Video games are too long and I don’t know how to feel

Like all the best Media are Plural posts, this one is inspired by a meme. It argues that contemporary video games are too long, the workplaces in which they are produced are exploitative, and that the medium … you know what, I’m not doing a critical analysis of a meme. Just look at it:

Sonic the Hedgehog says "I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I'm not kidding"
I love that Sonic is saying this.

My first instinct was to disagree about the first line. I’m a fan of role-playing games (RPGs), a genre that invariably runs long. And I gravitate toward those games because they offer a lot of gameplay. When I was a broke university student, I figured if I paid $60 for a game and it took me 60 hours to finish it, that was a good rate. If it took 70 hours, even better. Now I’m a broke young adult because boomers ruined the economy. So, my tolerance for long-ass games remains quite high.

But the more I thought about the meme, and once I thought about its other points, the more I agreed with it. I also realized it’s probably not about the 60-hour games I enjoy.

I saw it shared in response to a post about how a developer of Cyberpunk 2077 has played for 175 hours already and is neither close to done nor pursuing a 100% playthrough. That’s more than a week’s worth of time. But let’s get real, I’ve sunk way more than that into multiple Pokémon games. Also, the guy in question is the quality assurance lead. He probably spend most of those hours walking along the walls to find glitches.

The article mentions something much more egregious to me: When Game Informer previewed the game, it took them more than four hours to get to the opening credits. That’s where I have a problem.

I guess I am going to critically analyze this meme

Four hours isn’t the longest intro I’ve seen. That honour goes to Final Fantasy XIII, with its infamous 20-hour tutorial. (To be fair, the opening credits happen earlier, but it takes at least 20 hours of gameplay before you finish every tutorial and really start playing.) I just find the figure off-putting. I imagine those four hours are fast-paced and action-packed – the game isn’t out until Dec. 10, so I haven’t played it – but it comes off as self-aggrandizing. You’ve sunk one-sixth of a day into this game only for it to tell you, “oh, we’re just getting started.”

This four-hour intro, and gaming moments like it, is really what the first part of the meme is about. Everything about major video games in 2020 is long. You start playing something and the intro takes forever, then there’s a 20-minute cutscene, then the first mission takes forever, then you get a sidequest that lasts two hours. The game has 3,000 convoluted sidequests. You look up the game online and critics are panning it for not being a deep enough experience. You turn off the PS4 and sit in silence for a while, trying to understand.

But remember, I mentioned I sought out long games back in university because I wanted to increase my hours played per dollar spent. If I was blowing my entertainment money for the month on one game, I wanted it to last the whole month. I have no doubt similar consumer demands are driving this trend toward longer games. If I had bought a game 10 years ago, played it all Saturday afternoon, and as I started thinking “hey maybe I should get dinner soon” the game pulled that “we’re just getting started” gimmick, I probably would have loved it. It would have told me that the money I spent was going to go far.

That’s why I’m so conflicted about this. Recently I played Persona 5, a game that is probably 20 hours longer than it should be. A game with long dungeons and long cutscenes and that takes a long time to advance its plot. And I loved all 110 hours of it. I strongly considered doing a second playthrough so I could do a completionist run. It would be hypocritical of me to give that game a pass while coming down hard on this one.

Video games are too long, and I can’t really fault them for it. But there’s more to that meme than just the remark about longevity.

Hours worked by developers of video games are too long

A four-hour intro sequence is annoying, but not inhumane. Forcing people to work Saturdays to complete a video game, however, might qualify.

CD Projekt Red, the developer of Cyberpunk 2077, stated firmly in June 2019 that its employees would not have to work crunch hours unless they signed up to do so. When an investor asked about it seven months later, the company gave a different answer. Bloomberg reported in September 2020 that CD Projekt Red mandated six-day work weeks. Polygon has an article that goes in-depth into the whole development saga. Suffice to say, it wasn’t pretty.

Critics call these practices as crunch culture, which refers to a video game development environment in which the company requires workers put in overtime – sometimes unpaid – for long periods of time. It’s a major problem in the industry that is leading to burnout among workers. (To be clear: CD Projekt Red did pay its workers for the overtime they worked, as the Bloomberg story reports, but many studios do not.)

Crunch culture is something that has long existed in video game development, but no doubt it’s getting worse as games get longer. Four-hour intros, 20-minute cutscenes and 3,000 sidequests have a way of increasing the workload.

If I were a video game company, I would simply make shorter games

Why the meme resonates so much, with me and others, is because everything it calls out is unnecessary. Gris is a well-regarded game that takes just a few hours to play. I already mentioned Persona 5 has stylized graphics rather than hyper-realistic ones. Many other Japanese RPGs and indie games take similar approaches to great success. And there is no reason why anyone should be getting paid for five days while working six to meet an arbitrary deadline for a product that is strictly for entertainment purposes.

Trends change over time, and in a few years it’s possible video games in general will be shorter. Today people are speaking out against crunch culture. When I was in university, I opted not to pursue a career in video game development partly because professors warned us about crunch culture. Hopefully things will be different in a few years.

In the meantime, I recommend not playing games that are needlessly long and produced by studios that engage in crunch culture. Support indie game studios with ethical practices. Better yet, get some friends together and make your own games. Seriously. People don’t believe enough in themselves and what they could be capable of if they put their mind to it. You can make that Waluigi dating sim I’ve been demanding, just shout me out in the credits!

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