Short Games

by L.B. Jeffries

14 April 2009


One of the more interesting by-products of the internet is that games are continually exploring topics beyond the usual blockbuster action romps. Not needing to make a profit, easy distribution, and low technical requirements are proving to be the perfect recipe for games to start abandoning conventions and pushing the medium forward. Of all the things to get cut first, length is probably the most welcome. Rich Carlson explains in a column about creating Strange Adventures in Infinite Space that cutting the playtime of the game not only made it much more fun to play but also easier to make. They rely on the basic structure of a game like NetHack, numerous random variables with clearly defined goals, and base your score on meeting a certain time limit. The result is a kind of abbreviated Star Control 2 where you explore the galaxy, occasionally uncover a plot (it’s random if it even occurs), and generally finish all of this in ten to twenty minutes. In some games you will save the galaxy, in others you won’t get enough gear and will get blasted apart before winning. You don’t build ships, diplomacy is mostly random, and huge chunks of the story can be missed with no real loss to the game. The sense of loss that we’d normally feel is gone because of the low time commitment and the fact that you can just start playing again. What’s telling about this shortened game is that although they rely on the basic structure of the larger game, in order to cut back on length they also cut back on the game design options.

Approaching the topic of shortened games from a different angle, several games have recently come out that mock our expectations by providing more options than the game requires. The browser hit You Have To Burn The Rope basically follows the Strange Adventures in Infinite Space approach: the core game design is intact but the game is significantly shorter. The joke of the game is all the unnecessary abilities your character has like throwing axes or broadcasting the solution to the boss right from the start. You only need to grab a torch and burn the chandelier, but the setup is so much like a conventional 2-D game that our expectations make us think the game will be more complex. You expect it to have jumping puzzles or smaller enemies to fight.

It’s the same tactic that Gravity Bone uses (Spoilers now abound), the game is mocking what you thought was going to happen. It goes through this elaborate process of setting up a game and mechanics (right down to missing a few weapons in the hotkey sequence) only to yank the carpet out from under you. We have our prize stolen, go through a lengthy chase after it, and eventually see a disjointed series of images before the game ends. The excessive and missing options are being mocked by the short length of the game.

A variation on this concept can be seen in Penn & Teller’s Desert Bus by taking a very long game and filling it with few options. You literally just hold the gas and adjust the steering for hours while nothing happens. The joke, once again, is our expectation that something must happen eventually to make all this work worthwhile. The best you’ll get is that a fly hits the window if you go long enough. 

This is remarkable because if you can reduce player frustration to losing by cutting down on time commitment, you’ve just solved one of the largest problems in video games. Any time you try to make an artistic statement beyond, “You’re awesome and you’re the winner!” in a video game, you have to accept that you’re technically insulting the player. Take a game like Persona 4 which has several potentially terrible endings after you’ve crossed the 60 hour mark. Punishing a player for making a few ambiguous decisions about leadership in a dialogue tree by


the game is ridiculously out of proportion. One can eventually appreciate the behavior the game is trying to encourage, but that tends to get lost in the anger and disgust that follows the exchange. The reaction, just as it is in Mass Effect or any other game that has choices with consequences, is to just replay the game until we get an ending that feels “right”. An indie game called Execution experimented with this problem by creating a game where the decisions are permanent despite quitting or reloading. As pointed out in our quick write-up on the game, if games are going to teach us a moral than we have to be prepared to accept consequences from them. 

If games are just experience generating machines, then when they’re longer the possible experiences they can generate is always going to be limited. You have to always somehow validate the player because they’ve just dumped hours into the game. Games have tweaked this by simply making the darker ending be linear or having confining choices, but that’s just as disingenuous for the opposite reasons. You’ve ceased to rely on the thing that makes it a game if you just force the experience on the person. By making the game significantly shorter, we can still rely on the power of choice as a teaching tool without having the consequences be too great when you try to teach them about failure.

This discussion would not be complete without pointing out one of the first games I’ve seen actually attempt something like this. The Graveyard can’t be mentioned without generating some kind of argument about video games because it does what Gravity Bone and You Have to Burn The Rope do. Except it’s not making a joke about our expectations from all the options presented, like Desert Bus it’s making a point about the lack of them. While many have argued that The Graveyard does not even qualify as a game at all, it’s certainly a variation on the concept. It’s the choices that aren’t there that suddenly have meaning. The creators have described it as more of a painting that you can explore or an experimental story. Although the appeal of using a game to literally walk around a painting has been tested before, The Graveyard is just proposing that this is enough by itself. The tiny touches, like randomly dying or sitting on the bench, are just details to the experience being created. The fact that it is a very brief, limited one should not disqualify its merits when we’re perfectly willing to accept such limitations provided the game is trying to be funny. If video games can be profound through choices, then they can be equally profound through a lack of them. It’s just that the game needs to be a lot shorter if you plan do that.

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