Of my living years, 1994 is the first I remember as An Epic Year For Gaming. Up until this point I had dabbled in a handful of computer adventure games that my parents bought and the limited pile of NES games I had: Super Mario Bros., Jeopardy!, The Empire Strikes Back and Blades of Steel to name a few. My horizons were about to expand on Christmas of 1993: I received a Sega Genesis.
As a result of this almost every game that I experienced on Genesis was funneled into that year, whether it was released during or prior to 1994. That year lasted an eternity, and I thought it would never change.
It began, of course, with the “free” game that came bundled with the system, Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I actually didn’t much care for that one, but instead really got into playing my Genesis when its sequel came out a few months later; yes, predictably it was titled Sonic the Hedgehog 3. That was the game which legitimized my unplugging of the NES and less time spent computing with SimCity 2000.
What followed Sonic 3 was a ridiculous salvo of goodness that lead me on a gaming odyssey: Mortal Kombat I and II, NHL 94/95, Super Street Figter II Turbo, ToeJam & Earl, Earthworm Jim, Sonic & Knuckles, Jurassic Park and World of Illusion, to name some of many.
Looking back, no, none of those are particularly “barn burning,” but they served quite well a 10-year-old kid. Those games mentioned are just a small handful, yes, but they saw a lot of replay time from me and my friends. I never owned more than 8 Genesis games. None of them were particularly long either; at this point in time it was more commonplace in video games to tackle the short form of storytelling, if they had a story at all. There were of course exceptions: early computer role-playing and text-based adventure games were among the more likely genres of the long form. Sports games, fighting games, city-building strategy games, platforming action and adventure games: these were very popular genres when I was younger, and what they all had in common was utilizing several well put together mechanics, and re-using those over and over to create a full length game, whether it tried to attempt storytelling or not.
In 1994 the video gaming concept may have been around for decades, but in execution it had not been in very widespread consumption for long at that point. The 1970s introduced arcades to a lot of youngsters and the 1980s just cracked the tip of the iceberg by bringing gaming into homes with the popularity of the Famicom and Super Mario Bros., to put it succinctly. In 1994 that puts the average age of a gamer somewhere around 20 years old; I think that is a fair guess. There would certainly be many younger, like myself, and also some older, but for the sake of the point I am slowly driving towards, I say during this time that most were late teens or early twenty-somethings.
Now, late teens or twenty-somethings are typically in the midst of college/university, or starting out in a shitty job. Typically. What that lends to them is time. Most shit-paying jobs don’t come home with you, and post-secondary school, especially in those early years and first go-rounds, definitely doesn’t come home with you oftentimes, whether that’s for good or bad. Game developers surely knew this; they knew fairly well their target audiences. Gaming wasn’t the money-hungry vampire that it is today: developers strove to give you value for your money, earning them good reviews, and hopefully future work. What constituted value in 1994? Quantity. Now, please realize I am speaking generally here, and not prescribing one holistic view of the industry. But very often value was married with quantity. Repetitive quantity. Think of those sports and fighting and ring/coin- finding games. This is not a slight to developers of the time; it’s just my perceived reality, and I think for a time it worked.
Why did those games work in 1994, that Epic Year For Gaming? The average gamer had nothing else to do, except ignore their homework, remember to buy cola at the store and keep that [insert pizza delivery joint here] telephone number handy. Fast-forward to today, it’s 2010, we could now look back at the video game creator of 1994 and say “Oh sir, how far we have evolved from your kind; if only I could send a letter back with the DeLorean to warn you in advance of all our advances, we could save so much time, but I digress. I’ll see you when you get here.”
Except that, well… we really cannot say that at all. It would be disingenuous to do so. With history on our side it would be unfair to lie to the Creator in 1994. We could tell him that the Creator in 2010 is a different person. We could do this, but it would be untrue. It is untruth to say such because the Creator in 2010 is exactly the same person they were in 1994. Yes, his machines and tools are more capable now, his physique more mature, his hair cut a mite more respectable. But his mind? To be honest, it hasn’t developed a day past 1994. The Creator is making the same games that were being made in 1994, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.
I have a message for you, Creator: your mind must move on. I don’t dispute you; in fact I agree with you: 1994 was truly An Epic Year For Gaming, but even Epic Years come to an end. I am only one person, but I speak on the behalf of many others, even if they do not yet realize it. The Gamer of 2010 is not the Gamer of 1994. He graduated from college or learned a trade; he even recycled all those pizza boxes, cut his hair, moved out of his parents’ basement, bought a place of his own, met a girl (or guy), maybe even had a family and is trying to hold down a job. All the while he has continued to exchange money for the games you make. He makes numerous concessions in his day to day life to maintain a relationship with you.
Here is my question, Creator: what the hell have you done for him?!
An Offering of Advice
That was quite an introduction, and I really do apologize for that (sort of). It is of course time to explain myself. What I mean when I say that we’re seeing the same games in 2010 that we were seeing in 1994 is that there is no evolution of the core; of the brain of gaming. We’re basically seeing the same shit as we were then, and since we have ridiculous, always-improving high definition graphics which just drives our lust for more, why improve elsewhere, right? It’s as if since 1994 we have replaced our outdated armor many, many times; each iteration being slightly shinier, heftier, perhaps with an extra pocket here or there and a feather in the cap, but under this exterior the constitution, charisma, and intelligence remains unchanged. Underneath lies a weak and stupid being.
Most games aren’t much smarter to me now than they were before. Nor are they crafted with a large chunk of their growing audience in mind. If the average gamer 16 years ago was a late teen or early twenty-something then today they are in their mid-thirties. There is a lot of difference between the two. I’m barely halfway between those markers myself and can already attest to this. Gamers are growing up, this is constant; the games they have to play are so often not following them in this regard: they seem unable to accept their dawning adulthood. As an adult the one thing I increasingly have less and less of is time. Insomuch that my longest playing sessions these days is typically an hour, give or take. There comes the odd 2-4 hour weekend “marathon” that is allowed, but these are rare, and even when available not as desirable as they once were. I am not the exception, ask anyone and this seems the rule. When chatting with friends about playing games now that we are in our twenties and thirties, the conversation almost always seems to center around the premise of “making time for games in our lives.” I ask this: why don’t games adapt to “make time for us,” so to speak?
In my eyes the most recent Epic Year For Gaming was 2007. One very important contribution toward that was a game called Portal. Maybe you have heard of it? Portal was supposed to be somewhat of an afterthought, this of course because it was delivered via The Orange Box, a 5-for-1 package which also included the previously released Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, and the long-awaited Team Fortress 2. Four great games that could very well have overshadowed Portal, and were expected to…..but didn’t. It showed, once again, that Valve were brilliant, that games could have a sense of humour, that blah, blah, blah, blah…
To me, however, it showed that mainstream games could very well be successful and short at the same time. I mean very short. Took-me-4-hours-to-complete-it short. I was appreciative of this. In those 4 short, extremely enjoyable hours the developers got their point across to me, showed off all their tricks and their wit, pulled the rug out from under me for just a second, introduced an actual story into the game in the last act (to be fair it was there the whole time for those paying close attention), finally climaxing and going out in a blaze of hilarious glory. And then those immortal credits rolled. All within about 4 hours. Nothing about the game was repetitive: there was a steady yet well-paced learning curve; learn then apply, learn then apply, is how the game went. That’s how a game should present itself to the user. Continuously learning how to do new things, never having time to become bored.
I think that is the major flaw of most contemporary games: developers have somewhere between one and four great ideas. These ideas, with skilled hands, could be successfully presented to the gamer probably within a span of five hours, and that is even a forgiving estimate. I fear for Portal 2, I really do. Now that the bloodsuckers have sunk their jaws into it I fully expect that Valve feel they need to churn out a “full length game,” which is fucking ridiculous if you ask me. But please, prove me wrong, Valve. Portal is what I call a “full quality game.” You can keep your full length.
Of course right now I can hear you asking, “What are you talking about ‘major flaw’? The gaming industry is thriving now more than ever. Games today are amazing. Your ideas are poorly thought out, good sir.” Though that is assuming you have the decency to refer to me as “good sir.” Ahem, anyhow, my response to your question follows thus. I know you don’t see it, maybe not right now; it can be hard to see when big players like IGN and Gamespot seem to never produce a score outside the 70-90% range. For the average casual or even semi-hardcore gaming crowd who flock to these power houses of internet gaming criticism they might think we were in some Golden Age of Gaming, when practically every third game is “a sprawling epic masterpiece.” Excuse me while I roll my eyes. My point being, many of the games that you are playing are just a few clever mechanics perpetuated ad nauseam.
Grand Theft Auto IV, for example: during the opening credits and first fifteen minutes of play I thought to myself this game might change my life. Two hours later I wanted to kill Niko Bellic and everyone who ever laid eyes upon his visage. I knew for certain the game would bring heaping doses of pain when I saw there was an achievement for beating the game in less than 30 hours. Christ, if beating the game in under 30 hours is a fucking achievement then shoot me now.
Another example is the much acclaimed Dead Space: this one is fresh in my mind, I just finished it. For the first time, yes. I started playing it on October 31, 2008. I completed it on July 5, 2010. Okay, I certainly wasn’t playing it that entire time; I stopped and resumed probably over the course of several weeks combined as it suited my current tastes and held– or failed to hold– my attention. But bloody hell. It fits into my prototypical example of a game that is just too goddamn long. I will sum up my feelings with a revisit of each chapter. [Spoilers abound] Introduction: “Sweet, another space ship that sacrifices hull integrity for a kick-ass aquarium-style front window. Bless you, science fiction!” Chapter 1: “I think I’m actually sweating on my controller, and this useless plasma cutter as my only weapon makes for a pretty intense scramble against these evolution-defying monstrosities.” Chapters 2-4: “My allies are paper thin, and there doesn’t seem to be much variety in the foes or bloodstains strewn casually about, but I’ll give it some time.” Chapter 5: “I really enjoy the zero-gravity moments, why are there so few of them? It’s like Prey, but not total shit.” Chapters 6-8: “This game is really boring, and it’s pretty obvious that Hammond is the bad guy.” Chapter 9: “Kill me, this game is so terrible. And Hammond died, I guess he wasn’t the bad guy. And why does my girlfriend keep appearing places all creepy like? Does she even like me? I’ll never know, Isaac Clarke is a mute.” Chapter 10: “This may be the first genuinely creepy chapter since the first…..no, I take that back, it’s quite repetitive.” Chapter 11: “OMFG, the end is within sight, and this chapter is more like a short bridge to the next, we’re finally getting somewhere.” Chapter 12: “This is pretty stupid, I’ve moved this marker thing into three rooms now and every time a bunch of stupid monsters just jump out of vents and pathetically attempt to impede my progress. My once-futile weapon is now a God Among Space Engineer Tools and it really shreds them to pieces with minimal effort; why do they try?” Endgame: “Wow, that was the easiest boss fight ever, and a sad attempt at epic. And that ‘twist’ ending stolen straight out of F.E.A.R. which was itself stolen from a million other things? Terrible. And Nicole was dead the whole time, as were the colonists? Were the monstrosities dead, too? Was I dead? Who cares. Well, I guess I’ll play Dead Space 2? I hope it’s called Dead Space 2: Get Deader.” [End of not-that-interesting-anyway spoilers]
I can make examples of a plethora of games in the same boat but I won’t beat an already very, very dead horse here.
Over the last three years, let’s say, I would cite these 5 (mainstream) games as my favourites to be released during that time: Portal, Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Call of Duty 4 and Braid. Those games share something in common. With the exception of TF2, which can’t accurately be quantified, they are all short and sweet. Subscribers to the “less is more” philosophy. Portal and Braid both clocking in their extremely satisfying adventures around 4 hours, and HL2: E2 and CoD4 around the 5-6 mark, they get the job done. Satisfying gameplay, respectable stories, and engaging action there is not much more to ask of these vignettes, if I can call them so (comparatively to the norm). Sadly, none of them were praised for this reason. Portal was praised for its humorous antagonist, Braid for its beautiful artwork, Call of Duty 4 for its multi-player component, and Episode Two… well, actually that wasn’t really praised so much. I think people complained that it was too short. My aim isn’t to take credit from those other praised aspects, which receive it deservedly so. I only wish to have a less-is-more approach considered a worthy entrant to the “things to praise in games” club.
I know I’m dreaming here. The reality is that publishers are out to make money. And how do they make money? By selling $60 games. Sure, the odd independent developers who put out stuff like Braid and World of Goo can make a profit by charging just $12 or $20 a pop, respectfully, but that would be one hell of a turn for the mainstream publishing industry to accept: to just arise one day and experience a Scrooge-like awakening. But can I not dream? It is possible, just faraway and difficult. And I’m by no means saying that the long form of gaming is dead or should cease to be. I would never postulate such a thing. The world needs its Fallout 3s and Dragon Age: Origins; I simply argue that there should be a place for the developer to bring to life his or her one brilliant idea, execute it in an hour of gameplay, and still receive mainstream and critical press for it.
Obviously this concept is already alive in the hearts and minds of independent developers: we see brilliant stuff like Every Day the Same Dream, thoughtful art games like Today I Die, or short satire like Starfeld and Life is Hard. The difference is that these games are not widely accepted as games. Even the more quantitative independent games sometimes suffer from this plight, and so people see fit to pay nothing for them too. This is evidenced by how many people stole the Humble Indie Bundle via Bit-torrent. They couldn’t even be bothered to pay $0.01 for it. That’s how apparently worthless it is to them. Yet I’m sure many of the same were some of the millions who flocked to spend $15 on three new Modern Warfare 2 maps, which in my opinion is the equivalent of a shit stain compared to all the above mentioned independently created games.
If someone asked me, “Would you rather pay $10 to experience Every Day the Same Dream or have every game currently on shelves at your local BestBuy for free?” it would be a simple choice to take the former. That’s how desperate I am for any semblance of thought-provocation or introspection that a game can offer me, all neatly wrapped up in a lunch break. I would rather have that tiny gem than all the bloated mediocrity being fed to us.
In summation: gaming industry, please be more accepting of short games. Perhaps you could charge $20-30 for them? I bet you would even make a profit. If I’m wrong I’ll take you out for dinner, your choice of eatery.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I do realize the irony of writing a hideously long and in places unkempt article in argument for “short and sweet” games. There was no other way.
Certainly I know I am not alone in this line of thought. With days only getting shorter I don’t even want to imagine how little time I will have to balance all the 20-60 hour click- and tap-a-thons as my duties in this thing called “real life” continue to expand in the future. I’d be truly appreciative if every now and then someone came along and gave me a tasty three hour sandwich of gaming goodness. Is it a deal?
What are your thoughts, if you have any left after reading this torrential spilling of the brain and opening of the mouth?
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.