Saturday, 14 November 2009

Before the Horse Bolts

This post was originally written (by me) and published on November 19, 2007 here.

I was going to title this post Shortal, but decided against it, a wise decision I have ruined by mentioning the fact. Ahem. Portal is short. In fact, it's so short that short is a misleading term. Most people who read that would assume that it's 6-8 hours' worth of gameplay. In point of fact, Portal would rate more as a long movie, at give or take 3 and a half hours to play it through start to finish for the first time.

Turns out for me, the length of Portal is one of its shining lights. Not because I don't have the time any more to play long games (a common complaint), but rather because I think that a game needs to know how long it can play for. I've lost count of the number of quite good games I've got about three quarters of the way through and simply got bored and stopped playing for the same reason. Games are repetitive. They have to be, after all if you weren't doing the same thing over and over again then there would be no gameplay mechanics. What a game needs to do is realise exactly how long the repetitive actions it uses are entertaining for and then make the game about ten minutes shorter.

Even if this was an exact science, you are of course stymied by the fact that everybody has a different boredom threshold. Mine is clearly quite low, unless everybody else doesn't bother finishing games and developers are wasting their budgets on final cutscenes. Off the top of my head, the following games I rate as great have been criticised for being too short: Max Payne 2, Gears of War, Portal, Fable. I finished each of those games and at the end wished they were a little bit longer. But only a little bit, and not so much that I would have preferred to get that sinking feeling you get when you press the button to go to the third storey in the Library in Halo. A game that is too long can easily ruin your perception of it, because memories of the good parts will be overshadowed by the frustration and boredom of unnecessarily extended levels, jumping puzzles and thrice-damned escort missions.

Think of any game you've played that you've spent more than, say, 20 hours on. Chances are there was at least one section that seemed to go on for a little too long, or there was some grinding in the middle to get the appropriate level or item or whatever. Stop and think about that for a second. You were spending time doing something that you pay money voluntarily for, that you do for fun, and you were bored. Your chosen form of entertainment bored you. You can be bored for free (staring at a wall, talking to some old person on a bus), or even get paid to be bored (work), why pay for it?

Back to Portal. Over the course of the game, the creators go through every fun puzzle they can come up with involving the portal gun, and then they stop. There's not seven or eight moving platform over lava puzzles, there's one. Now obviously, there are a lot more factors that make Portal a gem of a game, but if it lasted another three hours, I think you'd see a lot of reviews saying "original idea, but feels overplayed by the end." Now, Portal has the advantage of being a part of a package that is frankly ridiculously good value, and barring a fairly large shift in the way AAA titles are priced and marketed, I don't think 3 hour games are going to become the norm. Nevertheless, it's worth thinking about whether a game you thought was too short was in fact exactly the right length.

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