this being said, it is very important for any gamer to be informed, not only about the genres which appeal to him, but how the industry itself approaches said genre. Obviously, a fanatic of music and rhythm games is not going to have a great many AAA titles to choose from, while those who pray at the altar of Squaresoft-styled RPGs are richly rewarded for their mass media mentality.
Also, while it may seem that the RPG fanatic wins out when it comes to gaming variety, this is not always the case. We have all heard of the term 'cookie cutter game', which is most often invoked when referring to yet another Final Fantasy clone of a role playing game. We've all seen them at some point or another; they are the games that end up propping up that loose leg on your couch. Basically, games on both sides of the spectrum suffer from the same disease: lack of original thought. This is a disease that afflicts all forms of art sooner or later, but video games seem destined to suffer most of all due to their relatively unique format. One can only wonder how many movies Jean Claude Van Damme could have made had the audience been forced to pay $50 a pop, and the answer is not a whole damn lot. Hey Jean, I think I will have fries with that!
Armed with this knowledge, it becomes relatively easy for a gamer to become supremely informed about his hobby, and yet there is one ostensibly terrible flaw lurking in the shadows, ready to haunt even the most knowledgeable of gamers: being shorted in terms of game length. This is usually the one major unknown factor in a game that causes the most disappointment, because it is relatively impossible to judge this until the game is already played through. For some, the thought of a game ending before a respectable number of hours have gone by is simply unacceptable. Lately however, this has become more than a nagging flaw in a game, but rather a major factor that weighs heavily on how a game fares, both under the microscope that is the gaming press and the publics eye. Basically, gaming has evolved into such a costly hobby that many gamers feel the need to bleed their games dry like an eighteenth century barber-surgeon, thereby increasing what they feel to be the value of a game.
Well, its time this particular editor spoke up and defended against this injustice. Sometimes things get so out of hand that it has to be the rational mind who beats some reason back into the masses, and that is exactly what I intend to do.
The evolution of gaming
One of the funniest things I remember about my childhood was the great stories of hardship my father always used to tell me. I would whine about how much I wanted the new Mario game, he would tell me about how he used to have to walk to school barefoot in a blizzard every day, uphill both ways, fighting off wild gorillas...you all know the story, we all have fathers or mothers who apparently grew up in the depths of hell. Well, I have realized that whenever I find myself missing those wonderful tales my father raised me on, I can simply visit almost any forum on the net and find this same sort of inane nonsense spewing from the mouths of ancient gamers; who feel the world went straight to hell with the advent of the CD-ROM. Whenever I read a post about how video games achieved perfection in the days of the SNES, I swear I can hear the Righteous Brothers singing "Unchained Melody" at a doo-wop concert.
The irony of this way of thinking is readily apparent when these 'fathers' of gaming talk of whatever new console is on the horizon. "Hey, this new Game Cube is soooo mega powerful, I can't wait to see the new Mario game! I hope they do it just like the original!" Excuse me? JUST LIKE the original? Well, in that case I have a mint condition NES sitting underneath my spare tire and its yours for only $299 (add-ons sold separately)! Give me a break! The reason we get so excited at the launch of new systems like the PS2, and the inevitable PS3, is because we want to see new things in gaming. We want to experience something new with each new era, and to attempt to hold the industry back with tired old remakes of a plumber who must now be in his 70's is not only illogical, its downright sad. Why is it that we couldn't stand the Taco Bell Chihuahua after only a few years, yet some of us long for Mario 45, the Super-duper-mega-Mario-world?
Just like every form of art or expression, whether music, movies, or poetry, gaming has evolved with the times. One of the ways in which games have evolved is by becoming more dynamic, more cinematic in their approach. What many people don't understand is that games used to be a lot longer than they needed to, because with their limited presentation, the only way to increase their value was to add more and more gameplay. Extras like side-quests, or 'Easter eggs', secrets that could only be unlocked after searching the same areas for hours on end like a grandpa with Alzheimer's, were the only ways to add redeeming qualities to a game, because until recently, games had a hard time telling a traditional story. Do any of us know why Princess Peach is so enamored with a dirty little plumber named Mario, or why Samus Aran travels to distant planets to fight aliens that seem to have no other purpose than to be in her way? That is because it wasn't until the past few years that gamers were given the ability to experience their art form in some other way than the dreaded 'implied story', a failing that still plagues certain genres like fighters.
So what is the point of this gaming evolution? It is that as technology advances, so do the ways in which a developer can tell his story, in which he can emote and express himself. In doing so, games have become much more dynamic, and therefore require less fill time to add to their value. This usually goes against a gamer's logic that good games by definition are long, and full of little extras. Obviously, there are certain genres, such as RPGs, that not only require longer plot lines and extra quests, but are that much better because of them, due to their epic nature. Obviously, I don't expect the mysteries of Cloud Strife's troubled past, as well as his sacrilegious connection to Sephiroth to be adequately explained in 5 hours. However, games such as Capcom's Devil May Cry, and Konami's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty actually benefit from much tighter, more focused stories. I vividly remember my purchase of the original MGS, as I was looking for something to pass the time until I could pick up my reserved copy of Vagrant Story. The game store clerk strongly advised against purchasing the game due to the fact that I would most likely beat it in 15 hours or so. At the time, I was a working man who did not have time to sit in front of a TV for 50 hours a week, so a 15-hour game seemed like a blessing in disguise. I am convinced to this very day that the clerk in that store has never seen anyone whip out a wad of cash so quickly in his life, and to this day the original MGS remains an all time favorite of mine.
The meaning behind it all
As with any good story, all the strings tie together in the end, and this editorial is no exception. With the ability to understand this industry to exceptional standards, coupled with the evolution that is sweeping games in the modern era, there is one truth to behold- shorter, more dynamic games are here to stay, and in short time they will become the mainstay of this industry. With upcoming games that are still in development becoming more centered upon than their currently released colleagues, no one has the luxury of not knowing what they are buying into. Who can honestly say they felt MGS2 to be a 40-hour melodrama? We all saw the screens, the clips, and we all knew what we were plopping down our money for. Anyone who feels cheated out of their money with that game probably knows exactly what Bill Clinton meant when he tried to tell us that he and the luscious Monica Lewinsky never did the horizontal hokey pokey- both know better than that, and so do the rest of us.
Due to an unprecedented level of interactivity that gaming has to offer, games have the power to take us on an unbelievable ride of human emotion, ranging from the macabre to the dangerously lighthearted, never letting go until that final credit rolls up the screen. Why would we be willing to sacrifice that, giving up that which is held dear to all gamers hearts- an epic story that bewilders, confounds, compels, and entices us with never before realized insight? Games like ICO might not take 2 months of leveling up and Soul Reaver 2 might not contain an acceptable amount of supercilious side quests. However, they can raise the hair on our necks like a cobweb in a haunted house if we let them, and is that not their true purpose? Games are supposed to fascinate the mind, not dominate the mundane routine that many games would have us embrace.
Besides, value is really what we are looking for in our games, a reason to keep them on the shelf. How much value is there to a game that would require yet another 40 hours of your life, compared to one that can be played through and enjoyed in a weekend? Would you rather blitz through another run with MGS2, or spend 10 hours leveling up in FFVIII just to see the next cutscene? I for one am not keen on the idea of dedicating a weekend to a one particular aspect of a game, especially when I have already beaten it. Before I start receiving hate mail, I should point out that my favorite series of all time is Squaresoft's Final Fantasy, and as an ardent fan of the RPG, I both praise and respect the merits of the genre. It is replay value, however, in which games like Final Fantasy X truly suffer, and where other genres are more geared towards creating a longer shelf life for themselves. While a good RPG is most definitely worth its price tag, there is little motivation to go through the entire game again once completed.
While there may be the occasional 40 year old who has nothing better to do than sit on his ever widening backside playing the same game over and over, I am a man with a life to live. I don't plan on wasting it on one game, let alone an industry full of them. I am a man of the future, and so are the games, so anyone who tries to tell me otherwise is just a guy who walks to school in a blizzard, uphill both ways while... you get the point.
2/16/2002 Ryan Hartmann