Having recently read many articles on the web, particularly on Kotaku, around the ideas of video games as art and how long single player first-person shooters should be I feel compelled to weigh in, in my own space as opposed to waging comment wars with other people on various different sites and forums.
This article speaks about the thorny issue of the length of single-player first person shooters, and the comments highlight some of the diverse opinions on the matter. While I know that, like many of these art-based discussions, ultimately most of this stuff boils down to subjective preference, I think it’s important to look at these topics, insofar as is possible, from objective standpoints.
Before we move ahead, I highly recommend you also check out this article tackling the “video games as art” discussion which touches on a lot of topics I’ll be bringing in also.
The article on video games as art mentions that sometimes games are used as a canvas upon which the developers build both an entertaining experience but also a social/political/anyotherkindof-cal commentary. I think the primary argument to be made in the video games as art discussion is that Art, a la music, poetry or paintings/drawings/etc is not always making some kind of commentary. I know this from personal experience as an artist. Sometimes the music I write evokes only feelings or simply sounds or feels good. Other times I infuse the music I work on with lyrics which tell a specific story making specific comments and points. Sometimes the poetry or prose I write evokes feelings or just sounds or looks good. Other times the words are photos in an album that defines and portrays a very particular view of the world that I wish to convey. Video Games are like this too. Sometimes they are merely entertainment for entertainment’s sake (Angry Birds). Other times they are portals into a dystopic vision of the future of mankind which speak hugely to our present lives and the underlying motivations we all too often overlook (Homefront).
Anyone, even Roger Ebert, who claims Video Games are not art must likewise claim that poetry is not art; music is not art; etc… Any piece of creative work that is intended to induce specific emotions or convey a specific point of view should be considered a piece of art. If Architecture can be considered to be art, so can Video Games be.
So, on to the issue of the length of single player first person shooters. The primary issue (among many such primary issues) that one needs to consider when developing any kind of interactive artwork whether it be movies, music, poetry, novels or even video games is to prevent boredom. If a piece of music is too long and/or repetitive it will lose it’s efficacy. If a poem is too verbose or, equally, too cryptic it will lose it’s potency. If a novel is too long or the pacing is off, it will lose it’s pull on the reader. Likewise if a Video Game is too long, too repetitive, has bad pacing, is inconsistent or just simply merciless in it’s difficulty (ignoring diffculty settings) the player will simply exit and leave the experience feeling like they’ve wasted precious hours (maybe mere minutes) of their lives on something that held such promise. They will feel let down and maybe even betrayed. Most of all, they will be unfulfilled.
My view on these matters is informed by both my love of progressive metal/rock and epic sci-fi/fantasy stories. Anyone who has embarked upon the mammoth journey provided by The Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels will understand just how long and intricate storytelling can be. I have a good friend who said he wouldn’t really recommend the series to me because after the second or third book the pacing just became too “ridiculous” and “there were chapters and chapters where nothing happened”. I’m currently on Book 6 and I completely disagree with my friend. I love the books. I love the sheer epic scale of them, I love just how many plots and sub-plots are going on in the books and I love just how intricately and finely these threads of storytelling are woven. To me, unless the author is terrible, “nothing happens” is impossible in a book. Even if you spend page after page simply describing a scene without getting to the action, stuff is still happening. You are being presented with more and more detail all the time. Some people like this kind of thing. Some don’t. Some people find intricate sub-plot upon sub-plot not only hard to follow, but distracting. (“Who cares about the back-story of the throwaway character transporting our beloved party across ocean?! Let’s just get there already and get on with the action!”) – The same is true of movies. Some people enjoy slow-burning plots, others prefer explosive, non-stop action.
Returning to my love of epic fantasy and prog metal: it doesn’t matter how long the piece is so long as it’s engaging, interesting and familiar. “Familiar” in the sense that certain scenes or phrases or feelings are encountered multiple times during the piece but they don’t entirely dominate it; they are framed by other phrases or scenes. Not only are they familiar but each time they come around again they seem both familiar and yet unique at the same time. Half-Life 2 is a good example of this. You constantly go from an area with a puzzle to a combat area to a set piece to a puzzle to a combat area to a quiet section to a puzzle etc… but yet rarely does this repetition seem truly repetitive and dull. You may be doing the same things in each repetition (killing all the enemies to open a door a la The Legend of Zelda) but the details make it seem unique: the setting, the number and type of enemies, the weapons available to you etc… The same logic underpins most standard shooters and bullet hells (side-scrolling shoot em ups): having the same enemies over and over and over again gets really boring, really quick, but injecting a variety of enemies and making them all unique, both in their behaviour and their form makes the game instantly more enjoyable.
With all this in mind, despite the fact that this is already blatantly and painfully obvious, the perfect length for a single player first person shooter really depends on the player. For me, given my love of prog metal, intricately interwoven plots and long epic fantasy, given the experience hits all of the relevant buttons outline above I would love to play a game of infinite length! Oblivion is a long and epic game which hits all of the buttons above and more, but I would kill to have it be twice or three times as long. To my mind, once all the right buttons are hit, there is no such thing as too long. One may factor in the issue of the lack of a sense of completion or progress in a game three times as long as Oblivion however the point of “nothing happens” in a novel being impossible means that, (not to beat a dead horse but once this is the case it’s really hard to go wrong) once all the right buttons are pressed it cannot really ever be the case that “nothing is happening” or “no progress is being made”. Once you move from the “let’s get this over with ASAP” kind of approach (a la explosive action movies) into “let’s enjoy this period with little to no action as an opportunity to explore the story or the characters etc…” it no longer becomes about finishing this quest or that quest or finding this treasure or that item; it becomes all about the journey.
So, in conclusion, if you like 90-minute action flicks and/or pop or punk music you’ll probably enjoy a game that sacrifices single player campaign length in favour of intense multiplayer play. If, however, like myself, you enjoy 7009+ page fantasy epics, wished that the Lord of the Rings movies were at least twice as long and enjoy progressive rock/metal, you’ll most likely enjoy a game that favours the journey rather than the destination.