Small form gaming
In journalism the long-form is making a return. That’s a great development, if somewhat paradoxical with the proliferation of time spent on smartphones and ever smaller chunks at a time on one specific thing. The rise of tablets is certainly a part of it, being more suited to reading than phones or computer screens are. But I attribute a big part of it to people simply wanting content they care about, instead of machinegun news. We used to say that you can’t charge for news or online journalism, but it turns out you can – it’s now just a matter of figuring out how much and for how many consumers. I believe the shift happened once so much of our lives and content was online, the line between a tangible newspaper and an incorporeal news site blurred to something that just doesn’t matter to many people. The tangible isn’t seen as value anymore. On the contrary, young people are proud of how little stuff they have or need.
There is another interesting parallel in TVs and movies. Movies are getting dumber by the year, Hollywood largely settling on the “sure bets” of remakes and reboots and re-imaginings and movies as events (”you gotta see it!” “Why?”), while Youtube and other online video has largely already replaced the TV for younger people. When my ISP asked me if I had used the TV functionality, I had to actually think (I had, once). At the same time the TV show is in full-blown renaissance. We’re getting better TV than ever, and that’s because writers have embraced the form as something that’s very valuable and substantial on its own, not as an offshoot of cinema or something cheap and dumb you do when you don’t have the energy for anything else – be it as a creator or a consumer. The TV show has turned into the long-form moving image. The TV shows of today demand and reward attention and thinking.
Meanwhile, in games
I believe it’s time for games to embrace a shift like this. They need to, to be in line with the changing lives and perspectives of their audience.
The problem is that most modern games are way too long. If you’re a hardcore gamer and especially if you’re in your teens, you’re going to make a face and dismiss this outright. But if you’re not hardcore or in your teens, you’re likely nodding along there.
This is getting better now as production costs are so sky-high that we can’t afford to make more than 6-8 hours of linear content. But that’s not a shift to better get on with the times, that’s something you do because you’re forced to. The audience doesn’t appreciate it, because they feel they’re getting less than they used to for their 50-70 USD/EUR.
What you need to do is accept that your audience wants new experiences. They want games that matter to them and give them things to talk about. They want something they can consume instead of watching some more Youtube – the threshold to jump into a game shouldn’t exist.
Now it does, for a lot of reasons. For one, games are just too big. I haven’t played Skyrim in months and the thought of going back to it is intimidating. It’s like the game is towering before me, and starting again on that path is just too much. This is great is all you do is play one game day-in day-out, but for a lot of gamers it isn’t ideal.
Another problem is that games are so goddamn complex. I’ve started Vanquish and want to go back to it, but the controls are so complex that I have to accept spending at least half an hour of being bad before hopefully, maybe re-acquiring what skills I had. And that’s a very in-your-face action game, supposed to be immediately accessible, jump-in fun.
Third problem is that games demand constant attention. They’re generally very bad in acknowledging that you might have other things to do and can only give them, say, half an hour this week. This is getting better with examples from mobile games and things like the PlayStation 4’s instant suspend and resume, but there’s still ways to go before we’re at the level of TV shows. Not that this is a unique problem to games – books in general require effort to follow all the way through, if you don’t do it in a small enough span of time.
I’m not saying all of these problems even need to be solved or that solving them would be good for all games, but Thirty Flights Of Loving is an example of solving all these problems at once.
A First-Person Shooter
Thirty Flights Of Loving says it’s an FPS without being one. It tells a story that stays with you with very few words, no dialogue and super low “production values”. Instead, it embraces the videogame form and does things with it that you couldn’t do with any other medium. It does this in around 30 minutes, if that. It’s more focused and confident than anything I can think of.
I had no idea what to expect, going in, and what I left with when I turned off the game was memories of an episode of my life I didn’t know I had. You can’t really say anything about the story without spoiling it and whereas for the most part videogame spoilers are something I could not care less about, in this case they really are. Just play it.
You could spend time arguing if it’s even a game as you can’t lose as far as I know and you’re effectively going through a linear story. I don’t particularly care – it looks and feels like a game.
Thirty Flights Of Loving is a videogame short story, a short movie, a single issue comic book, a single. I would like there to be many more games like it.