Game releases can be expensive affairs. Especially when a bunch of them all come at once, something that often happens during the holiday season. Because of this, players want to get the biggest bang for their buck, which is often measured in terms of how many hours they can get out of an experience. However, in an industry where short but sweet indie titles are a prevalent pillar, should a game’s length have an affect on its score?
It’s a question that often surfaces following the release of a game that nobody expected to be quite as short as it turned out to be. Take a look at The Order: 1886 or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan as two prime examples. Both games released not living up anywhere near to the expectations set for them by fans, and critic scores were far below what was expected. Though both games certainly had problems other than their length, this was an issue noted in a number of reviews for each game. Although it has to be said, Mutants in Manhattan’s three-hour campaign suffered far worse than The Order: 1886’s.
Both of these games’ shortness was criticized for different reasons, though: Mutants in Manhattan was, simply put, shockingly short for what was retailing as a $50 game. It had an abundance of other issues that culminated in its low review scores, too. Similarly, The Order: 1886 had other issues that it needed to address, but in terms of the length of its campaign, it just didn’t make the most of its lore-rich world. Too many stones were left unturned, which, when combined with the lackluster gameplay left a bitter taste in the mouth of many gamers.
Saying that, a short game that gets to the point and tells its story in a few hours like Gone Home is much preferred over a game like Alien Isolation that, at 13 hours long, overstayed its welcome. Of course, that’s not to say that every game that offers a lengthy single-player campaign goes on for too long. The likes of The Witcher 3 and Skyrim can be played for hundreds of hours, during which the player can live in a fully-realized world where their actions and the choices they make within the campaign have an effect on the world around them and the outcome of the story. As long as a game’s story is told within a length of time that suits it, then the amount of hours you spend with a game’s single-player campaign has no effect on how compelling an experience it is.
On the other hand, players (and critics) often want to see a game that offers value for money. Many of the games that tend to do well critically and are on the short side in comparison to your traditional gaming experiences are priced as such. However, value is in the eye of the beholder and so the amount you paid for a game doesn’t necessarily have to correlate with the amount of hours you pour into an experience. A game can tell a beautifully crafted story, within a stunning, well-designed world and come in at around three hours. Take Firewatch, Gone Home, and Oxenfree as examples.
Though pricing shouldn’t play a significant role, or any role at all, in the review process of a game, it more often than not becomes a hot topic within the industry. Games that offer 10-hour campaigns such as say, Halo 5, or most of the Uncharted series retailing at $60 often go unnoticed, because they’re great games. On the other hand, recent RPG release Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness offers a campaign over double the length, but doesn’t feel polished enough to be considered a great game. The bigger a project is, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a high level of quality throughout, and only some studios can pull this off. With that in mind, the question should therefore be posed: Would you rather pay $60 for a quality 10-hour adventure with something like Rise of the Tomb Raider, or the same amount for a sub-par 20+ hours with Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness? Quality should always come before quantity and thus should reign supreme when it comes down to review scoring.
With that being said, indie developers should be praised for their releases. Short indie experiences such as Firewatch or Gone Home, offer some of the greatest, most thought-provoking, and emotional time that can be spent playing games. Despite their short length, indie games are more and more commonly being seen as masters in their genre at storytelling, visuals, or simply enjoyable or engaging gameplay. They may not offer the hugest worlds, complex systems, or have the most state-of-the-art engines, but this allows their stories to be more hard-hitting and impactful than some AAA-titles. Take Fallout 4, for example. It’s a great technical achievement and you can spend hundreds of hours exploring the wasteland, but at the end of it all, what do you take away from your time spent with it? On the flipside, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Journey can leave you feeling pretty damn emotional, making you realize you should be grateful for those you have around you and to make the most of the time you have with them.
Simply put, different stories take different amounts of time to play out. This isn’t a bad thing for the industry, in fact, it’s quite the contrary. Short experiences allow the player to experience the entirety of something in one sitting, just like a movie does. On the other hand, a TV series such as Breaking Bad tells a more complex story, over a much larger amount of time. As long as the quality of the final product is good, it shouldn’t matter whether a game takes three hours or 30 hours to complete. Giving players the variety to pick and choose their experiences is exactly what the industry needs, and isn’t something the developers who are offering these shorter games shouldn’t be criticized for doing so. It’s the right thing to do by their games and they should be encouraged, not dissuaded from doing so.