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Why we need shorter games

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I’ve just put down the controller after finishing “Final Fantasy 7: Remake,” a full hour after I expected the game to be over and done. The ending was at once subtle and bombastic, combining spectacular set-pieces with well-earned moments of poignancy between its exaggerated cast of characters. It was, by all means, an excellent wrap-up to an excellent game. And yet, when the credits rolled, all I was thinking was “thank god it’s finally over.” 

My final playtime for “FF7: Remake” was 37 hours and 50 minutes, more than a day and a half of my life spent in front of a screen, mashing buttons to make an edgy 20-something-year-old with a five-foot sword smash anything in his path. “FF7: Remake” was a satisfying game that delivered countless memorable moments. However, those stellar moments are polluted by the memory of walking down drab underground corridors fighting samey enemies for hours at a time. While playing, I often wondered what the point of a fantasy setting was if I spent half my time in grey industrial corridors and brown sewers.  

“FF7: Remake”’s problems were all the more clear to me because of the game I had completed right before: “Control: Ultimate Edition.” “Control” never earned the sky-high critical praise or soaring sales numbers of “FF7: Remake,” but it did everything right that “FF7: Remake” does wrong.

Part of the reason why “Control” exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from “FF7: Remake” is that it is so pleasantly concise. Its surreal tale of a telekinetic metahuman blasting her way through a supernatural government bureaucracy introduces creative idea after creative idea. One moment you’re experimenting with flinging objects across the room at undead-esque soldiers; the next you’re stepping inside a haunted refrigerator to fight the extradimensional one-eyed beast lurking within it. With few exceptions, every time I sat down to play “Control” I had an experience that was new, surprising and worth my time. The whole thing was over in about 10 hours, and I was sad to see it go.

Not so with “FF7: Remake.” Though it was certainly good, it wasn’t a-day-and-a-half good. And yet, “FF7: Remake” is the norm when it comes to video game design. Especially as big-budget games have upped their retail prices to a whopping $70 in the past few months, games seem to feel obligated to pack in as much as they possibly can — simply to brag that they’re offering better value for the price. And as I graduate and look to law school as the next stage of my life, that sincerely worries me. My time spent with video games, my favorite hobby, will only decrease from here, and I worry that the experience of playing games will become more frustrating than rewarding if every other hour of my rare free time is spent doing essentially the same thing over and over again. 

I’ve heard arguments that the artists who work long hours to make games don’t owe us efficiency. Like any form of art, they ought to create what their vision tells them to create, length be damned. While this argument does have some truth to it, it doesn’t seem to apply to the types of monotonous activities that most modern games bloat themselves with. If a Netflix show required you to rewatch the same episode three times to go on to the next, we probably wouldn’t call that “good artistic vision.” Similarly, we rightfully gripe over the many “filler episodes” in shows that seemingly exist just to round out a season. This additional content does not seem to serve the overall vision. Rather, it allows developers to advertise that their game contains more “content” and thus fool consumers into thinking that the game is a better value for their money. As the saying goes: “Leave them wanting more, not wanting less,” but many games seem to take the opposite approach for the sake of a quick buck.

At the same time, I acknowledge that many consumers have a reasonable interest in lengthy games. Most people cannot afford to pay $70, or even half of that, for a few meager hours of entertainment, no matter how good those hours are. For many people, video games are not an artistic medium to be scrutinized and evaluated but simply a way to relax at the end of a long day. Creators, however, have been able to walk the line between quality and quantity in the past. Consider “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” often considered one of the best games of the decade. For those who want to speed through the game’s story right until the end, that’s an option. For those who would like to linger in the game’s world, solving puzzles and exploring for hundreds of hours, that’s an option too. “Breath of the Wild” tells the player “yes” at every turn, allowing the player to decide for themselves what sorts of activities are worth their time. 

“Breath of the Wild” is, of course, an impossible standard against which to compare all video games: Not everything is, or is trying to be, a masterpiece. But as the player base for video games continues to age away from the unconstrained time of youth, it’s time for game creators to consider efficiency. Especially if we’re paying top dollar for a game, we should be as free to apportion our time as we should be to spend days in a game’s world. 

I fully plan to replay “Control.” The second time around, I expect its punk-fueled, “Twin Peaks”-inspired experience to be even more viscerally entertaining. I don’t often replay games simply because of the sheer time commitment, so “Control” will be one of only a few games where I’ve seen the credits roll a second time. “FF7: Remake,” though, will stay in the past. I will treasure the memories it gave me, but ultimately my biggest takeaway is that I won’t be buying its sequels unless some major design changes are made. Luckily, Playstation Plus has continued to give me a ready supply of small, indie games that can be finished in a few hours. Maybe it’s time to lay down the giant sword and pick up something short and sweet.

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Noah Howard '21 is a junior from Sacramento, CA, who has been writing reviews since age eleven. He is interested in politics, hot sauce, and, of course, heated discussions about movies. Contact him at noah.howard 'at' stanford.edu.