Pacing, tempo and tedious grinds (or: “Short games are good, actually”)

Although my tastes have evolved and my particular interests have changed over the years, I think it’s fair to say I’ve always had more of an affinity for mechanically driven over narrative driven games. Of course, there have been plenty of story-heavy games which I have fallen in love with in large part due to the writing; THE SECRET OF MONKEY ISLAND kickstarted my passion for point & click adventures as a kid, and in more recent years I have sunk hundreds of hours into the YAKUZA games. And I’d probably be lying if I said the narrative and storytelling of DEAD RISING wasn’t a big reason I fell in love with that game, too.

Still, these examples all feel like outliers to me. If I were to attempt listing the aspects of a game that typically draw me in, I’d say it’d be kind of a toss-up between aesthetics, tone/atmosphere and game mechanics – if I enjoy the narrative it’s still usually secondary to one or all of those. Most of my favourite games or series of games are things like STRIDER HIRYU, VIRTUA FIGHTER, PRINCE OF PERSIA, BAYONETTA, BARE KNUCKLE, etc, etc.

Long story short, I tend to favour short-form, mechanically focused (if not mechanically dense) action games. Games which more or less inherently invite repeated play by making the act of playing the game the goal in itself, as opposed to making it to the end of a journey. This all probably informs my long held hot take: more often than not, games are like, way too long, man.

PRINCE OF PERSIA enforces a breakneck pace with a hard time limit – escape the dungeon and rescue the princess in 60 minutes or less! An usually direct way of setting the pace for a game, but it works

Although we currently live in a world of an essentially infinite supply of video games at our fingertips, that wasn’t always the case, so the idea of wanting to get the maximum bang for your buck isn’t completely alien to me. I get that logic. I would in fact argue that a can that can last you a long time and keep being engaging for as long as you’d want to play it is a great thing! But the key difference for me is when games require you to invest a lot of time to get a payoff. Or more specifically, when games needlessly ask you to put more time into them (presumably) based on the misconception that a longer game is a better game.

You see this kind of thing all the time; not just self-evidently in games that have a bunch of tedious padding but perhaps moreso in reactions and conversation around games; people worrying about a game being too short or not offering you enough to do, the length of a campaign being a talking point in marketing – just the fundamental idea that the amount of time from title screen to staff roll is somehow indicative of a game’s quality. However, my views on this subject can most easily be summed up thusly:

The number of times I have finished a game and been upset or disappointed that the game had ended, pales in comparison to the number of times I have stopped playing a game before reaching the end.

In fact, even going back to my childhood where getting the most out of each individual game was more of a concern, I struggle to come up with even a single example of the former. Meanwhile, the number of games I’ve played, enjoyed, but ultimately failed to see through to the end must number in the hundreds – at least! Obviously there have been plenty of games that were simply too challenging, or games where reaching the “end” (if one even exists) isn’t really the goal (or my goal, at least). But even disregarding those, there are countless examples of games I’ve fallen off due to boredom, tedium, repetitiveness or otherwise failing to keep my interest up as other games call for my attention.

GRIN’s movie tie-in WANTED: WEAPONS OF FATE was much-maligned for it’s brief campaign, and its poor reception played a big part in the company’s downfall. Personally I loved the game for its inventive and fun “bullet curving” and “active cover” mechanics – and found the 3 hours or so just enough for it not to overstay its welcome

And maybe I’m just fickle, impatient or easily distracted. I mean, probably! Thing is though, I don’t even think it really makes much difference. It’s that fear of a game being over too soon that I think is the real heart of the matter. And I think that fear is often unfounded, since much more than length, it’s really the pacing that determines if a game feels too long or not, in my opinion. Simply put: just like a movie, novel, TV show, or any other piece of fiction – if it’s well structured and well paced, the ending will feel timed right whether it happens after 15 minutes or 40 hours. A well paced experience will (hopefully) give you some kind of satisfying closure, a poorly paced one…. well, it’s probably not going to keep your interest all the way through, so either you’ll get bored and abandon it, or dutifully see it through only to be happy that it ended.

In my experience, the longer a game is, the more likely it is that the game is going to have pacing issues. Partly because pacing a longer experience is simply more complicated, but also because injecting needless padding is how many games become so long in the first place! I’m not against games being long out of principle (well, not entirely anyway) it just so happens that I’ve played far more games that felt too long than games that felt too short. There are rare gems like RESIDENT EVIL 4 which is very long for the type of game it is (probably around 20 hours on a first playthrough), but is paced exceptionally well as to never get dull or repetitive. Or stuff like the aforementioned YAKUZA games which, while absurdly grindy and repetitive if you commit to doing all side activities, generally lets the player advance the plot at whatever pace they want, circumventing or at least stymieing what could be crippling pacing issues.

I won’t necessarily try to claim ROGUE WARRIOR is a good game, but at the very least it’s about the right length for what it has to offer. At about 90 minutes to 2 hours, It’s a fun, goofy romp – if it were much longer it’d likely be an unbearable slog

Not too long ago, I played through the infamous ROGUE WARRIOR on stream. Its embarrassingly juvenile writing, largely delivered in an incredulous lead voice performance by Mickey Rourke, elevates an otherwise very unremarkable first-person shooter to a quality “bad game“. And you may call this damning by faint praise, but the fact that the game manages to never overstay its welcome ultimately meant that I had a positive experience with the game, and came away from it with fond memories.

But that’s not to say that my preference for shorter games is grounded in my habit of playing bad games, and that the sooner they’re over, the better. That’s definitely true a lot of the time, but what about genuinely good games? Well, I think the same principle applies. It’s theoretically fine for a game to keep going as long as it’s justified by game mechanics and/or narrative being continually engaging, but there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by making the experience take longer for the sake of it.

As a fan of arcade-style games I will of course always be in favour of games where playing is its own reward. Games that are inherently fun to play whether or not you’ve already seen how the story ends (if there even is one). It really bothers me how so many modern incarnations of classic arcade-type games seemingly lack the confidence to provide an experience that feels good and is fun to play from start to finish – instead stretching things out with progression mechanics, RPG elements, non-linear or otherwise longer-form structures and other things which dilute the core gameplay.

There seems to be a palpable fear that even if there is still a lot more fun to be had with the game, players will habitually abandon a game as soon as credits roll. To make sure players don’t reach that point too quickly (thus risking a reputation of the game being ‘too short’), they’re essentially held hostage by padding and poor pacing. Apparently, keeping players on the hook for longer is more important than making sure they’re having fun.

RIVER CITY GIRLS is gorgeous – but the pacing ensured I felt completely done with the game after the 6-8 hours it took to beat it once. I’ve heard people complain that it was too short(!) but I thought it was far too long – if it took 30-90 minutes I would happily replay it over and over!

Unfortunately, I guess I can’t say those fears are completely unfounded. SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, DOUBLE DRAGON NEON and more recently RIVER CITY GIRLS are all examples of modern beat ’em ups which were largely well-received – but that I personally disliked, primarily on the grounds of being far too long and/or poorly paced or structured. I guess… people want this stuff? There are perhaps few business incentives to try to appeal to curmudgeons like myself, but I sure wish more games did! The aforementioned beat ’em ups, for example, I think would be really well served by at least an alternate game mode which strips out a lot of the padding in favour of a tighter, arcade-style experience.

I’d like to think there is some kind of way of having the cake and eating it too. For example I think PlatinumGames are generally quite deft att producing well-paced action games that don’t overstay their welcome, while still offering a ton of additional challenges, optional content and room for mastery for players who want to keep going after the credits roll. In fact, Atsushi Inaba gave a great GDC talk on this exact topic! I’d love to see more games structured more like, say, BAYONETTA – you can finish it in a day (and I did!), and be completely satisfied and content with that experience… but if you’re still itching for more, there is a ton for you there.

More importantly though, I hope the general idea that a game’s length saying anything about its quality will become less pervasive. We have seen games like PORTAL or UNTITLED GOOSE GAME achieve great critical and commercial success, and the relative brief length of either game is often noted but rarely if ever brought up as a complaint. Even among bigger titles you can find examples like 2019’s RESIDENT EVIL 2 which is in fact shorter than the 1998 original – but that didn’t stop it from both selling and reviewing extremely well. I don’t expect the idea that ‘AAA games “should” be 12-20+ hours long’ will ever completely disappear (at least for as long as AAA games as we know them today still exist), but I really hope that we can start seeing more acceptance for appreciating games despite – or maybe even because – of their brevity.

Until then, though, I’m happy to just replay FINAL FIGHT again once every few months.

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