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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Should RPGs Be Shorter?

Parasite Eve might not be the most relevant RPG series around; after two lousy sequels, we aren't likely to see Aya Brea's further adventures -- outside of sleazy cell phone games, anyway. But while the debut of Square's cinematic RPG existed mostly as a platform to push their impressive CGI efforts into the faces of uninformed consumers, the game took a major risk by breaking what then stood as an unspoken rule of the genre: it wasn't dozens of hours long.
As a rude teen of the era, you'd better believe I complained about it. Towards the end of the 16-bit years, it felt as if RPGs were selling themselves based purely on how much of your life they would occupy. By the time Final Fantasy VII rekindled American interest in this once-niche genre, PlayStation releases would soon blossom into two, three, and four-disc sets. Granted, these multi-disc games usually needed so much pressed plastic due to their pre-rendered cut scenes, but as these oversized releases became more and more common, you started to wonder if your average RPG developer decided on the amount of discs their game would span before typing up page one of the design document.

Parasite Eve's brevity struck others in the same way it struck me, and RPGs to follow certainly didn't take after Square's strange experiment. I'll admit that I at first became a fan of the genre because of how much content your typical RPG gave a kid on a limited, lawnmowing-based budget. Now that time has become much more of a commodity than money, I'm starting to think I didn't know how good I had it when I returned Parasite Even for store credit after finishing it over a single weekend. Hey, those friendly return policies of the late '90s rewarded the diligent.
I'm okay with some games taking over my life, as long as they can justify the time they're stealing. My counter in Dark Souls reads 140 hours as of this writing, and every second of that sum feels valuable to me. I can say the same of Fallout 3 and New Vegas; I enjoyed exploring every crack and crevice of those worlds, and each game offers a fairly straightforward path if you ever get sick of exploring the periphery. A good number of other RPGs, though, seem to take length as a fundamental element of RPGdom, even if their mechanics can't sustain so many hours of repetition.

Wild Arms IV stands out to me as one RPG that really gets it right. It's no A-level game by any means, but it's excellently paced, and understands that its limited budget can only provide so much content. So instead of dragging things out with a generous helping of the expected filler (long-winded dialogue, necessary grinding, dull fetch quests) everything wraps up in about 20 hours, which left me completely satisfied. The Last Story takes this same approach, and even though 25 hours could contain three entire Call of Duty campaigns, the game stands as a refreshingly zippy alternative to the leaden pacing that can drag even the best RPGs down into dullsville. And just a few months ago, the 3DS's quirky-but-endearing Crimson Shroud  showed gamers that an 8-hour RPG can have just as much to offer as its bloated console brothers.
It's true that your preference for game length can rely entirely on your own situation. Right up until the end of my teenage years, it seemed preposterous that people would ever call for smaller games. Now, as an adult with adult-style responsibilities and obligations, I'd like to spend my free time having a variety of experiences, rather than laboring over a single game that takes its time moving things along. Right now, we're at a point where making a 40-hour game will soon be much more difficult, and the challenge of creating assets for a generation beyond our initial foray into HD may force future RPGs to stretch thin an even smaller amount of content. If RPG developers want to thrive, they should look to the concise, self-contained experiences that leave their audiences with the desire to play more, rather than the regret of wasted hours jamming on the "confirm" button.