In an opinion piece posted on Forbes today, Paul Tassi explores the debate of video game length, especially in regards to the recently leaked gameplay footage that clocks total time for The Order: 1886 at about five hours (the YouTube video has been since deleted, however, and Ready at Dawn has remained quiet on the issue). I thought I’d examine this article in more detail since my last post focused on a similar issue, examining it from the opposite perspective of too much story, writing about the narrative excess in Alien: Isolation–a game I found commendable in many respects, but ultimately far too long.
While Tassi reasonably wonders to what degree the retail cost of a videogame ought to factor into evaluating a game’s worth, he leaves a great many issues raised by his question unexplored.
To begin with, his metric seems to come at the cost of considering the practical considerations of videogame production. Tassi compares the $60 price tag of AAA games like The Order and Dragon Age: Inquisition to that of indie games priced at $15-20, and examines this cost difference solely at the degree of narrative length. I don’t mean to suggest that Tassi doesn’t understand that games cost money to produce, but this fact ought to be considered before one goes talking about rates like dollar per game hour.
Unlike the movie industry, game studios have much greater flexibility in pricing their games, and unlike the movie industry, where a movie ticket for an indie movie made on a shoestring budget will cost you the same as a $300 million tentpole blockbuster, suggested video game pricing categories typically reflect to some degree the development cost associated with the game. Though Tassi himself acknowledges this point, his deference to indie games is confusing then, because it’s almost as if he forgot that Indie games don’t cost less than AAA games because they typically tend to be shorter, they’re priced lower because their production budgets don’t allow them to compete graphically with the games from major studios.
There are also marketing considerations involved in this price difference. If a company spends tens of millions of dollars on a video game, it’s a given that they want to ensure its success, and one of the best ways to do this is with market saturation, which typically costs twice as much as the game’s budget. Just look at the massive marketing blitz Activision put on for Destiny, the cost of which landed in the hundreds of millions.
While no game studio would ever explicitly use marketing costs to justify game prices to gamers (nevermind that’s part of why these games are so damn expensive at retail), nor would they try the same using production costs, the cost associated with producing the game nevertheless colours the means by which these games are pitched to us for consumption. The best place to notice this trend is through video production diaries developed by these studios. Indeed, those produced by Ready at Dawn and available through the Playstation channel on Youtube subtly hint at this logic as the game developers discuss at length the exhausting detail and precision of creating this game world, from the lighting, to the costuming, music and voice acting. The point that these developers try to hammer in with each percussive note underscoring their self-directed praise is the effort–and by inevitable extension it seems, the cost–associated with making a game world this “rich”, this “alive”, one that they claim will truly push the limits of next-gen. You know the pitch.
So rather than focus on the dollar figure, developers try to ascribe value to the content offered by the game. Ready at Dawn focuses on the immersive, cinematic qualities of the game (curiously saying nothing about the length, or defending brevity in other games when the issue is raised). Other studios, meanwhile, confront game length head on and tout length as an asset. Developer’s CD Projeckt Red promise over 100 hours of gameplay for The Witcher 3, Bungie touted a much-publicized ten-year life-cycle for Destiny (which seems more hyperbolic and implausible with each passing day).
But let’s not forget it’s up to the players to decide how much they care that the game eschews multiplayer in favour of period authentic clothing (in a purposefully anachronistic Victorian London with laser guns and supernatural monsters, but let’s chalk that up to artistic license). I don’t mean to suggest that there actually was a meeting in which Ready at Dawn decided this (though I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall for that meeting if it had), my point is that the developers are nonetheless trying to sell the player on the visual spectacle associated with this game rather than gameplay modes. It’s an interesting tactic, not without merit, and I’ll be interested to see how it pans out in the next few days after the game is released.
What troubles me with all these hard-line dollar evaluations we seem to have to make here, and it can be found in both the rhetoric of game developers, and the metric of Tassi which prompted this analysis, is that none of these conversations admit any room for considering narrative mechanics. The difficulty is suggested by the very absurdity of the proposition. Indeed, how could one put a dollar figure on story and plot? What about characterization? Does having a strong, male, white hero warrant $5 of the $60 price tag? Tack on an extra 50 cents if he has a complicated, traumatic backstory and make it an even dollar if he’s tasked with saving an equally troubled young heroine?
But the point that seems to be overlooked in any of these discussions and proclamations on value and length is the aspect of story-telling. Shorter is no better than longer when it comes to narrative.
If the incomparable novelist E.M. Forster has taught me anything through his succinct works of fiction or his brilliant work on narrative craft, Aspects of the Novel, it’s that in matters of story and structure, length is proscribed according to how much or how little it is needed to satisfy the requirements of the narrative. Those conditions are set, I think, by the mind of exacting artists in absolute control of the story they wish to tell–cringe-inducing game metrics like $/hr be damned.
I’m aware that deferring to novels is impractical under these conditions. Novels are often the work of a singular mind and cost little to produce by comparison. Considerations of a novel’s financial success or failure are more elastic for that reason, and a book can be considered successful if it sells a small number of copies that would be considered disastrous if a game were to sell the same amount. While authors and publishers obviously hope that their books will sell (especially those with huge marketing campaigns, production runs and upfront deals), the massive cost of producing a film or video game places these content creators in an especially precarious position of having to submit to the dictates of the market or risk financial ruin.
I also reject Tassi’s suggestion that games ought to be a certain length given their cost. To proscribe a length seems too much like dogma than anything resembling practical advice. But this proscription is precisely what Tassi offers in his conclusion, even going so far to suggest ten hours “to be about the minimum appropriate length for a campaign or story mode in a $60 game not attached to an overwhelmingly attractive multiplayer experience like you’d find in Halo or Call of Duty”. I agree that developers ought to be cognizant of the price they’re charging for these AAA titles and produce content accordingly, but I disagree on his reasoning.
Tassi defers to comparably short games like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite as evidence that narrative games ought to shoot closer to fifteen hours than five, but even these games weren’t above adding in a few narrative non sequiturs to pad the length of the game past the ten-hour mark. In the case of Bioshock Infinite especially there were a few hours I would’ve gladly seen jettisoned, given the way they stopped the story in its tracks or sent it on wild detours. And even Tassi’s praise for the games suggests that he really isn’t so confident in his ten-hour minimum as it might seem. Indeed, acknowledging the brevity of these games, he declares that “they’ve been some of [his] favorite titles of the last few years regardless [of their length], because of how well their campaigns were designed, or how well their stories were told”. So why should the length of a game matter if the campaign is wonderfully conceived and wonderfully executed? The excessive qualifiers Tassi loads into his ten-hour proscription seems to hint at an answer. To be fair to Tassi, he’s not fiercely advocating anything about what games ought to be, but his cursory remarks nonetheless leave too many considerations unexplored for me to get on board with his analysis.
Ultimately, even if The Order: 1886 releases to poor reviews, it would be foolish for critics to pin the game’s failures on the brevity of its campaign. It might be that this game’s campaign is too short, but this is not to say that short campaigns, even in AAA games, are inherently a problem.