Who has the time for month-long video games? Lots of people, it turns out. Step into the world of a blockbuster game, and you’ll likely find sprawling environments, tomes of backstory and gameplay that encourages a rhythm of play spread out across days and weeks, not hours.
While blockbuster games tend towards maximalism, titles such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Firewatch and Playdead’s excellent Inside are instead built around tight narratives that play out across clipped time frames, with rising actions and climaxes paced to fit a couple of sessions, if not one single sitting. Long story-heavy games like Mass Effect, The Witcher and Assassin’s Creed are reluctant to let you to ever stop playing them, but these short games are happy to take you to the end, then close the door behind you.
Short is, of course, a relative term. Super Mario Bros would be considered short by today’s standards. Chess is a short game, albeit one you play over and over again. A ten-hour game may be considered short for a AAA game, while the same length would be epic for the opera. For the intents and purposes of this article, let’s call a short game something that lasts around two to four hours – short enough to finish in one night without losing too much sleep.
“I think centuries of folktale traditions, oral storytelling, and performance tradition have established a good sense of how to tell a story in one sitting, of the attention span of an audience, and what fits neatly and satisfactorily into that space,” says Hannah Nicklin, game designer and theatre maker. “If these two- to three-hour length games are responding to film, film is only responding to a more ancient and centuries-practiced notion of attention and captivation.”
Given the overlap with theatre, it’s perhaps no surprise that one-sitting games lean towards directed experiences. Compare Dark Souls with Inside. Both of these largely wordless games approach narrative in similar ways – through environment and implication, with background details hinting at a story never made explicit. Dark Souls takes more than 50 hours to complete, whereas Inside can be breezed through in less than four.
Because of its length, the beats of Dark Souls‘ story are disparate, as much about the player-created mini-narratives of invasion and defence, and the risk/reward balance of holding enemy souls, as about the plot of ringing bells and lighting fires.
There is little to Inside‘s story, however, outside of its linear throughline. The player passes from one controlled scene into the next, through a world carefully hinted at, one glimpse at a time. The beats come quickly, within a time frame that means the player is likely to keep track of several shifts in atmosphere and, because of this, developers can more confidently pull out twists that subvert or nod to earlier moments.
Inside may be on the extreme end of things when it comes to linearity, but other short games profit narratively from keeping the player in the action. Papers, Please is perhaps most effective if you can directly compare your approach to Arstotzka’s migrants at the beginning and end of the game. The sense of repetition in The Stanley Parable is arguably more powerful if you play the game over a concentrated period of time. The payoffs in Journey can feel stronger if they’re experienced uninterrupted. You don’t have to play these games all in one go but, as Nicklin suggests, when you do it becomes something akin to a contained performance – the player cast as the performer.
Now you can argue that all games are a performance, regardless of length. Role-playing in Fallout 4 is a performance, playing Desert Golfing is a performance, Pokémon Go is a performance. One-sitting games can keep that performance tight, however. They can keep the player psychologically immersed in the experience, communicating ideas with a punchiness that’s harder to achieve in longer, fleeting sessions. In some cases the gut punch comes from having hardly any time at all. The ideas behind both Anna Anthropy’s twine game Queers in Love at the End of the World and Pol Clarissou’s Orchids to Dusk – a short vignette about a stranded astronaut – hinge on their brevity.
(Above: Orchids to Dusk)
A broadening market for adult gamers – one that feels like it doesn’t have time to sink 100 hours into a single game – may be part of the reason shorter games have become increasingly prevalent. Another is the widening out of the type of developers that make games. “As you get a wider variety of backgrounds of people coming into the medium – from film, art, comics, music, literature, poetry, theatre – you begin to see people playing with the form, and being influenced by different standards and expectations,” Nicklin tells me.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of all this isn’t so much that shorter games are being made, but that developers are being encouraged to think about time as an effect. Should your game be digested in small chunks over a month, or gobbled up in one two-hour session? Does it run on cycles or is it a straight, finite line? There is a commercial layer here that has been left untouched, but from an artistic perspective no answer is necessarily better than the others, as long as it’s justified by the game you’re making. Duration doesn’t need to be a burden. It can be a tool to wield.
12 great short games
- Papers, Please, Lucas Pope
- Journey, Thatgamecompany
- Her Story, Sam Barlow
- Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Starbreeze Studios
- The Stanley Parable, Galactic Cafe
- Queers in Love at the End of the World, Anna Anthropy
- Orchids to Dusk, Pol Clarissou
- Firewatch, Campo Santo
- Gone Home, Fullbright
- Dear Esther, The Chinese Room
- Inside, Playdead
- To the Moon, Freebird Games