Every week, Richard Cobbett writes about the world of story and writing in games.
I was pondering recently just how ahead of its time both Full Throttle and Loom were; that if you released them for the first time on Steam right now, they'd be more popular than they actually were at launch. Loom would be a darling with the indie scene, combining its simple but beautiful looks with a clever musical based interface. Full Throttle would still be one of the rare adventure games that dared to be badass. Most importantly though, nobody would particularly care about the thing that drove a nail through them back on their original release - that they were very, very short.
Game length is a fussy business, not helped by the fact that how we feel at the end of a game and how we feel looking back are very different things; I'd argue moreso than with films, books, and other forms of media. How long should a game be? Everyone has different answers. Some want to be done in an evening, so that the game can better fit into their lives. Others demand double-digit hours at an absolute minimum, with nothing under 50 hours deemed worth the upfront investment. I'd argue that most of us probably don't put a specific amount on the experience, but instead base it on a nebulous 'what I reckon'. A game that takes less time to complete than a movie takes to watch is at least pushing its luck, if not outright taking the piss. Not everything though needs to demand the commitment of an epic RPG or whatever.
As with much criticism though, in the 'media criticism' sense of the phrase, the period immediately after finishing a game is often the least helpful for getting a good read on this. That's when you're washing out the adrenaline of the final victory, or alternatively, breathing with relief that the thing is finally ****ing over, before the brain has had a suitable chance to process and ponder and let the experience simmer. In the case of Full Throttle for instance, the immediate response of most players was - in a nutshell - "That's it?" It's not that it's a super-short game by any stretch... certainly there were many shorter adventures in the 90s that hid it behind shitty puzzles or bad FMV... but that's what everyone immediately called it on. It's a real shame, because as popular as it is, it's a game that's always seen first through that lens.
And you know what? That's absolutely fair. Back in the 90s, it was an expensive game for anyone expecting to get the usual number of hours out of it. Disappointment is a reasonable reaction. It's only when the sting fades that the brain is able to go back and actually process the experience that was had on its own terms, as a piece of entertainment, and accept that had to been particularly longer, it wouldn't have worked half as well. The puzzle design especially was predicated on there not being very many of them. Ben couldn't have remained a hero if he'd used violence to solve every problem, but at the same time, the more puzzles he had to solve, the less 'biker' the experience becomes. Some of the ones that are in there are works of design genius for how they subvert the normal puzzle flow, such as not stealing petrol from a gas tank, but siphoning it from the cops' own car when they come to try and stop you. More often though, it's not puzzles as such that sell the experience but moments of unusual tactility - the first puzzle being punching you way out of a dumpster for instance, or getting information by grabbing a barkeeper's nose-ring and telling him "You know what might look better on your nose? The bar."
(Semi-related, one of my favourite adventure design stories ever is from Schafer explaining how Full Throttle would be different to other games, by challenging both Ben and Bernard, the geek character from Day of the Tentacle, to get through a locked door using nothing but a sandwich. Bernard would open the sandwich and butter the ground, slide a piece of bread under the door and poke out the key with the sandwich's cocktail stick. Ben would eat the sandwich and kick the door down.)
This tightness of design is a big reason why Full Throttle has not so much remained loved with players as taken an interesting path; joy to disappointment, disappointment to deep nostalgia. It's a far tighter game than most of its era, which helps it immeasurably. To think back on it is to think not just of, say, its music, of its graphics, of its puzzles, but a big lovable ball of quality where nothing particularly lets the side down. Admittedly, that Destruction Derby scene is arse. But never mind that.
Compare that to Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer's next game. I'm not saying it's a bad game, but Grim to me has always felt like something of a over-reaction to Full Throttle's criticisms - its length, its simplicity, its non-traditional adventuring. Mostly, that just didn't work out, leading to a lot of bad puzzles and unnecessary padding thrown in to create something that feels worthier, but actually doesn't hold together half as well. What stands out about Grim? Rubacava, obviously. The ending. The Robert Frost joke. But in the middle? Not a lot. At the time it was held up as Lucasarts' adventure masterpiece, but in retrospect a lot of the reasons are more technical than heartfelt. It's longer, therefore it must be better. It's harder, therefore it's better value.
Rarely though do things work that easily. Longer can be great if you're really enjoying a game, but it also inherently stretches out what's good about it, and often to lengths that games just can't carry. There's only so long we usually want to see the same things and do the same basic game loops, and most games have a point at which it's less about the joy of the moment and more about being pot-committed to seeing things out by the time already spent. Most recently we saw this in Dragon Age Inquisition, where the size of the Hinterlands turned out more an obstacle than an introduction. Likewise, 'hard' and 'frustrating' are always going to be bunkmates, with their handling what determines whether or not the result is fun (and not, as many online like to think, whether or not the player is a 'true gamer' or some such nonsense.)
There are of course exceptions to this. A game like X-COM for instance would never work if it didn't make you fight for your victory. An epic RPG can hardly call itself such if you're done faster than watching the Lord of the Rings series, even the extended cuts. Still, most games wear out their welcomes long before the end these days, as easily seen by opening up any Achievements page on Steam and watching the huge drop-off between the first achievement and whatever it uses for its 'game complete' one. For the most part though, and especially in narrative driven games, short is simply better these days. There are too many calls on our attention from other games, be they free or super-cheap or simply dancing around temptingly in the near future, to keep focus on one for too long, that the gap between 'taking a break' and 'shelving forever' has never been stronger. In the days of games like Full Throttle and Loom, that wasn't the case. Games were expected to be long because they were typically rare commodities. Now, time has largely taken over from money as the most important resource for playing everything you want to - after a certain baseline, of course.
The joy of the modern gaming market is that it's possible for more experience-led games to flourish in a way that they never could before, whether something as relatively simple as Gone Home, a more traditional gaming experience like The Walking Dead, or some of the stuff on the horizon, like The Magic Circle. The downside is that along with this, responses have never been more knee-jerk. Twitter, Facebook, forums and such all drink in opinions, which can benefit from the honesty of a raw opinion, but produce the false impression that there's no time to also stop, take a breath, and appreciate an experience after it's been had. That's when games move from simply being great to being beloved classics, often long after the credits have rolled, when 'what could have been' has left the mental stage to allow 'what was' to take a bow.