Can a 40+ Hour Game Tell an Engaging Story?

I have trouble remembering the details of a movie plot a few days or weeks after I've seen it. However, compared to my retention rate of significant events in video game stories, my movie memory is outstanding. Even the shortest of plot-based games (typically some kind of shooter or action game) are 6-8 hours long at the minimum. When RPGs or strategy games stretch into the dozens of hours, played over many weeks or months, how am I to be expected to recall something that happened in the beginning of the game.

As much as some game designers strive to create cinematic experiences, the nature of many games as a temporally-longer medium inherently works against that desire. Movies routinely place a small character or seemingly insignificant event near the beginning of the film. This bit often comes into play as a significant factor in the conclusion. And in a roughly two hour movie, it's usually not too difficult to recall this tiny bit of information (usually with some help from cues in the movie itself. But in a game that is many times longer, this technique is not only impractical, but also would require a great deal of explanation to catch the player up to speed.

The demands (by some) for longer games as a return on a financial investment in them can actually be a detriment to the ability of game designers to tell a cohesive, satisfying story. Due to the high cost of games, many people commonly think that more game play time equals a better value, simply due to the resulting price per hour. True, a $10 movie ticket might be a $5 per hour value, while a $60 game is a $1-3 per hour value. But this often can lead to repetitive game play, and the developers tacking things on to the core package just to extend the length of the game for its own sake.

Just like with anything, longer isn't necessarily better. Even in movies, one of my biggest criticisms is that the editors should have cut it down a little bit, tightening up the narrative. Similarly, as games like Portal have shown, games can contain compelling narrative elements without taking weeks to complete.

In the PSP strategy game Jeanne d'Arc, battles between story scenes can easily drag on for over an hour. Since this game typically requires a generous time commitment per play session, I don't pick it up that often. Thus I have trouble remembering what happened last time, what I'm supposed to be doing, and how the characters are connected. On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus is much shorter, only eight hours or so, and also has a somewhat simpler story that is paradoxically thematically complex and nuanced. Through my sixteen battles with the colossi, I always know that I'm trying to bring a girl back to life. The story is never lost in the game play.

Particularly as I get older, I find I don't have the time to sit for hours and be engrossed in a game. The longer a game, the more likely I am to put it down for a lengthy time and forget major details about it. This is a major detriment, I think, to games' ability to tell a story, which is of course but one of their many functions. How can developers get around this problem? One common way now is to try to integrate the story into the game play itself. More importantly, I think the community and developer mindset of "bigger and longer is better" is a huge detriment. I would much rather play a tight, compact game like Portal or Shadow of the Colossus over a 40 hour epic. Of course, I wouldn't want this trend to reverse too much, or I might end up an old man rushing through ten minute games before I fall asleep in my underwear.


L.B. Jeffries said...

I heartily concur. I would much rather someone took a game like Final Fantasy and just broke it up into 7 or 8 shorter RPG's but with similar game mechanics.

Sam & Max have been really persuasive that episodic levels that have different plots but rely on an overarching game design can work. Hopefully more games will start taking note and not try to throw 30 hour death marches at us.

Anonymous said...

I disagree.
You compare games to movies, but what about books, what about TV series. TV shows like Battlestar Gallactica and Lost are completely unepisodic, running a single story over the length of 4-6 SEASONS, that's over 100 hours. And the storylines in these series are far more engrossing then that of movies. Books are a whole other area, the Harry Potter series is written for children, and yet the books approach the thousand page mark, and fans can give you exact details of events in all 7 books, why? Because the story is far more engaging than that of a film, the Harry Potter movies are far less memorable, and often come across as a jumbled mess since they cannot hold nearly as much content.

Korey said...

Thanks for the comments guys. I compared movies and games for a reason, because game developers are so often trying to imitate movies, and I think they often somewhat fail. Especially in lengthy RPGs or strategy games, I find that the narrative easily gets lost amid lengthy battles. The cutscene-long battle-cutscene-long battle design doesn't work for me.

Fang Langford said...

I see you have run into a little conundrum I've been wrestling with over on the spoken-word role-playing game side. ^.^ Over there long-form games are the norm and yet the loudest theorists insist that paper and pencil RPGs are for storytelling (a parallel to CRPGs comparing to movies).

There, as here, I have to point out that this little bit of information is the bane of 'for story' gamers. I stand by the concept that RPGs are about having a verisimilar experience that is pleasing. (Be it immersive, escapist or otherwise.)

This does not eliminate the possibility for drama or any other form of story. One has to remember that while they may tell a story with the game, it is still about the player and their interactions, not the story.

Personally, I've struck on the idea of using Polti's classic Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and 'skinning them' in a sort of mad-libs way to create an infinite number of playable stories. I am of course working on a MMORPG. (Foolish I know.) I have no idea if it will work, but I have shown I can't prove it won't.

This way I hope to provide dramatic and intriguing content for players that 'feels' like story, but functions as the 'meat' of the game play.

Fang Langford

Korey said...

Your totally right. It's not all about the story. And I agree that a big part of the enjoyment what you feel and experience while playing. Maybe I was thinking more specifically about the divide between cutscene and game play. Anyway, you bring up a very relevant point.

Dylan Platt said...

Hear, hear. I work in a game store and all I hear people complain about was "this game was too short". I've heard it said about probably every game you could imagine--including stuff like GTAIV, Fable 2, and Fallout 3 (yes, really).

I, on the other hand, am a married man working full time, and I just don't have the time or the attention span for a 40-50 hour epic like I did when I was twelve. Nowadays, if I can't complete a game in a couple of multi-hour sessions, chances are I'll put it on the shelf after three or four days and never pick it up again.

I agree with our friend Anonymous about the greatness of the TV season as storytelling format, but lengthy games aren't structured like a TV show. Even in shows like Battlestar and Lost, the story is broken down into smaller chunks, each with their own three-act structure, denouement, and so on. Atari tried to adapt this storytelling model in the recent Alone In The Dark revival, but the game mechanics were so fundamentally flawed that nobody paid it any attention.

I think games could and should adopt the episodic structure of a TV season, as that would be the perfect compromise for people like us.