Time taken to complete a playthrough of the Stanley Parable? About five minutes. Time taken to complete Alien: Isolation? About thirteen hours. Time taken to beat Bravely Default on the 3DS? I’m fifty-five hours in, and there’s no end in sight.
The bloody thing moves like a snail on valium, and it keeps doing that thing from the third Lord Of The Rings film where you think it’s over – and surprise! We’re going to keep this crap rolling like we’ve locked it in a hamster ball.
Except that The Return Of The King started doing that stop-start nonsense in the last twenty minutes of the film. Bravely Default started doing it about a third of the way through the game. At least, a third of the way through MY game. For all I know, there’s another fifty-five hours left in it to torment me with. And that, I won’t allow. Those whinging, stereotypical anime brats have taken up too much of my lifetime already. I don’t want my pre-death flashback to be mainly of kids with stupid haircuts in turn-based combat.
You can’t say I didn’t try, and I’ll give it this, I had high hopes at the start. There were some bits of intrigue, some good turn-based mechanics, and I found myself growing slightly fond of one of the protagonists, a suave lady’s man who annoyed everybody else constantly. I wonder why I found him so relatable?
But then the whole thing started to wilt. Without the life energy of new mechanics added in, the game became dull. The story tried to stretch like a pair of tights, but only overreached itself and started laddering badly. Not to mention I found a combat set-up that was basically as good as it got, dealing huge amounts of damage whilst keeping my party at full health, so battling just became a chore.
Even the character who’d I’d come to think of as “the manga musketeer” just became repetitive and disengaging, joining his friends and world in the part of my brain marked “Not worth my time,” where they can now all join modern music, League Of Legends and regular exercise.
It was the story aspect that truly killed it for me. I knew I’d seen this game before when I bought it from Amazon last year, only I couldn’t place it. Now I know where it was. It was on trail for breaking the rules of the Geneva convention.
I couldn’t believe the gall of this damn game. I went through the story to save this little pixelly world, which took about twenty-five hours. OK, Bravely Default, I’m done. A vaguely decent game with a more than suitable story length. “Oh, you’re not done,” chortles Bravely Default back at me. “You’ve been sent back in time to before you saved the world! Now it needs saving ALL over again!”
Bloody hell. Alright, after another whole day of gameplay, I’ve rescued this rather tiresome little kingdom from damnation twice. Can I go now? “Nuh-uh,” squeals the game, slapping itself on the thighs with glee. “You’ve now been teleported to a parallel universe where the identical kingdom is also in need of saving! In the exact same way, with the exact same characters! So why don’t you settle down and we’ll start mmpph mmmph mmph mmmph.”
Oh sorry, Bravely Default. I seem to have closed the 3DS on you. And then dropped it into a hole a mile deep, before also throwing in two dozen lions and a nuclear bomb that’s on fire.
I think I can safely say this – Bravely Default is TOO LONG. Like a guest at your house at three in the morning after a dinner party, the fucker refuses to leave, raiding your fridge for snacks and asking you if you want to play Scrabble. And you just wish he’d call a taxi and go, so you can finally head upstairs and start apologising to your wife for having invited the idiot round.
But it’s a little strange to think this. Surely a long story is a good thing? Value for money, right? We all remember those embarrassingly short games that came a little late to the party, had a disinterested sniff at the wine and played on their phones for twenty minutes before sneaking out. That’s worse, isn’t it?
Well, no. They’re both equally suicidal in their own way. Bravely Default had just enough interesting ideas for a ten hour game, maybe fifteen at a push, yet it was lobbying to be a game that could be played for a straight week. And if it had been ten hours long, I might have been impressed at how condensed and well-paced it was.
But it wasn’t ten hours, or fifteen. I’ve just looked at a poll online, and it states that anybody who wants to do the main game and side missions (which all have utterly essential plot info within them, so I don’t know why they’re made optional) will be tapping at their tiny little screens for about seventy-five hours, possibly as long as a hundred. One person stated that it had taken him one hundred and seventy hours to get the whole game over and done with.
No, no, no, no, NO. That is too much. I know Square Enix games have a history of dragging their feet like they’re trying to make their shoes catch fire, but this is absurd. And remember, there’s only a single set of combat mechanics in this game, aside from some dopey village-building gimmick that’s over and done with before you’re done saving the world for the first time.
But is there such a thing as a story mode that is too long? Well, I don’t think so, at least in principle. That said, I do become very suspicious of games that sell themselves on having a story that never ends, because there’s two ways it can go. Either it’s a complex epic with a diverse narrative and crammed so full of interesting ideas that they had to make it last a week to fit them all in, or it’s just padded and drawn out to try to fill space.
I’ll be honest, anything that claims to last more than forty hours starts ringing alarm bells. Does anybody believe that there’s truly enough in those games? Don’t get me wrong, titles like Skyrim can last a lot longer within the same save file, but the core story, the one about dragons, do you really want it lasting for that much time? Aside from anything else, you’re going to be struggling to recall the beginning by the half-way point.
It’s hard to think of exact formulas for this sort of thing. Different games pace themselves at varying speeds, dynamic characters can alleviate a slow story and if gameplay is fun enough then I might let a dreary plot slip under the radar.
Maybe. If it’s lucky. And I’m feeling kind.
But my personal philosophy is this – if the narrative I’m playing has not changed in some intrinsic way by the end of each hour, it’s moving too slow. Whether it be a new angle on a character, the death of another, a wildcard element throwing us off balance, or somebody inevitably betraying us, it should be a key development that should help the story move at a decent pace.
One of the more recent offenders in this regard was Darksiders II. I’ll be frank, this game was making an uphill struggle from the start with its story, partly because it just seemed to throw in vaguely-Christian mythology whenever it didn’t know what to do next, but also because this story had one idea that never, ever changed. You have to go and resurrect the population of Earth, killed in the last game when somebody with a bad dress sense got over-excited and started Armageddon before everybody was ready. Alright, who am I playing as in part two? Somebody who doesn’t look like a a rejected Warhammer character design? No, you’re playing as Death, actually.
Well, disregarding how strange it is that I can be killed in combat whilst playing as the Grim Reaper, don’t you have anything else to bring to the table? Within five hours of starting, I’d forgotten the central goal that I was meant to be fulfilling, though bizarrely it hadn’t changed a single iota. You want to resurrect Earth? Well, you need to get to the Keeper Of Secrets (no, I have no idea who that is) to find out how to do that. He tells you to go to the Tree Of Life (don’t ask). However, the Tree is in the land of The Makers (nope) and is being sealed off by Corruption (because of course it is), and also some berk keeps trying to stop you because he is one of the slaughtered Nephilim (fast-forward) and sends you to the Land of the Dead (not sure how) to find the Well Of Souls (Jesus Christ).
All this rigmarole took five hours, and by the end I was slumped horizontally in my chair, wondering if the thirty-foot drop out the window would kill me.
I think I was about a quarter of the way through the game.
What’s that line from Macbeth? “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” God, it could’ve been written about Darksiders II. AND Bravely Default.
The sad thing is, it’s the well-paced stories that we wish could keep going, because they’re so addictive. But all the longer tales keep going because only the writer doesn’t want it to end. Everybody else is glaring at him and wondering if they could pull the plug on his PC without him noticing that they did it. Remember, a cut-throat editor is just as important as a good writer.
I’m particularly suspicious of fantasy games in this regard. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two offenders named above are of that genre, and there’s others I could point the finger at. If you wrote down all the dialogue (not the plot itself, just the spoken stuff) in Dragon Age: Origins, it would apparently come down to about nine books. The Witcher, a game that I’m trying to work up the energy to try again, is rumoured to have eighty hours under its big renaissance belt. Tell me, you two, are you that long because you have a story that couldn’t be crammed into the standard fifteen hour length? Or are you just drawn out beyond belief? If The Witcher is as long as it says, then according to my theory it needs to have, at minimum, eighty separate events that shake the plot to its core and engage the interest of the player.
I’m not saying it doesn’t have that. But somehow I doubt it.
Or what about Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel? Don’t get me wrong, I like the Borderlands series. I like the anarchic, punky, nonsensical style, touched lightly by the influence of classic westerns and the Mad Max films. I like the way it doesn’t take itself too seriously, how the characters push right through their own archetypes to become self-parodies who are, at the same time, pretty cool and likeable. With the exception of the kid Pickle, naturally. That loathsome little sprout can go fall into a thresher’s nest.
But The Pre-Sequel was just annoying at times, because it had the same problem as Darksiders II. The issue was that the plot had found a nice, comfortable place to sit, and it wasn’t going anywhere without a winch, a mile of rope and fifty strong men. Right from the beginning, your goal is to take back a space station from an invading military force, but for about three-quarters of the game all you do is make dull preparations for that task. Go here to talk to a contact, then here to shut down a signal jammer, go there and steal an AI and then, when you’re done, we’ll go and clear out a disused robot factory. Even the missions themselves seemed a little dull for a Borderlands game, which always prided itself on lunacy and surrealism. What happened to the quests where I had to play through a Dungeons and Dragons game, or raise an ugly, little alien dog from infancy to adulthood?
I remember saying to a friend, whilst playing The Pre-Sequel for the first time, that I didn’t think that this campaign was going to be as long as the previous game. There just didn’t seem to be enough meat in the story to make it that length. And it turns out that I was right! Only Borderlands didn’t want to admit it, and diluted itself so much that a lot of the flavour was lost. Even the rather uninspired missions above are spread too wide, jammed full of monsters and one-note bandits to pad them out.
Look at games like Portal, or Bioshock, or the Walking Dead. Games that were just as long as they needed to be. And they all take vastly different amounts of times to complete, but they’re all fine, because they have just enough substance to be well-distributed amongst their relative lengths. I have much greater respect for any short, good narrative than I do for anything that drags its heels like the lethargic creations mentioned in this article. Or, as they would put it:
“Surely it’s conceivably better, certainly within the boundaries of human imagination, or at the very least a more admirable ideal, at least to the extent where our wider cultural integrity might be thought of as the judge, to consider the possibility that when a particular plot, or character arc, or perhaps just more generally a narrative, of the interactive medium that we widely refer to as video games, might be thought of as especially well-crafted when due consideration is paid to the relevant factors of pacing within the anticipated timeline of the aforementioned narrative, so that the two aspects might not be contrarily opposed and inherently be damaging to the structure of the contextual plot that the hypothetical game might contain.”