Are Games Less Substantial Than Other Media?

A little over a month ago, the brilliant team behind the online show Extra Credits made yet another thought-provoking video titled “Do Games Have Less Value Than Other Media?” In it, Dan, the narrator, recalls an experiment where various people were asked to describe the last episode of a TV show they watched, and most were able to do so with an astounding amount of detail, going as far as to recall the positions of the actors and camera, the lines that were spoken, the exact manner and sequence in which the actions occurred, etc.

But after the same people were asked to describe the last video game they played, most of them drew a blank. They could describe individual moments of the game in great detail, but the overall experience was usually glossed over in just a few words. As a result, Dan wonders if video games just have less value to us than other forms of entertainment. He suggests that our brains are simply not rigged to take video games seriously, so we subconsciously treat them as mindless entertainment. Dan mentions that the same thing happened to comics, in that for the longest time no one really took them all that seriously until Alan Moore and several other writers stepped in and demonstrated just what could be accomplished with the medium.

In conclusion, Dan says that the moment we allow games to become an integral part of our lives the way movies and music are, the sooner we’ll trick our subconscious into taking them seriously and paying attention. And frankly…I don’t buy that explanation.

Don’t get me wrong—the phenomenon of people being unable to recall video games is a very real one. Try it yourself.  Can you remember what you did during yesterday’s play session of whatever it is you’re currently playing, from the moment you accessed the main menu to the moment you turned off your console? Hell, even if it’s not in great detail, can you at least draw a road map of the basic things you did in linear order?  No matter how many people I asked, the result was always the same, and even if the average person scoffs at the idea of video games, the gamers I personally spoke to regard them as nothing short of an art form equal to, if not superior to, movies. And there’s also the fact that we’ve already had the Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns of our industry, with games like The Last of Us, Dear Esther, Ico, and oh so many more, all providing us with deep and meaningful experiences on par with the greatest masterpieces of the other arts.

670px-The-last-of-us-remasteredCan we just universally agree that this is the Citizen Kane of gaming already?

I believe this has less to do with taking the medium seriously and more to do with substance. Games just aren’t as substantial as other media.

I’m defining substance as: “something of considerable importance, size, or worth.” For example, imagine that you’re the director of a movie, and you have been given a script to work with. Right in the middle of that script there’s a fight scene which doesn’t accomplish anything—the characters begin and end at the exact same location, the plot has not been advanced whatsoever, they have learned nothing new, and frankly, the fight scene isn’t all that impressive. What would you do? Obviously, the right answer is “cut it”. The fight scene is unnecessary, and by removing it from the movie, you can create a tighter and more substantial narrative. Ideally, every single scene in your movie must accomplish something, whether it’s progressing the story, developing characters, or introducing new elements to the narrative. Leave all of those pointless scenes in the script, and you end up with something akin to The Room.

But now imagine that you’re a video game director, and what you’re reading is a pitch from your designer about a level. Suddenly, that pointless fight scene in the middle makes perfect sense—in fact, you want a few more! Any action game relies on multiple instances of pointless conflict in order to advance its narrative, whether it’s Call of Duty, Uncharted, God of War, Final Fantasy, or Assassin’s Creed. When you meet a group of raiders in The Last of Us, you won’t necessarily advance the game’s plot or learn something about its central characters (it happens, of course, but more often than not, the raiders are just there to provide a challenge for the player so that they can feel rewarded upon reaching the next cutscene). This is what games have become: numerous, pointless encounters in between story bits while literally every single other medium has nothing but story bits!

No wonder we can’t recall most of our playtime. Can you imagine what a book would be like if there were 20 pages of descriptions for every page of story advancement?

db678d4ff23f3757c433beebf142003fOh, right…

Indeed, we’ve got multiple examples proving this very point right here, with our good buddy classic literature! Back in the 19th century, apparently there was a trend among European writers to see who had the biggest word count, as practically every single major novel from that time period exceeds a billion pages. Victor Hugo, the author of classics like Les Miséarbles and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was a particularly bad offender. I bet half of you reading this can easily recall the plot of either one of those novels right now. But do you remember the hundreds upon hundreds of pages of descriptions of French architecture? And how about the completely unrelated chapter which deals with the battle of Waterloo in Les Mis? There was so much filler in that book that, while the typical abridged edition is between 300 and 400 pages, the unabridged version is about four times that number, coming in at a towering 1488 pages! That’s about 1000 pages which could be completely cut without losing anything substantial! Wow!

If you, for one reason or another, haven’t figured out why I’m babbling about classic French literature in an article about videogames, let’s do a little experiment. Go on YouTube and type “[game name] The Movie”. Among all of the results there will probably be a video that’s between one and three hours long. This video contains most of the cutscenes and certain portions of gameplay arranged and edited in such a way as to form a satisfying and cohesive narrative. Just for reference, the average video game is around eight to ten hours long. That means that a YouTuber has managed to preserve the narrative of the experience while cutting roughly two thirds of it. Maybe it’s not exactly on the level of Les Mis, but it’s still pretty impressive to know just how much fat developers are putting into their games.

And for what? Because gamers have a certain mentality that’s very unique to them and is not shared by fans of any other media: We see pure size and length as being synonymous with “content” and “quality”.

persona32-2Tartarus has over 250 nearly identical floors?!? Wow, so much content!

Critics and players alike seem to be extremely fond of lengthy games. A 15-hour campaign will always be better than a five-hour campaign, even if those ten extra hours are nothing but mindless filler. It has gotten to the point where even untrained eyes can easily spot the artificial padding. Case in point, the recently released Alien: Isolation, whose 15- to 20-hour long campaign feels like it had a few patches added to its end. Meanwhile, games like Metal Gear Rising are universally panned for being “too short”, even though in essence Rising is about as long as any other hack-and-slash title, just with a lot of the extra fat trimmed out (though not entirely removed).

Can you imagine how ridiculous this would seem to someone who is not intimately familiar with our industry? As I said, no other medium is really burdened by length concerns of a similar nature—nobody says “You know what? Big Hero 6 is too short for me. I’ll just go see Interstellar instead. I’m paying the same amount for both, so I might as well get more bang for my buck!” This mindset would be utterly insane, as most people who watch movies (read: pretty much everyone on Earth) knows that size doesn’t matter—it’s how you use what you’ve got that counts.

So if this fact seems so obvious when it comes to movies, why do we still insist on always having games whose length in hours is in the double digits? It could be the higher price point of games, the “I’m paying $60 for this, so it might as well keep me entertained for a few days” type of mentality. And hey, that’s a very good point, and I’m sure a lot of people actually enjoy the mindless encounters and don’t really care all that much about the overall plot. I’m definitely not suggesting that every single game should do away with filler combat—certain genres such as RPGs count on those as a major gameplay element, after all. But as long as we keep insisting that every major release is this many hours long, we’re holding the industry back.

immortall3In just ten minutes of gameplay, games like ImmorTall manage to deliver an emotional experience that a lot of AAA titles struggle to over the course of an epic 15-hour campaign.

In conclusion, allow me to answer my own question, the one in the title—are games less substantial than other media? Well, yeah, they kind of are. But not all games! There’s still a lot of exceptions to the rule if you know where to look. Cinematic experiences such as The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain, or even Metal Gear Solid have been carefully designed by avid movie fans who made sure to leave all of the fat outside, playtime be damned. Other games, like the utterly brilliant Virtue’s Last Reward, are practically nothing but substance despite being over 25 hours long (in this game, even the filler puzzles are fully explained through the story and develop the characters further, while also being fun to solve on their own).

That’s the kind of experiences that the industry should be striving for—games which can offer substance and a tight narrative regardless of how long they last. Maybe then we will finally be able to remember our play sessions in detail.