Many will remember 2015 as the year their pile of shame became an imposing and insurmountable tower, never to be toppled. In order to do justice to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Fallout 4, Pillars of Eternity, and GTA V, you’d realistically need to withdraw from society entirely for upwards of three months and retrain yourself to sleep only in 15-minute bursts. It’s getting harder to keep up.
Since we're looking back on the year, why not check out our best PC games of 2015?
Because, on the face of it, 2015 indicates a growing expectation on the game developer’s part that you’re happy to spend at least 20 hours of your time on one particular title. It was the year open worlds became more open and filled with more colourful trinkets, storylines stretched over longer spans, and upgrade paths strolled off towards infinity. Our attention spans might all have eroded well beyond the ability to read a book or hold a conversation with a loved one, but we’ll spend enough time in the Afghan desert to assemble an entire offshore base of soldiers by individually neutralising and extracting them.
But while the big studios seem convinced we all want epic experiences (‘epic’ being the big studio game dev’s favourite word after ‘badass’), creators with smaller budgets and fewer resources are focusing on and redefining the videogame quick fix. They’re making nu-school arcade games that require minimal time investments to get something rewarding out of them. They’re writing visual novels that take you on a succinct, tightly wound hour-long journey, and episodic content drops that provide an evening’s entertainment every few weeks. While the triple-As are crowing about size and length, they’re turning brevity into a strength.
And why not? There’s undeniably a market for it. A 2014 Entertainment Software Association study reveals the average gamer to be 31 years old. Without straying into too many sweeping generalisations, that’s an age at which a great many things make demands of your time. You no longer get the long summer holidays to catch up on the long games. Developers, particularly indies, seem to be paying closer attention to the ‘average’ gamer’s habits, and the quiet proliferation of short-form games in 2015 is a clear indication of that.
There are two distinct branches of this short-form subculture: on one side there’s Rocket League, which rewards every 20 minutes you’re able to snatch from the clutches of adult responsibility with rewarding, self-contained gameplay. On the other, there’s Her Story, whose cinematic run time makes it possible to complete in a single sitting. Both games found huge audiences in 2015, and while it’d be impossible to quantify how much of their success can be attributed to their time requirements, you’d imagine it didn’t hurt their appeal.
I’m certainly drawn to these shorter experiences. I like long-form games a lot too, of course, but there’s only so much you can achieve in a single evening session playing, say, Fallout 4. Maybe I’ll complete a primary quest and spruce up Sanctuary a bit, and sure, you could call that progress. But games like this put so much time and effort into building atmosphere and creating immersion. Dipping in for an hour here and there feels at odds with the concept.
So when I hear that I can complete Funcom’s horror/adventure The Park in an hour and a half, or that I can polish off an episode of Life is Strange in a similar duration, I’m all ears. Here’s an experience I can digest in its entirety in one concerted effort, with little or no collectibles bobbing around in my wake to leave me with the nagging sensation I missed something.
That’s the really interesting thing about short-form games: structure. It’s a chance to play with the form, and by doing so play with our expectations. The Stanley Parable creators William Pugh and Davey Wreden might be considered masters of the short-form title, and both released new games in 2015 that prey on your expectations, even terrorise them.
Pugh’s Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist is over and done with in under 30 minutes. Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide takes roughly 90 minutes to complete. The objectives and messages of the two games are entirely different, and tonally they’re worlds apart. But they share an atmosphere, in that for the duration of either game you never feel sure what’s expected of you as a player. Are you doing it right? Did you miss something? Both designers feed off that uncertainty, and it only exists because short-form gaming is such a rare experience, and an under-used narrative device.
The Beginner’s Guide in particular draws the comparison to a Let’s Play video. There’s a voice guiding you through the whole experience, providing critical commentary and companionship in much the same way YouTubers and Twitch streamers do. Not only would that structure and narrative approach grow tiresome over the course of a traditional six-hour solo experience, it’d put a huge strain on development. By limiting his game’s length, Wreden’s able to draw comparisons to a media form that in itself says a lot about the way we consume games in 2015. Very meta.
Elsewhere in 2015, Tales From The Borderlands, Life is Strange, et al helped to cement episodic gaming as one of the most exciting formats we have. Telltale used it to extend the Borderlands universe in all the right directions, maintaining a joke success rate that seemed impossible to maintain – until they did.
Dontnod, meanwhile, managed to use the episodic format to extend gaming into cinematic non-genre territory, keeping you in the moment with thoughtful camera positioning and an acoustic low-fi soundtrack. Life is Strange is teeming with literary and film references and conventions ranging from The Catcher in the Rye to Donnie Darko by way of Twin Peaks, but at the same time presents themes that feel unexplored in gaming. Its melange of big and small screen influences makes that bit more sense when you’re playing in film-like sessions.
Perhaps part of the appeal of these narrative-led games isn’t entirely in their length but rather in their linearity. At least part of the reason the Assassin’s Creeds and Witchers can seem so overwhelming is that they don’t just require a long period of commitment, they also pull you in many different directions with side quests and optional activities. Tale of Tales’ Sunset, on the other hand, makes it clear exactly what’s expected of you for every second you play it. You could just as easily level that as a complaint about a game as a compliment – it’s how that linearity is used for dramatic effect that separates the good short-form games from the bad.
If you decide to devote, let’s say, two hours to Annualised Ubisoft Open World Game, there’s no guarantee that your time and effort will unearth meaningful, coherent content. It’s entirely possible that you might spend two hours searching for collectibles, travelling between disparate points on a map as per a mission’s directions, or harvesting resources to improve your gear or stats. Give that same two hours to a short-form and, crucially, a linear game, and you have entirely different expectations about the intensity and dilution of the content you’re about to experience.
There’s also the question of value. In short: no one has yet to devise a metric by which we determine a game’s financial worth. Development cost is a major factor, certainly, but it isn’t the only one. Game length is an even trickier yardstick. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain costs £39.99/$49.99 and offers potentially 100+ hours of gameplay. On the other hand, 2014’s Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes has carried a $19.99/£16.99 price tag for most of its lifespan, and offers between 90 minutes and six hours of gameplay, depending on your willingness to replay its single area and hunt for additional objectives and collectibles.
What that tells us is there’s no direct correlation between price and length. However, there are still certain expectations. If there weren’t, sub-30 minute experiences such as Emily is Away, Pink Heaven, Keep Them Below, Close Your Eyes wouldn’t be going for free on Steam. It’s a mixed message: on the one hand, releasing a game without a financial element allows the developer absolute creative freedom, and space for experimentation without the danger of scathing user reviews. Maybe you didn’t enjoy it, but hey – it was free.
On the other hand, it perhaps implies that there’s less value in a game that gets every component of its fifteen-minute duration right than there is in a 50-hour game full of bugs, recycled assets and lazy design ideas.
It’s this conflict that’s going to define the future of short-form videogames. Either we’re going to be willing to pay for games that we’ll complete in an evening, and thus encourage the best and brightest to experiment in that space, or we won’t, and it’ll increasingly become the realm of playable prototypes and interactive development portfolios.
Or, perhaps there’s a third option, in which disparate games from the same developer are arranged in episodic format for the ease of the accompanying payment model. There isn’t one outcome that’ll be ‘better’ for the industry – either way, talented creators will craft games that we’ll get to enjoy. What matters right now is that currently these games exist, providing a perfect counter-balance to the year’s headline-dominating releases, and inviting in a breed of gamer who may otherwise feel kept at arm’s length by the word ‘epic.’