Size Matters

[I’m banging this out from a cramped metal chair aboard an Airbus A380 somewhere over Bakersfield, California. On an iPad. Prepare accordingly.]

I haven’t played Portal 2 yet, but I’m sure it’s great because everyone says it’s the best, like Portal but better, way more better. There’s more portals, more puzzles and more saucy robot proctors than ever before, plus it’s four times as long as it’s predecessor!

Hype like that makes me nervous; the brevity of Portal was what made it special, and after playing through it in three hours I was happy. Satisfied. Content.

I appreciate that the folks at Valve poured a significant portion of their professional lives into making Portal 2 bigger and better in every way, but I’m not sure how to handle all that extra girth. Swollen single-player experiences are outdated; episodic gaming is where it’s at, but not the way you think. Instead of working our way through single-player campaigns that drag on for six, twelve or twenty hours, why not play through multiple short stories in the course of playing a game to completion?

Consider the merits of the anthology vs. the novel. Cracking the spine of a proper tome from the likes of Dostoyevsky or David Foster Wallace is uniquely satisfying, and that satisfaction stems in part from the demands a skilled author places on your powers of perception, attention and deduction. The Brothers Karamazov isn’t great because it takes twelve hours to complete; it’s great because Dostoyevsky spins a straightforward murder mystery from threads of love and jealousy, pride and shame, faith and reason. There’s a murder, a trial, a battle of wits between man and the Devil, and none of it feels forced; my copy is 700 pages long because (after edits) that’s how long it needed to be. Nobody grinds through a great book.

Games are different. They’ve inherited a legacy of time sinks from their progenitors among the successful arcade machines and home consoles of the 20th century. With time we’ve witnessed classic mechanics like the boss fight, the trash mob and the reflex test outgrow their usefulness as quarter-munchers and claw their way into contemporary game design. They are shameful shibboleths of our past, and should be discarded.

But the way I see it, arcades aren’t solely to blame; I can remember a time when sinking sixty hours into Star Ocean 2 or Icewind Dale was an after-school ritual I relished. You probably did the same, and I encourage you to set aside nostalgia for a moment and consider that games like Final Fantasy VII weren’t great. They were long. They had lots of stats and spells and gear and weird sidequests, and you could blow six months breeding the ultimate Chocobo to battle the Ultima Weapon (or was it Emerald?) and claim the Ultima Sword to ensure you not only trounced the final boss, you laid him out without taking a single hit.

This was great, because we all grew up poor and had to walk ten miles uphill both ways to school and earn the grades that convinced our parents that games were a relatively harmless way of keeping us entertained during the holidays. We only got one or two new games a year, so they were guaranteed (in our tiny eyes) to be great. We needed these gems to last as long as possible, in hopes they might not lose their luster before the next birthday/holiday/divorce. They were all we had. Who can blame developers for creating games like the ones they grew up playing?

I can. Grindfests like Pokemon will always sell, but we’re witnessing the rise to power of a generation that grew up with games and it’s time to start developing games for grown-ups.

We’re preparing for the final descent, so fasten your seatbelts and imagine that Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t have a single hero; it has five, and you can play through their stories in any order. Each character has a unique story that demands 4-6 hours of your time to play out in a shared open world, overlapping and intermingling with each other to set a greater story in motion and create interactive entertainment that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s like The Wire, except the seasons are concurrent instead of consecutive. In season one you could play a corrupt beat cop who looks the other way when Omar comes calling, while in season two you might play a struggling street soldier trying to hold her corner. In season three, you might just be Omar.

I don’t make games, and I don’t claim to lecture professionals on how to go about their business. Game development is fucking hard. But I know we can do this, because we’ve done it before with the release of The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. We wouldn’t even need to drastically change the development process, as the lion’s share of development time goes into designing an engine and crafting a world to play in. The contemporary gaming anthology is possible, but we need a big-budget developer willing to take risks and tackle new ideas.

We also need a fat-finger mode for tablet keyboards. Fuck this.

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