Size Matters, But Not the Way You Think

This past weekend I played and finished Divinity II: Ego Dragonis, the first long-form fantasy RPG I’ve followed through to completion in years. It’s not exactly that Divinity II is the best RPG I’ve played in the past few years, though it was a fine example of the form and did a lot of things that I really liked. It was more that the stars aligned in just the right way to keep me interested and with enough time to follow the game down its long and winding road.

The truth is you would need all of your digits and maybe a friend’s as well to count the number of major RPG games I’ve dabbled in for a little while and then unceremoniously dumped like a jilted lover. Even Dragon Age 2, which I really did enjoy, is still waiting deep in the final act of the game to have its last half dozen or so hours played out to some kind of closure. There should be a support group for all the RPGs I’ve left without explanation, often when things seemed to be going so well and we were just really getting to know each other. Among its sad membership would be counted the likes of Dragon Age Origins, Planescape Torment, both Baldur’s Gates, a handful of Final Fantasies, both The Witchers and every Elder Scrolls game made.

Sorry, RPGs. It’s not you. It’s me.

It’s not even a phenomenon localized to role playing games, I’ve been every bit as neglectful to other genres and flavors of gaming. My Steam list of games is a hall of shame of unfinished games left out in the cold, a digital realization of the island of misfit toys. And in almost all cases the shared sin is the same. The games were just too damned long.

I received a question on Twitter the other day following a comment about Deus Ex. The person said after 20 hours of play they had gotten to place X (redacted for those of you who haven’t played Deus Ex -- just go play it damn it) and they had the sense that there was still a lot of game left. And, they were right. They were only about halfway through. When I confirmed the questionably bad news, the response was one of wavering resolve; a comment about being spoiled on the modern ten hour game. Well you and me both, pal.

I understand, I genuinely do, those who love to get 40, 50, 80, 100 hours of fun out of a $50 investment. I’m an old school gamer, the kind that dropped endless quarters into Time Pilot and Dig Dug in the arcade next to my local Winn Dixie supermarket as a boy before going home to get in some bonus time with Telengard on my Apple II, so I know the legacy of the medium because I have lived it. PC games of yore were just long as a rule, whether they were RPGs, adventure games or even shooters. That’s just sort of how we did it back in the old days. It wasn’t a PC game if it didn’t take you a work week to finish.

That was fine for me at the time, partly because I was creeping up on my tenth birthday and had some time to kill and partly because as a kid I could really only afford a game every few months or so. The economics of the situation are different when you are ten than when you are forty, and to pretend otherwise would be silly. That said, I sympathize with those who either through necessity or self-imposed rule, limit their game purchases to one every other month or so in this modern era of shorter games that are barely longer than a Robert Altman film, but I am not counted among your fraternity. No, now with all the trappings of adulthood, my currencies have flip-flopped. Where once I enjoyed a relative wealth of time but not of currency, now the opposite is sort of true.

But, it would be disingenuous to say that the reason I didn’t finish Dragon Age 2 is that I ran out of time. It’s not like there was some kind of timelock on the software that said if I don’t finish by some arbitrary date then the files will self destruct.That game is still sitting there on my machine ready to pick up right where we left off. A deficit of time shouldn’t mean I don’t finish my game, it should just mean it takes me more days to get to the end than it used to, but as we’ve already established that’s not true.

No, my real problem is that with only a few exceptions I don’t have the attention span or even the desire to remain focused on one game for too long. Sure, I’m a recovering World of Warcraft addict with *mumble mumble* hours spent in the wilds of Azeroth, so why not save *mumble mumble* dollars in subscription fees and polish off some of these classic RPGs instead? Well, because, WoW doesn’t require the same level of attention and dedication. WoW isn’t one long thread of story and development told over all those hours, it’s more like an ever changing game that is reinventing itself with each level and each zone. It doesn’t ask me to follow the thread of a bloated story that often seems to be going nowhere, it just says “hey, if you go kill a bunch of mutated wolves, I’ll give you this cool sword and then you can go about whatever other business you’ve got planned.”

To ask why if I can play that much WoW then why can’t I finish Planescape may seem like a legitimate question, but it is exactly as flawed as asking why someone who loved Planescape isn’t naturally addicted to WoW. They just aren’t the same.

So, for me, a seven or eight hour game is just about ideal. Time after time these kinds of games deliver a tight, focused and condensed story that I can follow from A to B without having my age-addled mind become distracted. I am, I admit, part of the problem. I want the sophistication and spectacle that comes with multi-million dollar budgets, and I want the brevity and density that comes with a well crafted 8 or 10 hour game. For a lot of my generation, this kind of deficit of attention is if not medical then criminal. It represents a reduction of the form and a loss of value. It is anathema.

I suppose we agree on at least the principle that size matters. We just don’t agree on whether big or small is better. As for me, I’m on Team Small.


I wonder if I would finish Planescape: Torment if it were released today. It took me 3 friggin' months to get through Dragon Age + Awakenings.

plavonica wrote:

Not less content but less filler. Does a game really need to be 40 hours of epic storytelling if 25 hours of it are filler? If a game can legitimately cram 40 hours of good story in without any filler and actually be well written I will stick with it to the end, not because I feel the need to justify the expenditure of either my money or the writers efforts but because I want to see how it works out.

I agree, but then that really makes it more a problem of pacing than length.

This generation has proven to be my shangri la of video gaming. Like so many others here, life dominates me. I rarely get to play anything I purchase. Sometimes, I will excitedly make a purchase on Steam, only to be pulled away during the download, and not come back to it for 1-2 months.

I have now finally beaten the disease. I am no longer driven to keep up with the Jones. Dragon Age 2, the Witcher 2, pretty much anything in the past year (this has been a relatively new breakthrough for me) -- I have enjoyed living vicariously through everyone on GwJ and the GwJ podcast -- experiencing the thrill of first week play-through.

I now know, fully, completely, without question, that that $60 game WILL one day be $5 to $10 dollars on some download service in about a year, and when it is, I can purchase it and play my 1-2 hours without guilt of spending $60, and not loading it up for 3 months after downloading.

Something that strikes me is that video games have a unique problem with this compared to other media, the player has control and being an active medium, needs to make effort to progress. Compared to a movie or book the viewer just sits in front of a screen for two hours and pays attention, or gives a book enough time to read and absorb it, a game involves not only the gameplay bit, but often extracting out the story from the world than it being told to you.

In other news, I really need to find my CD and finish the last half-hour of the original Deus Ex.

I put 60 hours into finishing The Witcher last month.

This month I've got 120 hours into Fallout: New Vegas and I'm neither done nor tired of it.

Clearly I'm on Team Large.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

I put 60 hours into finishing The Witcher last month.

This month I've got 120 hours into Fallout: New Vegas and I'm neither done nor tired of it.

Clearly I'm on Team Large. ;)


Tangle said it, I didn't!!


That's primarily only a problem if you consider a game as a medium for telling a story. I don't. I don't look for a story in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, nor in Street Fighter 4. You could make the argument that they're "different games," and you'd be right. They are different games - for different gamers.

The problem is primarily in the body of games like Mass Effect, where the story is good enough that it attracts the kind of gamer who plays games for story purposes, though I cannot presume to understand why that same gamer doesn't just read a book. Something about the narrative poewr of agency, I suppose. All that said, Mass Effect is also a fairly complex action game founded on Gears of War inspired TPS - it is that game which I played, and to gamers such as I, it's almost only incidental that a nice story was going on in the background.

I think that a fair number of developers (and none too few reviewers, I'm sure) get confused because they do not understand that for gamers like me, it's the gameplay that counts.

Companies like Vanillaware get it. Muramasa, by many accounts, was outstandingly punishing for most reviewers. I personally found it on the easy side. The game was pretty; but more than that, it was a varied and interesting 2D brawler - the best I've played in recent memory, all the more because it wasn't a button masher at all. You button-mash on Shura, you die, as many reviewers found to their frustration.

A person like me will "grind" for hundreds of hours in battles which have only the most superficial of narrative justifications, hardly paying attention to plot holes the size of Jupiter, and without any attention to pacing. I don't care. We don't care. To us, the game is all.

But it follows that in order to cater to a gameplay-focused gamer, the gameplay must be interesting enough and complex enough.


If you're a developer and you have a really good yarn for which you will sac gameplay, then you need to focus on the narrative strength of your product. Conversely, a product banking on its gameplay aspects does not need to have a good narrative, or even to be paced well, as good pacing and an abundance of gameplay opportunities are often mutually exclusive qualities.