Saturday, July 14, 2012

There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Content

A common complaint with video games is that they're sometimes too short, or just generally lacking in content; I don't think I've ever heard a professional reviewer claim a game had too much content. With video games, it seems almost universal that the bigger it is, and the more stuff there is to do, the better the game turns out. Well, I'm beginning to think that there is such a thing as too much content. The acceptable length of a movie, for example, is anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours -- much longer than that and the film can become a burden to continue watching. Likewise, I feel that certain games can outstay their welcome by being too long or simply having too much content to experience.

There are obviously major differences in the way we consume video games and movies, however. Like novels, video games are meant to be experienced over multiple sessions, so when you get tired of playing the game, you can just stop and come back to it later, and you can often pick and choose what content to experience in a video game -- something you can't really do with a movie or novel. These two elements are what make the acceptable length of video games range anywhere from five hours to 100 hours. Generally speaking, longer games are more "epic" and "grandiose," but some games are at their best when they're short and sweet. Because some games are too long for their own good.

Gothic 3, for example, is a very large game that ultimately suffers because it's so large. It's the type of game that, much like The Elder Scrolls, proves that "bigger isn't always better" when it comes to video games. There's a crap-ton of content to experience in Gothic 3, but it's really repetitive and shallow, as if a lot of it was designed simply to exist as content-padding to make it a bigger game. It's extremely enervating to play because they stretched everything out so thin that it just ends up taking more time to accomplish basic things. The psychological reward cycle of Gothic 3 is somewhat similar to an MMORPG in that regard -- it keeps you occupied longer in the grand scheme of things, but wastes your time with tedious, repetitive busywork in the smaller scale.

The Elder Scrolls falls victim to this as well, but at least parts of a typical TES game are designed to be entirely optional. Like eating at a buffet, you have a wide amount of things to choose from, and you don't have to try everything to enjoy the experience. The problem with TES, however, is not so much about total game length, but rather that, since everything is designed to be optional, a lot of the game ends up feeling inconsequential and extraneous. It doesn't really matter if you do this guild's quests or not, because they're not going to impact anything else. There's a lot to experience in a TES game, but there's so much of it that it kind of ruins the overall pacing of the game when things aren't tied together in any kind of meaningful way.

Skyrim even boasts such a gimmick as "infinite quests." The idea is that the game can spawn an infinite number of quests from NPCs so that you can continue to immerse yourself in the game world indefinitely with supposedly new content. The very essence of this design element is typical of Bethesda's signature "quantity is better than quality" mindset; what good is having an infinite number of quests when they're all incredibly shallow, dull, and pointless? These are quests essentially designed from a computer algorithm mixing and matching different variables to produce some kind of formulaic, cookie-cutter quest structure -- they simply have no soul. Skyrim would've been better off if Bethesda spent more time fleshing out their important quests, rather than simply trying to make as many as possible.

Meanwhile, Skyrim may be the first game in history to make fighting dragons completely boring. Sure, the first couple of encounters are pretty exciting, but they become wearisome rather quickly because of the alarming frequency with which they randomly show up to pester you like gnats. They get so old and repetitive after a while, and the final boss follows the exact same gameplay mechanic as every other dragon you'd fought 30-60 times previously. How about having fewer dragon encounters, and making each one more unique? Demon's Souls, for example, has only a handful of dragon encounters, but the impact of each one is so much more significant because they function a little differently in each scenario, offering a unique experience each time.

Games don't have to be long to be a great value. Portal is a really short game, and it works well because it's short; it only presents the cream of its crop. Portal 2, on the other hand, is much longer, but it's got a fair amount of filler content. It's still a good game, but it doesn't feel as tight or cohesive as the first one did. The value of some games is legitimately hurt, however, by a lack of consistent content. The first Risen, for example, starts out great, and then the entire second half feels like a mere skeleton of a game, and it really detracts from the experience. But while Risen's imbalanced content is disappointing, at least it doesn't needlessly waste your time with long, tedious repetition like some other games do.

I think the ultimate point I'm getting at is that I like it when games have focus. Rather than just tossing content in for the sake of extra content, I prefer it when games offer a cohesive experience where everything compliments one another, working towards some ultimate experience. I like open-world games, but these are the games that are perhaps most likely to create excessively large, unmanageable landscapes with lots of completely extraneous and often repetitive content. I'm not saying everything needs to be streamlined into one compact experience, but that games are usually better when they focus on creating deeper, more dynamic content that's greater than the sum of its parts -- even if that means the game is shorter. Quality is ultimately more important than quantity.

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