I know a lot of you already know this, but as you get older and responsibilities add up, ‘free time’ feels the pinch. These days, most of my TV-necessary play time (which is usually for work purposes, anyway) happens when the family’s gone to bed, anywhere between 10pm and 2am. It’s in these hours, when I should have been snoozing my way to the next day’s nine-to-five, that I work-played through The Last of Us Part II and Final Fantasy VII Remake in 2020; Control and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order in 2019; and so on.
Whether I’ve liked the games above or not – and I mostly like three of them very much – what they have in common is that they’ve all felt extraordinarily long while also playing in a largely linear fashion. Which is to say, these are not vast, hours-losing open-worlders like Breath of the Wild (over 200 hours to date on that one) and The Witcher 3 (over 400 hours, across platforms and playthroughs). While there’s a degree of backtracking and exploration opportunities in all four of them, they’re ultimately more in the ‘action-adventure’ vein than anything else. There is a direct line to be taken through them – and that line is long.
When the credits finally rolled on my playthrough of The Last of Us Part II, I’d been staring at it for over 27 hours. I appreciate it can be finished in a shorter time than that – but I wanted to explore a little (my stats, however, say: not nearly enough), and my playstyle of the first game was very much ‘push into every corner to see if a little triangle pops up’.
Just as the moment-to-moment action of the sequel adds nothing radical to the formula of the first game (read our review of it here), so my approach to playing through its combat set-pieces and stealth beats remained largely unchanged from seven years ago. The big difference: the first game took me a good ten hours less to finish, with the same commitment to corner-poking and open-door peeking.
I’m not here (again) to poke holes in The Last of Us Part II, because it’s flavour of the month or anything like that. It’s simply the latest example of a largely linear (its openness is only ever an illusion, enclosed by tiny barriers that can’t be vaulted) action-adventure video game, created at great cost, which pads out its running time with content that adds very little to the experience.
While it too suffered from a little flab around its more fantastic moments, the original The Last of Us was arguably a more potent piece of storytelling, a more affecting experience overall, than its sequel through virtue of a more compact duration. If you were left hanging, it got you back to that crucial plot point with clarity and purpose. The Last of Us Part II definitely doesn’t do the same.
Tl;dr: if The Last of Us Part II was a TV show, the second season of one (new characters, new locations, new motivations), it’d have likely benefited from incisive editing that, while acknowledging the intent of the content to be removed, was more committed to a ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ attitude. But because there’s been such a market drive in this generation of console gaming for experiences that span several hours of a player’s time, and that apparently represent value for money because of that, it’s weighed down by too many play-the-same sequences of sneaking and stabbing. And I know: that’s the game. But do we really need so much of it, for the game to be good?
I’d argue: no, we don’t. And while this idea’s long rattled around my head, that today’s triple-A games could do with a little nipping and tucking (hire experienced story editors, as well as scriptwriters!), it’s interesting to see former PlayStation executive Shawn Layden coming out yesterday (June 23) to say that he’d welcome a return to shorter big-budget experiences. That tells me that it’s not just my tired bones talking here, skewing my appreciation of what others have called a masterpiece. That tells me that the bigger studios of the games industry need to remember that you can have too much of a good thing.
Speaking to VentureBeat journalist Dean Takahashi as part of Gamelab Live, Layden said: “Personally, as an older gamer… I would welcome a return to the 12- to 15-hour [triple-A] game. I’d finish more games, first of all, and just like a well-edited piece of literature or a movie, looking at the discipline around that could give us tighter, more compelling content. It’s something I’d like to see a return to, in this business.”
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Layden also remarked that the time it takes to create games like The Last of Us Part II, God of War (2018) and Red Dead Redemption 2, and the escalated costs therein, simply isn’t sustainable unless some serious thought is put into what games like this retail for. He said that while the US dollar price of a new game has pretty much remained at a constant $60 for the last few generations, the cost of making the games has “gone up ten times”.
“How can we look at that, and say: is there another answer?” he said. “Instead of spending five years making an 80-hour game, what does three years and a 15-hour game look like?”
To which I would say: it could look very good indeed, and has done in previous generations. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is generally regarded as the best title in Naughty Dog’s other current action-adventure series, right? The PlayStation 3 release can be completed in 10 hours or so. The lead Uncharted game for PlayStation 4, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, is more like 16 or 17 hours to get through – and a lot more if you’re chasing a platinum trophy. If you’ve played both of them, can you really say that the extra time spent in the latter added up to a richer, more memorable experience? I know I can’t.
Uncharted 4 was said to have a completion rate of around 40% in 2017 – that figure may have gone down, what with its PS Plus inclusion in April 2020. I don’t think that’s a bad rate for a long, linear-style game – but if you’re one of its makers, you must surely be slightly bummed out that 60% of players never saw your game through to the end, right? That they didn’t reach the climax of the story, in a game where narrative is king and the action largely a vehicle for its progress? There are myriad factors at play in anyone’s individual experience, of course. We all have our reasons for not seeing a game through. But if the game in question was even five hours shorter, how much higher would that completion percentage be?
When I spoke to some of the talent behind GAMINGbible’s 2019 game of the year, Control, they said that the number of people who’d finished it was “relatively high, compared to other games”. But they acknowledged that there were parts of the game that, if they could do them over, they’d change, because it was at these “pain points” where player numbers really fell off. Control takes between 15 and 20 hours to finish, depending on how many times you die at the hands of the same boss and have to track back to them from the game’s intermittent respawn points. It’s also very easy to get lost in the game’s environment, its look-alike grey corridors and practical offices – a design choice (read the signs!), but in hindsight it does add many minutes to the run time without much in the way of a notable, memorable return. I love a lot about Control, but those moments? I could have so done without them.
And it’s really this, I suppose, artificial expanding, inflating, of triple-A game run times that I want to see a rethink of. Does a game like Uncharted 4, God of War, or The Last of Us Part II need that many hack-and-slash or duck-and-snipe or sneak-and-stab sequences between point A and B of a given chapter, for that chapter to work? I don’t feel that they do.
And I’m not saying: all big-budget video games need to be shorter, so I can finish them quicker and sleep longer (although, also, I am a bit). I am saying: players en masse, all of us, need to be more understanding that the quality of a game, especially a linear action-adventure game, shouldn’t be measured in hours taken to reach its ending. Because if the journey’s full of pauses, pit-stops and restarts; of encounters that are repeated to the point where any impact they had has been muted and dulled; then doesn’t the destination feel that little bit less special? Your own mileage may vary, but that’s definitely my experience.
Just to return to Layden’s comment on a “return” to how triple-A games were, in the last generation – it’s in the 360 and PS3 era that I think the short, sharp, spectacular action-adventure game campaign was really perfected. Which is not to say that examples haven’t emerged in this generation – how you doin’, Titanfall 2, you perfect little thing, you.
But when I think back to games like Vanquish, Bayonetta 2, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and other games that aren’t made by Platinum – like Max Payne 3 (beatable in around 10 hours), Dead Space (about the same), Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (about nine), and Portal 2 (more like eight) – I realise that most of my favourite, most fondly thought of action video games are those where the padding’s been almost entirely stripped away. These aren’t games that were made with thoughts of hours of play per dollar spent in mind. They were made the way they were because that was the right way to make them.
Of course, I can’t know that God of War or Uncharted 4 were made with such thoughts bouncing around the development teams in question. No doubt they were created with the feeling that all of this adds value. But I know that if the next generation of games is set on repeating this generation’s habit of pushing linear experiences to the point where completion rates are low and tolerances for playing through the same sequences wane, then an unsustainable amount of money and time will be going into experiences that underdeliver on their potential and have their narrative potency compromised. And, ultimately, triple-A studios will be left hurting financially, after such substantial investment, when they have to push their lengthy dev-time products to retail at traditionally acceptable price points.
Featured Image Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment / Remedy Entertainment and 505 Games