The release of Ready at Dawn’s The Order 1886 has sparked a debate on whether the game’s shockingly brief singleplayer-only gameplay was worth the full $60 price tag. Many eagerly anticipating the game’s release were worried when a leaked playthrough showed that over the course of its brief five hour campaign, 1886’s only had about three hours of actual gameplay at the most; the rest was comprised of cutscenes and QTEs. Upon release, many reviewers were divided on whether this lack of content mattered. Some said that it did, while others said that the game’s stellar storytelling and visuals nullified its lack of content.
Here’s the thing: game length does matter. In fact, it matters quite a lot with certain genres of games. Fighting games can get away with this because no two matches are ever alike; there are always new moves to try out, new combinations to learn and such. However, for games such as 1886 that wish to take players on a journey in which there is a clear progression of events, length absolutely does matter.
Videogames have often been compared to movies, and in fact there are select games out there that have mimicked the aesthetics and structure of a movie. These are games like Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. The key difference between videogames and movies, however, is that in movies you are simply watching things unfold before you, whereas in videogames you are a direct participant in the events of the story.
Movies rely on editing, flashbacks and flashforwards, and other filmmaking techniques to tell their stories in a timely manner, so as not to bore the audience. We don’t want the film to convey every single moment of the protagonist’s life because we are observers looking in from the outside. Who wants to see Jack Bauer, for example, taking a dump or a nap? Granted, after nine seasons of watching him running around, there are probably a few viewers who do, but in general, we watch shows like 24 because they spoon feed us the story and work tirelessly to compel us.
Videogames like 1886 are different because we are not observers in the story; we are the actors in them. The whole point of videogames is to make us feel as though we are in the game world, directly influencing the story in every way imaginable. There are many ways that videogames make us invested in their story and characters, but one key element in doing that is to ensure that the game length is long enough for players to immerse themselves in the roles they’ve been assigned. When we take on the role of a character and truly inhabit it, we need to feel like we’ve lived in that role for a substantial amount of time in order to feel truly immersed.
A lot of triple A videogames like Call of Duty and, of course, 1886, try to make up for their brief story campaigns with Hollywood-grade visuals and massive setpieces. This would be fine if we didn’t already live in a society in which Hollywood-grade visuals and massive setpieces have become cliched and boring. You’ll notice lately that more and more people are abandoning the cinemas to watch TV shows on Netflix like House of Cards and Breaking Bad, investing entire days to absorb whole seasons of those shows. That’s because the tide is turning with audience expectations. People are starting to realize that fancy special effects and glamorous actors can never hold a candle to quality storytelling. Shows like House of Cards don’t have car chases, endless explosions and gunfights; what they have instead are a compelling cast and most crucially, a story that gives itself plenty of room to breathe.
As a medium that by its very nature requires a considerable amount of investment on the player’s part, videogames should allow for an ample amount of time for such an investment to fully mature. A fantastic example of this is 1998’s Half Life. The main character, Gordon Freeman, never said a word, and yet he remains as one of the most beloved videogame characters ever conceived. I would submit to you that this has nothing to do with his character design, but instead has everything to do with the lengthy journey players undertake as him to resolve the Black Mesa crisis. In Half Life’s single player campaign, players begin their journey peacefully on a tram ride that probably lasts longer than 1886’s campaign (okay maybe not that long, but you get the idea). From there it’s a perilous journey that has players traversing broken railway tunnels, power plants, desert canyons, clandestine research facilities, and finally, an alien dimension. By the end of the game’s story, there is a genuine sensation of having come to the end of a journey of biblical proportions, and feeling completely synonymous with the character of Gordon Freeman.
A game like 1886, with its 5 hour campaign, can never, ever hope to elicit such a sensation from its players; at best, it can make them feel like they’ve just watched an entertaining movie, soon to be forgotten and never played again once the next triple A behemoth rolls along.
Game length, as a result, is a critical component of game design that developers shouldn’t neglect. There’s no such thing as a game being too long; there are only developers who have run out of ideas and become creatively bankrupt.