Infinite Weekends: In Search of the Perfect Video Game Length

Elden Ring made me incredibly sick. Ever since I managed to finish up the game at exactly 8:15 AM on March 11th, I have had a sore throat, blocked nose and thumping headache. Now, this may be due to the fact that on the previous Friday I went out and drank far too much (and even attended, God help me, a nightclub), but I think I’ll stick with the narrative that FromSoft’s latest, grotesquely long RPG was the main contributing factor. Was it worth it? The short answer is a hesitant yes and the long answer requires a more in-depth look at current gaming trends and the state of the industry’s Triple-A output. It wouldn’t be controversial to claim that most games are getting longer, that’s pretty much a fact at this point. Almost every familiar mainstream series, whether Western or Eastern, has embraced the expansive, open-world formula – focusing on experiences that are designed to last you at least 100+ hours. Elden Ring feels like the pinnacle of ridiculously huge action RPGs, presenting players with a game world of such staggering scale that it made me bust a gut laughing every time the map expanded in another direction (sideways, upwards, underground – it never stopped). As much as I gushed about the size of the Lands Between in my initial impressions of the game, it only took about forty more hours of playtime for diminishing returns to set in.

Love chopping up guys on horseback for one billion hours.

You see, Elden Ring really is a staggering achievement in so many ways but is simultaneously too much of a good thing, like five full-sized birthday cakes you’re expected to consume in one sitting (candles and all). In the time it will take for most people to beat the game, they could probably polish off playthroughs of Dark Souls 1, 2, 3 and maybe even Bloodborne; titles that are all a digestible length. Obviously, this is going to be a matter of personal preference, some gamers are of the mindset that bigger is simply better and that more content (if of high quality) is always a good thing. However, Elden Ring, while arguably one of the best open-world experiences so far, is still just that, an open-world game. Concepts, enemies and indoor locations are re-used, and you can expect to fight at least eight palette-swapped dragons over the course of your adventure. The game is padded in areas and the current difficulty scaling means that the entire experience can occasionally dip into a frustrating combination of difficult and repetitive. In an attempt to ensure that Elden Ring is engaging throughout, early-game enemies are reintroduced in later areas and are buffed to be as strong as your player character. Remember those giant ants you were carving through in an underground tunnel three weeks ago? They’re back, and they can kill you in two hits. As good as the game is, and it is really damn good, I can’t help but feel that shaving twenty hours off of the experience would’ve done it a world of good. For me, personally, 70-80 hours is pushing the limit of an enjoyable length for a single-player adventure and no game, no matter how well-designed it is, can consistently produce surprising, fresh content for that amount of time. The previous Souls games often doubled up on bosses despite their shorter length (you’ve fought one giant gargoyle, now fight two!) and Elden Ring stretches that concept to its breaking point – prepare to fight doubled and even tripled versions of the same boss monsters in several, very similar-looking catacombs and caves. Nothing would have been lost if there were fewer things to do in the game.

I’m going to KILL long games.

After my mixed feelings on the last third of Elden Ring and my (still present) illness, I endeavoured to find something short and sweet to play through. I am, however, an idiot and immediately tried to start up both Fallout 4 and the new Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. The former is just as aggressively mediocre as I remember, but scratched that New Vegas, but not New Vegas itch that briefly overcame me in my delirious state. The new Final Fantasy spin-off has goofy, campy potential, but the bright-ish colours and Nioh-style systems make my brain feel like it’s going to explode. Smacking some sense into myself, I downloaded two titles from the PSN store – The Journey Down (an Afro-Caribbean adventure game in the style of the old LucasArts point and clicks), which I have yet to play, but am very excited to give it a go, and the free visual novel prequel to the upcoming Ghostwire: Tokyo, aptly titled Ghostwire: Tokyo – Prelude Corrupted Case File. I am somewhat looking forward to the full Ghostwire experience, so immediately decided upon giving this odd little freebie a spin. The best thing I can say about the game is that it lived up to my desire for something short. In fact, it is so ridiculously short that I’m forcing myself to write this article lest I completely forget about it in the space of a couple days. Bringing with it all the nuance and content of an early 2000’s Newgrounds flash game (and even that is doing the website a disservice), Corrupted Case File wraps up in the space of about ten to fifteen minutes. The visual novel introduces us to KK and his merry band of paranormal investigators as they research a wave of ghostly activity that is sweeping over Japan and, specifically, Shibuya. The art is fine, the dialogue is fine, and the small number of gameplay systems present are frivolous at best (hope you like a one-off, rock, paper, scissors style turn-based battle that lasts all of two minutes, while also having a random failure state). The whole experience feels like it was made into a visual novel because somebody believed visual novels require the least amount of work. Indeed, the omnipresent, intrusive narrator within Corrupted Case File is proof enough that Tango Gameworks don’t exactly have the greatest understanding of the genre. Visual novels are intended to deftly combine dialogue with visual representation and having a voice that exists outside of the game to tell you exactly what is happening feels oxymoronic – we, as players, can be shown the sequence of events. Spoken character interaction should really be the focus of any VN worth its salt and, despite the team’s best efforts, this free prelude comes up completely short. We get a little glimpse of what these characters are like personality-wise, but it’s barely enough to leave any sort of impact. KK is cool, one of the female characters is young, the other does things by the book and there’s a socially awkward white guy who answers most of the questions posed to him by playing back his own voice on a tape recorder. There’s, forgive the pun, the ghost of an interesting party here – a group of characters who can play off each other’s differences in a compelling way – but half an hour isn’t enough time to really let them interact. I can only assume that this group of individuals will have more presence and impact in the actual Ghostwire: Tokyo, but this small prologue fails to pose any interesting questions or set up any stakes. As far as we know, these people exist in the game world and that’s it. Very cool!

Woah! Check out this wacky duo!

Going by my recent experiences, I can confidently claim that the ideal single-player game length is anywhere in between half an hour and eighty, or at least that’s what I’d be saying if I had the mental aptitude of a duck. The perfect game length is, obviously, entirely dependent on the genre and content of the game in question. Elden Ring gets as close as any game can really get to justifying its truly monumental size but falls short when it starts to repeat itself. Corrupted Case File is a sad example of something that really shouldn’t have existed to begin with, a freebie so slight and low on valuable content that it actually makes me a little less excited for the game it’s advertising. There are hundreds of free-to-play games that utterly eclipse it in style and substance, a lot of them in the exact same genre. Maybe it’s a cop-out to claim that ‘the perfect video game length was inside you all along’, but that’s really what it boils down to. Like most things in life, it’s the balance between excess and nothing at all – existing somewhere in that ethereal space in between too much and too little. So, basically, about the length of Earthbound.

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