Video games have gone through quite the journey to get to where they are now. Once upon a time, games were 20 minutes long but were so obnoxiously difficult, they took approximately 18 lifetimes to complete – this was a bad time. Then, games developed stories and difficulty dropped and was replaced with reams of text and the faint whisper of voice acting. True length was metamorphosised before our very eyes.
Gaming evolved even further, and, with the help of new technology and a booming industry, games suddenly got shorter again. Fancy graphics, set pieces, a focus on short, 5-10 hour experiences became the norm – often supplemented with arbitrary multiplayer suites. As we trundle through the dark days of the 2020s, there has been a noticeable shift again. Games are longer – significantly longer in fact.
I don’t say this without some empirical backing either. Let’s look at Assassin’s Creed. When the series started, the games took 10-20 hours to complete. Not too bad, but pretty short when you consider the girthy shaft that is Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the latest entry, is closer to 60. Quite the increase indeed – and one that took place over a single console generation.
Lies, Lies Everywhere
As games get longer, the demand for longer games increases. The false assumption that value and length are intrinsically linked becomes gospel and gaming as a whole, starts to descend one hell of a rabbit hole. We can’t forget the vocal opposition – a side I am not a part of mind you – who dislike longer games. They want to be able to pick up a game, play it over a weekend or two, and not be burdened by a titanic 100-hour guillotine ready to cut their enthusiasm down a peg.
I can say, with absolute, near-divine authority, that both camps are wrong. The length of a video game, in reality, has very little to do with anything. It’s a lie – a cunning ruse meant to distract you from the cold hard truth – it’s not the length that matters, it’s what you do with it.
Like a stumpy erection on the bloated body of a bearded gentleman, the only thing that matters is a game’s pacing. The dogged endeavour to give you a coherent experience over a flaccid series of mundality. I for one also fell into this trap – I thought I was a fan of longer games until I simply wasn’t, and I sought shorter games. This led to the realisation that actually, shorter games fall into the same traps. It was from here, padding revealed its ugly face.
Are Games Too Long?
Padding in video games is the puffa jacket-wearing chav on the street corner of quality. Saying it’s commonplace nowadays would be a gross understatement. Practically every major Triple-A game has it, and let me tell you right now – every game is made worse for it. For the sake of argument (and time), I want to touch on Final Fantasy VII Remake (FF7R) – probably the most egregious offender in recent times.
At a glance, FF7R took what was originally a 7-hour introductory segment to one of the all-time greats and unceremoniously dragged it out over 40-hours. Dragged; stretched; these words may not be strong enough to describe what FF7R did. That’s more than 5x the length, and boy, does it fail to carry that load.
Just to be clear, even ignoring FF7R side content – most of which is bottom of the barrel shlock resembling a lolled tongue drooping out of an addict’s gurning jaw – the game feels too long. I will touch on side content in general, but for now, that isn’t the problem. What is, however, is how FF7R is rammed full of tedious dialogue, inflated character roles, vapid tirades, drawn-out segments, and endless, empty corridors. At most, FF7R should have been about 20 hours.
I’m not pulling that number out of my arse either. FF7R mechanics struggle to carry the game beyond that point. The combat is fun, but it’s also fairly lengthy, not very deep, and pretty commonplace. What starts as a highlight slowly becomes more of a chore, and the mind begins to wander. Dungeons that used to be 20-minutes are hours-long – segments that took less than 3 seconds to walk past are transformed into a three-part puzzle sequence that takes up the better part of an hour.
This isn’t a review of FF7R, but these issues are very much still relevant. These things can be found in so many games – even well-paced ones. How many forced walking sections, or “slow scooting through a narrow gap” animations are shoe-horned into modern games? FF7R is just one example of many. It just so happens, this game, in particular, managed to start on one of the highest notes imaginable, before rapidly declining in quality and ending on nary a whimper.
It’s Not All About Length
Flipping this argument on its bonce, I want to talk about Shmups as a genre, and more specifically, Raiden V. Shmups tend to hover around the 20-40 minute mark. This has been the standard for literal decades. Depending on scrolling orientation, you should expect 5-7 stages before the end credits roll. They are very short, bite-sized experiences meant to give quick bursts of intense gameplay that end the very moment the game would risk becoming repetitive.
Raiden V rocks up to the shop with a near 2-hour completion time. This is up to 6x the length of a standard Shmup, and my god does it feel like it. The moment Raiden V breaks that 20-minute mark, you feel it. Once 40 minutes pass, your eyes glaze over. After that? It’s just an avalanche of tedium. It’s not because Raiden V is bad, or that its gameplay is terrible. Raiden V is perfectly passable mechanically – it’s even fun. It’s just padded. Its mechanics, like FF7R, simply can’t prop up a game this long.
Cotton Reboot, one of my favourite Shmups of all time, and my GOTY for 2021, is roughly 25-minutes long. Despite this teeny runtime, it’s very easy to sink tens – if not hundreds – of hours into it. It’s well-paced, it’s addictive, and it never overstays its welcome. Despite being significantly longer, you’d be hard-pressed to get through Raiden V more than once. Hundreds of 25-minute runs feel infinitely better than one 120-minute run.
With bad pacing, a two-hour game can feel many times its length. With fantastic pacing, a 40-hour game can devastate your social life. What’s more important than length, is the perception of it. That perception is based almost entirely on pacing. If your game paced poorly, people will feel like your game is too long – no matter how short that game may be.
What Needs To Change?
Developers and Publishers need to understand the limitations of their genre, their mechanics, and how all of this flows. Not all games can be Shmups and rely on replayability to extend a game’s length, but all games can be improved with better pacing. There is nothing wrong with having some side content in most games. What kills it, however, is fluff on the beaten path. Games don’t need to be shorter – they need tangible momentum on the main route – they need to be better.
Demanding longer games for the sake of length, and not quality, leads to games that are in abundance of one, and seriously lacking in the other. There should never be a grind. There should never be a moment where you feel like your mind is wandering. A well-paced game has you hooked and you reluctantly put it down when your partner starts kicking in your door. You aren’t being forced to do cookie-cutter nontent, you don’t notice the gameplay veering into the repetitive. You don’t feel like your time is being wasted.
Demand better pacing – demand better flow. Don’t be afraid to pick up a 20-minute game and be engrossed in the pinnacle of gameplay for short bursts over a long period. Don’t surrender to a checklist, or a scripted sidle animation for the 87th time. Portal, Carrion, Crimzon Clover, Superhot, Metroid Dread – all of these games hammer home just how good a finely tuned experience can be. Length does not equal value and believing that lie only hinders the industry and ultimately, your long-term enjoyment in this fantastic hobby.
For notifications when the latest article drops, follow me on Twitter @gameswithtoasty. Alternatively, you can join follow my Podcast. I even have a YouTube channel and Stream on Twitch! Happy gaming.