You know what I love? Short games. Games that aren’t bloated with content simply because games are apparently meant to be long. Games that know they can say what they want to say in a matter of hours or, sometimes, a matter of minutes, and are all the more powerful for it. I love the games that are only as long as they need to be.
I don’t know when it was decided that a good game must be a long game. I can remember reading game reviews when I was a kid in the 90s that rated a game’s “lastability” or similarly ghastly made up words. The longer a game is, the better it must be. The shorter a game, the worse it must be. This isn’t judging a book by its cover; this is judging a book by its thickness. I guess when a single game is going to cost several months of pocket money, you want that game to last for a long time. That makes sense. The problem is that over the years this has translated into an idea that a game’s length is synonymous with its quality.
But this clearly isn’t the case. Some of my richest gaming memories of the last year are from games I could finish in one sitting. In the past week, I’ve played two games that have each taken me less than fifteen minutes to get from start to end: Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia, and Blendo Games’s 30 Flights of Loving. Each of these games, in its own way, offered an incredibly rich experience that I won’t soon forget regardless of (or, perhaps, thanks to) the brief length of time it took me to play them.
Anthropy’s Dys4ia uses a retro, WarioWare aesthetic to tell the player a deeply personal story about something that Anthropy herself has gone through. Over four very brief chapters, the game sets up a conflict that the player can comprehend, challenges and anguish that the player can feel, and, finally, a sense of hope that the player can share in.
30 Flights of Loving, meanwhile, uses filmic cuts to tell an equal parts simple and confusing story of a heist gone wrong. It throws the player from scene to scene, across space and time in a confusing and disorientating way. It doesn’t waste time telling the player what order the scenes are meant to be in or who these people are or what this world is. It wants you out as quickly as it pulled you in. But for all its haste, I was still able to feel a connection to this world and its characters. I felt my avatar’s relationship with his woman accomplice far more strongly than any dozen-hour-long romance option I’ve had to slave away over in a AAA game.
What’s special about both of these games, I think, isn’t that they are incredibly short. Rather, it’s that they are exactly as long as they need to be to do what they want to do. Both are capable of doing what they want to do in minutes, so why bloat them with hours of unnecessary content?
‘Long enough’ is going to be different for each game. Dear Esther takes me about ninety minutes each time I play. The Unfinished Swan takes me about two hours. Both these games are perfect at this length. Dear Esther could always add more jaw-dropping scenery, or The Unfinished Swan could have more mind-boggling puzzles, but they don’t need to. Each is just long enough to do what it wants to do.
Of course, all these examples are independently developed games with smaller price tags. What about the big AAA games that still cost upwards of $60? Should we be able to demand that these games have a certain length? It’s something I’m in two minds about. On one hand, I’d like to think I was paying money for quality, not quantity. But on the other hand, if I finished a $100 game in fifteen minutes, I’d be pretty disappointed.
Yet, one of my favourite AAA games of the past year, Spec Ops: The Line, only takes about five hours to complete. Again, it is just the length it needs to be and doesn’t waste any time with content that it doesn’t need just for the sake of being longer.
Ultimately, it is a case by case thing. There will always be games that we will rightly expect dozens (maybe hundreds) of hours of gameplay out of — our RPGs and our open-worlds and our MMOs. I love having a single, massive game that I can absolutely lose myself in for days, weeks, months on end. But it’s the other end of the scale I’ve really come to appreciate in recent times. The games I can just sit down with and play and be done with after one session. The games that aren’t a slow submersion but a sudden splash of cold water to the face.
And they are all the more memorable for this. The suddenness of these experiences, the immediacy of them, ingrain them onto my mind, giving me memories and sensations that other games take dozens of hours to engrave. That’s why I love short games. As I grow up and find myself with less and less free time, I love that there are developers exploring the other end of the spectrum, getting straight to the point and seeing just how much can be done with so little.