How many of you out there work for a boss of sorts? In a cubicle, at a cash register, or wherever you are, you probably answer to someone. And it’s a tiring existence, I’m sure. The majority of those in some superior position have failed to keep up with modern sensibilities: it’s not about butts in seats but rather about the quality of those butts.
Allow me to rephrase. It’s about the quality of the work those butts produce. It’s never made sense to me to force people into an office to work when they could do it just as well in any other place in the world like coffee shops or park benches or grounded hot air balloons. Maybe it’s just an engineer or developer’s perspective, but the work of one hour of a quality employee is worth a dozen of a mediocre one.
It’s crazy to think we still judge games, then, on some temporal metric. Saying, for instance, that a game that averages 15 hours on a single campaign playthrough is intrinsically better than one with a five-hour runtime seems patently absurd. Those additional 10 hours could be anything—brain-bleeding cutscenes or irredeemable glitches—and that should be the differentiator.
When criticism flowed in at four-hour Call of Duty narratives, it was a flag to rally around for revolution. There was change looming large, and it would force us to rethink this previously ingrained notion of duration equating to some facet of quality. This is how we ended up years later with a two-hour game called Journey that could win Game of the Year awards.
This debate, however, got brought up again recently with the release of Ready at Dawn’s The Order: 1886. An extremely cinematic and stupidly good-looking game about an alternative history London where a loosely Arthurian order of knights fights against supernatural half-breed beasts, The Order: 1886 has received a rather lukewarm greeting after buckets of hype and promise.
There is a virtue to short games, but there is also a virtue to long games. In fact, calling them either short or long is a disservice to the end result. The true value lies in a game—or book or movie or song—being precisely as long as it needs to be. (And absolutely a relativistic monetary value comes into play, but we can address that at another time.)
Think about Gone Home, for example. Had it been even an hour longer—it runs somewhere around two hours—the potency and urgency of rushing to its frenetic conclusion would have been lost. And if Dragon Age: Origins had been anything less than its usual 50-ish hours, you wouldn’t fully develop a sense of choices and consequences and the immense line you’d started drawing weeks prior.
That’s certainly where there is legitimacy to the criticism against The Order: 1886. Clocking in around seven or so hours, it’s mostly at the top of the bell curve for solo campaigns nowadays. The problem is that it doesn’t even finish its story.
For most narratives, there’s a predictable arc across three acts. This, however, is a very broad framework. Within it you can garner an impossibly wide range of plots across every genre you can think of. The gist, though, is that you get an introduction, a complication, and a resolution. That is the flow to an eventual catharsis present in every story.
The Order: 1886, however, stops dead at the end of the second act—maybe even a little before it. Even the complication that it leaves hanging feels rather incomplete in its complicating. This is an example where a game’s brevity is a problem. It’s not that you don’t get some commensurate value out of your monetary exchange but that it doesn’t even finish what it sets out to do.
Or, if it did, then that’s even more problematic because now you have either an unsatisfying tale or some hanging paranoia that you can buy the conclusion as DLC. Either way, it’s a poor outcome for the player. You are left feeling cheated, maybe even a little confused, and rightly so.
It’s a game that just isn’t as long as it needs to be. Perhaps it’s a sign of an immature storyteller, conflating the ideas of cliffhangers and a denial of resolution. Or perhaps it’s a sign of a rushed development, leaving a potentially huge chunk on the cutting room floor.
It even forced Ready at Dawn founder Ru Weerasuriya to respond after a full playthrough leaked online. “I’ve played games that lasted two hours that were better than games that I played for 16 hours. That’s the reality of it. Gameplay length for me is so relative to quality. It’s just like a movie. Just because a movie is three hours long, it doesn’t make it better.”
Unfortunately, The Order: 1886 has other, far more noteworthy problems than its duration. It also has many praiseworthy elements, but all of that will be saved for further analysis at a later date. (The story needs more room to breathe but its gameplay doesn’t support more time even though most of it is cutscenes anyways.) This problem with the game, though, has sparked the most discussion and debate.
It’s not that every game needs to be 12 hours and have online multiplayer and offline co-op and seasons of DLC that follow to justify a $60 price tag, but stories do need to finish. We naturally seek out the terminus to narratives and in this aspect we are left wanting. Game should only be as long as they need to be, and The Order: 1886 is not that.