Sunday, 24 July 2011

Bigger Is Not Better

This week I’ve been playing a lot of video games. I have some free time at the moment (because I don’t have a job) and the steam summer sale ended not long ago, so I have a few new games to play around with. The games I’ve been playing are Portal 2 and Assassin’s Creed 2. Both sequels to games on my top ten list, and both a whole ton of fun in their own right. I’d like to compare both games to the game which they follow, and look at the upcoming sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City which is coming out very soon.

The thing I want to pick out about each of these three sequels is that they are all significantly longer than their originals. Portal 1 was only about three hours long, while Assassin’s Creed 1 and Arkham Asylum were about ten hours each. By contrast, Portal 2 is about six hours long and Assassin’s Creed 2 is fifteen hours and counting. From what I hear, Arkham City will be significantly longer than Arkham Asylum. I suspect that Assassin’s Creed 2 and Arkham City will be about twenty hours each, so let’s assume that a doubling of play time roughly a theme.

I don’t know whether other sequels fit this pattern, but it makes sense. Games cost money to make, the longer the game, the more money it takes, so an original game being given a relatively small budget by a studio because anything original is bound to be a bit of a gamble makes sense. With a relatively small budget, you can only make a relatively small game. If the game is a success, the sequel (and there will always be a sequel) is given a much bigger budget, so a much longer, more ambitious game is made.

The most startling example of this is Portal. Portal 1 was originally a very small project created by a team within Valve. It was thrown into the Orange Box along with Team Fortress 2 because Valve were a bit embarrassed that Half Life 2: Episode 2 took so bloody long. On the other hand, Portal 2 was a full scale project with the whole of Valve’s production team and budget behind it. It’s a full scale game, rather than just a little throwaway, experimental, indie game.

The reason for this, from Valve’s point of view, is very simple, they can make a hell of a lot of money selling Portal 2 as a game in its own right for the same price as any other game. Portal 1 was hugely successful and popular, so a sequel was always going to sell well. The reason behind making Assassin’s Creed 2 and Arkham City much longer is not so obvious. The thing that springs to mind immediately is that they think a longer game is going to be better. They can simply fit more stuff into a longer game and increase the variety of the gameplay experience. They can write a more interesting and complex plot, fully flesh out the characters and the setting. Most importantly though, you get players playing for longer, so they are going to be telling their friends about how much fun they’re having for longer, meaning that their friends are more likely to go and buy it as well.

Only the last of those is true. A longer game does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make for a better game. Just as a thousand page novel is not better than a three hundred page novel by virtue of being longer. It is perfectly possibly to tell a good story in a hundred pages, or three hours of play time, or an hour of screen time. There’s nothing wrong with telling one in a thousand pages, or twenty hours, or two and a half, but length bring about its own problems.

I’m currently re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series and thoroughly enjoying it, but as I make my way through the 9th book with no plot resolution in sight, it has being increasingly obvious that Jordan simple has too many characters and too much plot. It takes an incredibly skilful writer to deal with that much stuff happening without getting bogged down. Pacing gets harder and harder the longer and more complex your plot is.

The same is true for all mediums. A video game is just as likely, if not more so, to get bogged down in the detail when the plot starts stretching for twenty hours. Assassin’s Creed 2, thus far, has managed to get itself bogged down, partly by doing away with the very structured approach taken by Assassin’s Creed 1, and partly by simply having too complex a plot. You lose sight of the overall motivations of the characters, or those motivations simply stop meaning anything given the context of the action. This is partly down to poor writing, but the length of the game does not help at all.  I fear that the same might happen with Arkham City.

Of course, story is not as important as gameplay to most developers and most gamers. A longer game certainly meant that more gameplay can be put into the game, but then it also increases the potential for boredom. There are only so many time that one can stab an unsuspecting soldier in the back, or tie him upside-down from a gargoyle before it gets boring. Of course, after a few weeks or months break, it gets interesting again, but by that stage it’s easy to have forgotten why you were ever doing it.

Of course, a good sequel will always involve new gameplay aspects. Assassin’s Creed 2 has almost Prince of Persia type platforming sections (with all the same engine issues, but just as much fun anyway) and some really interesting vehicle sections. The latter are really well integrated into the story, whereas the former is not, so it feels a little bit pointless. That is actually indicative of Assassin’s Creed 2; there are lots of things to do above and beyond the plot, which makes it very easy to get lost and loose track of where you are in the plot. It also makes the game feel very flabby. The first game was very tight, because all the different sections of the game were tied (if a little tangentially) to the plot, whereas here, all the assassination submissions, platforming sections, rooftop races and punch ups having nothing to do with the task at hand, so they feel like they have been tacked on. This all helps to bog down an already convoluted plot, putting the pacing even further off.

I hope this is not what will happen with Arkham City, but I get the feeling that is will. From the little Rocksteady have told us, there will be plenty going on to distract from the main plotline. That sounds great, but the thing that really keeps players (or this player, anyway) playing a game is the story. I play games to drive the story forward and I find it very easy to get bored if my actions don’t seem to be doing that. The problem is that I also tend to do everything in games because I assume it’s all got something to do with the plot, so games which have loads of stuff going on above and beyond what is required for the plot tend to feel very flabby and unfocused to me. It’s the issue I have with RPGs a lot of the time.

I understand that I’m in the minority in that, but the point still stands; longer time does not necessarily make for better gameplay. New stuff has to be integrated into the plot, otherwise it feels tacked on, and more time simply means more time to get bored. After fifteen hours of Assassin’s Creed 2, I’m bored with stabbing people. I’m sure it will become interesting again in a few weeks or so, but for now I’m bored. I fear I will become equally bored after fifteen hours of Arkham City when it comes out.

Add to that the fact that a longer story is by no means a better one and you have a pretty decent argument against story driven games being longer than ten hours. In fact I think ten hours works really well for a game. It’s more than enough time to tell a really good story with interesting characters, Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock, Arkham Asylum, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Psychonauts all show us, and funnily enough all of those gamed are on that top ten list I mentioned earlier. It’s not that Assassin’s Creed 2 is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, neither is Portal 2, it’s just that they’re not as tight or neat as the originals. They’re almost trying too hard to be bigger and better than their predecessors, while forgetting that bigger does not, necessarily, mean better. In fact, bigger is actually an awful lot harder to pull off. I suppose the perfect example of this would be the big RPGs like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, which are consistently flabby and overburdened.

Of course, I am in the minority. Most people, it would seem, are happy to play games simply for the sake of playing them. I suppose I am too when it comes to the Total War franchise and other strategy games. Nevertheless, I would like to see more games driven by their story, constructed around their story and with the story at the heart, not the gameplay. I firmly believe that games are a fantastic storytelling medium that needs to be exploited more. And that can and should be done by games that need not ever exceed ten hours of gameplay, because that just makes it harder for everyone involved.

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