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Short Stories, Not Novels: Why We Need More One-Sitting Games

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I once watched a roommate play all the way through Portal while standing up.

Well, I was the one standing. He was seated comfortably at his computer, which I had more or less commandeered for the sole purpose of forcing him to play Portal.

I had completed the game a couple of times, but I found myself so enthralled at my friend's progress that I didn't even think to sit down. (I would've had to get a chair from another room — but still.)

Two hours later (yes, it only took him two hours on his first playthrough — he's apparently an excellent test subject), after listening to GLaDOS sing about triumph and cake, I finally flopped onto my bed. And the thought struck me that Portal was an even better, tighter experience when played like that, in one sitting. Er, standing.

I think it's something more games should explore: making an experience designed for players to consume in one period, without breaks.

 

Back in the day, of course, you didn't really have a choice, either because you were playing an arcade title (which was designed to make your duration as short as possible) or because cartridges with battery-backed memory had not yet been invented. And even after that, you had to finish some games all at once. I still remember my long sessions with Super Mario Bros. 3, even leaving my NES on for days at a time, because it lacked any save function.

Super Mario Bros. 3

These days, developers are going out of their way to make it easier to play games in short chunks, so people can fit gaming into their busy lives. They make save points plentiful and pace the story so that you can jump in and out quickly. And I'm definitely grateful for that. But I think it encourages a certain amount of disconnect from the experience. When you're always starting and stopping in small amounts, you might miss some things.

I keep thinking of the Penny Arcade strip where they discuss the length and pacing of Final Fantasy 13 (a game I'm still slogging through). They compare its narrative arc and the amount of time it takes to get there with Uncharted 2, which covers its entire story in 10-12 hours.

As it happens, I finished the bulk of Uncharted 2 in one sitting. (Don't judge me — it was my day off.) And I was actually surprised at how different the story felt, seeing it all at once, than the first Uncharted, which I played like a normal person over the course of several weeks. With the single playthrough, I really felt like I could inhabit the character of Nathan Drake and be part of the world he traversed.

Uncharted 2

Now, I know that Uncharted 2's story is no great, life-altering narrative. But it still made me think about the power of that experience, playing it all at once.

Independent developers have understood and harnessed this power. The Flash games Don't Look Back and Today I Die are two prime examples. The former is a pixel-art platformer loosely based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; the latter is an interactive poem mixed with a brief series of puzzles covering themes of death, depression, and existentialism.

Both games together will take you no more than half an hour to finish. But the experiences have really stuck with me.

Don't Look Back

Imagine if more mainstream games took these principles and expounded upon them — if more designers created titles with the intent that players would experience the themes and story arc all at once. Some examples of this do exist, notably Braid and Flower, both of which I completed in one session. But I'd like a developer to come right out and say, "This is a game you should play all at once. Don't stop until you've finished it."

Maybe this is an unreasonable concept logistically. I know how much work goes into the production of a game — it's hard to ask a developer to put all that effort creating art and programming and working out bugs, just to end up with a two- or three-hour game, especially when that game is a standalone title with no reusable assets. But with today's support for indie developers and new digital distribution models, I think it can be done.

Most gaming experiences end up like a novel — something with chapters that you stop and start at will. Flash games are like poems — brief experiences based around specific themes. Now I want to see the equivalent of the gaming short story.

I'll even sit down to play it.


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