Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the few games to create a richer story in order to have longer gameplay.
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When it comes to video games, how long is too long?

Should a game provide “value for money” and pad out its story with as many tedious hours of fetching things as possible, or is there merit in a short, sharp ending?

Fetch quests, you’ve got to love them. Well you haven’t got to love them, but if you love video games you’re probably going to have to learn to at least tolerate them. Play any game for any length of time and sooner or later one of the characters is going to ask you to go to a place, get an object for them and bring it back to them. There’s a reason that this character has asked you to do that and usually that reason is because the people who made the game ran out of story yet felt that the game needed to be longer.

This kind of problem is par for the course with video games stories, torn as they are between three competing priorities.

The first of these is the need for a game to provide value for money to its players and this is typically defined in terms of hours of content. Games pride themselves on their run time in the same way that a restaurant might take pride in doling out oversized portions. In the simple marketing speak of games marketing more is more. Hours of content up for grabs, is it good? Is it important? Who cares, look how much time it takes. No game ever took pride in being short. This can vary wildly of course from action games or rogue-likes where a single run through might take less than an hour to sagas like Wasteland 2 or Dragon Age: Origins that can take around 80 hours.

The second factor is how the story accommodates the chief gameplay mechanics. So for example if your game is built around shooting people in the face, as a lot of games are, then you have to tell a story about that. This poses problems, because there are only so many situations in life where shooting everybody in the face will resolve the problems. You can see this problem manifest itself in the Mass Effect series. As the series went on the diminishing returns of such a game being built on a foundation of hiding behind low walls and shooting people took their toll. As highly regarded as the Mass Effect series was it boasted a completion rate only around 50 per cent, which means as good as it was, most people didn’t see the game to the end. What your game is built to be on a mechanical level limits your scope for the length of time you can expect players to hang in there. An RPG can last tens of hours, while a corridor shooter will often struggle to find fun ways to fill six.

The third factor is the nature of the story itself – the story that the developer wanted to tell when they made the game. So we might look at the recent Tomb Raider for example, a game which is designed to tell the story of how a young Lara Croft goes from bedraggled victim to implacable heroine. That’s the way the story was planned to go, but because of how the game plays, as a third person shooter with a few platform elements, young Lara hasn’t gone more than an hour before she’s creeping up on men and strangling them with her bow or shrugging off gunshot wounds in pitched battles. To compound matters, because the game has to last a decent amount of time she’s murdering these guys and failing to escape from the island for what feels like an age, to the point where she’s killed so many men that you wonder why the rest don’t just down tools and run for the hills.

We can also see these problems in Alien: Isolation. Without wanting to spoil anything, Alien: Isolation has a story that can best be described as dragging quite badly. By the end of the game, from a purely story point of view, it has outstayed its welcome. The designers erred on the side of padding the game out for longer play time rather than going for a neater ending and so the story suffered, which is disappointing given the quality of the design and attention to detail of the setting.

Of course there is a flipside to this: when the game is good you want more and you don’t want it to end. So what is to be done? One solution that Alien: Isolation employs to an extent, and which the early Call Of Duty games also used to good effect, is to augment the main story with additional content. In Alien: Isolation this means missions and side stories based around the mechanics of the main game but set outside it. In the first Call of Duty games this meant that the story of each of the main characters was unrelated to any main narrative and quite short. This solution means that you’re getting more of the game if you want it, but in smaller, more manageable chunks.

In some games, such as Watch_Dogs or GTA V, the padding takes the form of open world malarkey that can be avoided. Usually these take the form of mini-games, side quests and random acts of violence. You can make a straight shot for the end of the story and it won’t take too long, or you can wander about to your heart’s content in the sandbox. This is a good compromise.

Another alternative is to offer more than one way to play through the game, important divergent choices that mean you can play the game again and everything will be a little different. To its credit this is something Wolfenstein: The New Order does.

Of course the somewhat obvious solution is to just make fuller, stronger stories, but this is harder to do than it looks. One game that managed it with aplomb is Batman: Arkham Asylum, but in order to do it the game had to draw upon the large supporting cast from the Batman comics. For a team of developers without all that background to call on and with hours of space on a storyboard to fill, the temptation to just have a character send the protagonist off to retrieve a McGuffin from wherever must be strong.

The idea that games should be shorter in general is one that has been going around a lot in recent years, with games like Limbo and The Walking Dead being cited as examples of a punchier narrative delivered in a cheaper, more manageable form. There is merit to this approach but there is a risk in short games with a narrative focus that the elements of the game as a challenge and test of skill become sidelined and a game becomes a thing that you experience rather than play. A short game lacks the time to teach you how to play and nobody likes a game that slaps you round the head with the end sequence just as you were hitting your stride.

A long story does not have to be a bad thing, of course. Some games that take ages to complete still manage to have few problems keeping a gripping narrative going. Series like Final Fantasy, Neverwinter Nights and individual games like Vampire: Bloodlines and Planescape: Torment all boast great stories that take days to unfold. If we look at games that don’t even have defined storylines but write their stories on the fly, such as the Civilisation, Football Manager or Total War series we see games that create drama as they go and which can hold players spellbound for hours at a time for as many sessions as it takes to reach the end, where for many players they’ll just start again. The capacity of these games to ravenously consume time in the tens, even hundreds of hours, would seem to indicate that they have locked onto something that mainstream games are missing.

Perhaps the problem for mainstream games lies in the way that they are seen as a visual medium rather than a cerebral one. It is easy to make a comparison between games and movies when perhaps in terms of form and structure games are more closely tied to literature. Movies are rolling entertainment, but literature, like a game, demands the attention of the audience in order to proceed. We can pick up and put down a book, and we can do so with a game too, but it would be unusual to do this with a movie. Games also naturally fit into the chapter structure of books, albeit having arrived at this structure on their own in the form of levels. Cinematic isn’t something that games should see as an aspiration, it is just one approach among many, and designers should be aware that there are all sorts of reasons you don’t make eight hour long movies.

For games to develop as a storytelling medium something has to change. We are seeing progress in short-form indie games and in the long-form RPGs and strategy games, but in the middle, in the land of the ten hour mass-market action games that make up so much of mainstream gaming, we’re still waiting on something better than Half Life 2.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear