What kind of material gets left out of the strongest video games? What would weaker games look like without any excess fat? Director's cuts could reveal broader lessons about the games that we play.
For all of its majestic landscapes and dramatic action sequences, Journey is an exceedingly tight experience. Journey's environments, art, and even its mechanics stick to the bare necessities in order to communicate the game's message.
It's hard to argue with the result. The game feels massive, but not monotonous. Meticulously designed, yet organic. Nothing feels out of place and nothing feels superfluous.
As someone who struggles to stay within word counts, I can spot a good editing job. I can't help but believe that creating Journey involved some extensive cuts and gradual refinement. As someone who plays a lot of games, I wish this "less is more" philosophy was more widespread. However, Journey's economic structure has led me to wonder exactly what was excised and what the game might look like in a more extended form. Basically, I'd be interested in a "director's cut," not just for Journey but for many of the games that I play.
Granted, this is a bit of a blue-sky idea. There are plenty of practical reasons that games get released the way they do. Tracking and shipping multiple versions of the same game would be expensive from both technically and financially. Another version of a game has the potential to confuse players and critics trying to decide the "right" version to play and discuss. Including extra levels or mechanics in a way that might resemble "deleted scenes" might also reveal trade secrets or internal processes that companies might want to keep private.
There are also plenty of artistic reasons to cut things. Film is a good analogy in this situation, as many great movies have gone through major shearing in the cutting room. The French colonial plantation in Apocalypse Now, Tuco's conversation with his gang in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Gandalf's confrontation with Saruman in Return of the King, all are examples of understandable cuts. In the interests of time, pacing, and accessibility, these scenes are omitted in the standard versions but still preserved for the most devoted viewers.
While I might want to see experimental tangents and extra material in Journey, I'd be happy to avoid the director's cut of many other games. I've recently been playing Silent Hill: Downpour and Muramasa: The Demon Blade and have found myself wishing there were simply less to do. Downpour's litany of sidequests might be interesting to extreme completionists or devoted Silent Hill scholars, but all of the extras serve to clutter the map and detract from the main story's thrust. Muramasa is a beautiful game with an interesting battle system, but after dozens of identical fights and copious amounts of backtracking, I'm beginning to burn out on its looks and its swordplay.
The culture surrounding video games is notoriously "content" focus. People (myself included) tend to fall into the habit of judging games based on loot variety, the number of quests, the size of the virtual world. To my dismay I've heard people grumble about the "value proposition" of my beloved Journey. In this climate, it's understandable why developers would take a kitchen sink approach to design. Bolting increasingly complex mechanics and padding out the time between major narrative turns makes for a long game, but it doesn't necessarily make it approachable or enjoyable.
It's hard to come to reach a conclusion on such a subjective assessment of content, but I think that offering more choice would provide the best solution. Despite the Internet's teeth gnashing, I support Mass Effect 3's customizable play experiences. Had I been offered a streamlined version of Downpour, I would have taken it. Who plays Silent Hill for the combat, anyway? This is one of the rare instances in which I actually support "unlockable" content. People devoted enough to look for extended/more difficult/experimental versions of a game are the types of people who are going to play it multiple times anyway.
It's clear that thatgamecompany wanted me to have a very focused experience during my first playthrough of Journey, but I would have been grateful for a peek behind the curtain once I finished the game. It's hard to fully understand a creative work in a vacuum and I'd love the option of being able to construct a broader historical and artistic trajectory of the games that I play just as much as I'd enjoy the luxury of playing through a game that respects my time. By embracing the director's cut, I think we could accommodate both virtual tourists and the in-game archaeologists who want to see what's buried under the digital sand.