On game length and content

I caught myself writing a post-in-a-comment over at Ludus Novus, and figured it’d be best to respond here instead.

*stretch* Ah, elbow room.

As a quick recap (although you should listen to the podcast–it’s short), WO is addressing the relationship between game length and depth and quality of content. His conclusion seems to be that there really isn’t much correlation between length and game depth (although there’s certainly potential); in addition, games don’t easily fall into the novel vs. short story genres in terms of characterization styles.

This is me just shooting off some shit, but here’s a thought:

I wonder whether a lengthy game (leaving aside series) really can successfully go extraordinarily deep into characterization and plot. Good characterization (and feel free to correct me on this) would include ensuring that the broad strokes of the character’s personality become apparent, as well as at least making quite a bit of the little details apparent (or player develop-able), even if the player chooses to ignore them.

For deep plot (rather than wide), you’ve got to go into pretty complex things that are open for analysis and interpretation. To be interesting, this requires details rather than just broad strokes of a situation. I mean, the classic scenario of “You’re held at gunpoint and told to rape a person. Do you, or don’t you?” isn’t really that interesting (despite my own interest in finding out who still thinks they don’t have a choice in a situation like that). A series of these don’t make for an interesting or engaging game.

So for both of these, you need emotion to be evoked by those details–the sweat on the potential victim’s brow, the gunman’s too-steady hand, etc. A player’s feelings of indecision, nervousness, awe, fear, whatever, all contribute to creating that depth. In addition, evoking more than one of these emotions is nice: i.e. complexity. (Myst‘s combination of intense puzzle-driven frustration combined with awe doesn’t count for me, although it may for some others.)

But, as David Weber is fond of writing, intense emotion is usually as brief as it is intense. It also wears people out. How many times can you jerk the player’s emotions up and down before they’ll get worn out? Since a long game may “only” be 80 hours of playing time, you’ve actually kind of got to pack it in relative to what people may normally experience in life.

Can a game do this and not be considered “emotional pornography” (á la Passion of the Christ)? I think short games and series of shorter games will have an advantage here. You can make a short emotional impact without running the player through an emotional wringer for weeks of their lives.