The Order’s got 1889 problems but its length ain’t one

There’s been a lot of fuss this week over the length of The Order: 1886 after YouTuber PlayMeThrough posted a full walkthrough that clocked in just shy of six hours. The Internet, predictably, flipped its lid. The gaming press exploited the obvious traffic-baiting headline spun out of this context-deprived factoid in the name of journalism or whatever, thinking, perhaps, that this detail should be among the factors a gamer considers before committing to a $60 purchase. And, to some extent, it’s an understandable concern.

Unlike other forms of entertainment, video games feel less like a purchase and more like an investment (the rise of DLC and post-launch content is certainly making that a reality). A less-than-stellar movie only leaves me $15 poorer and a few hours closer to death. I hurl the same amount of money at Hulu each month for access to an absurd amount of television. But video games? The so-called triple-A ones are $60 or more—the kind of scrilla that can really weigh on you if not spent smartly.

But it’s myopic to think of video game value in terms of length. I mean, that certainly didn’t help those Hobbit movies any, right? The problem with video game durations, however, is that it’s a legacy inherited from an era of affordable development costs, one that didn’t require budget-crushing production values like hiring household names to bring characters to life through mocap and voice acting.

The question should never have been whether The Order: 1886 is worth $60 as a six-or-so-hour game, but whether the quality of that time warrants the price tag (and really, you should just concern yourself with quality regardless). The answer, of course, is a resounding "no." EGM managing editor Andrew Fitch’s review sums up everything I have to say about Ready at Dawn’s PS4 debut, and says it better than I could. The bottom line is that The Order doesn’t respect your time. In an age when most games meet our bare-minimum standards for visual fidelity, RAD’s not-so-rad interactive cutscene/sometimes shooter's only impressive aspect is its graphical presentation. Beyond that, The Order amounts to little more than amateur hour across the board. But things could have been different.

It’s a thought experiment, granted, but in some other dimension, at some unknowable quantum angle on Another Earth where Chris Holzworth is a devoutly religious father of three, Kirk Ellis and Ru Weerasuriya could have penned the video game equivalent of The Man in the High Castle and called it The Order: 1886. Maybe this version of The Order is a deeply intimate exploration of what it’s like to sacrifice your humanity and live countless times over to protect strangers who’ll only ever die in the blink of an eye while you live on, lifetime after agonizing lifetime. Maybe this version’s cover-based shooting makes Uncharted look like Crash Bandicoot.

Could this, theoretically, not only warrant but be better suited to a shorter length? I think so. Some of gaming’s crown jewels are ones that clock in at single digits. Gone Home immediately comes to mind. Fullbright’s freshman effort is easily the most engaged I’ve been with a game world. And while one-third the price of The Order, it’s also one-third the length (the average time in the Greenbriar home seems to run between 45 minutes and two hours).

Now, to many, this all turns into some kind of soul-sucking math equation wherein every every hour equals $10, reducing an experience to a product instead of viewing it through a holistic lens. In movie terms, this is the equivalent of judging a film based on its lighting, cinematography, acting, and story—but independently, not as they come together. Yet stellar acting that resonates with the audience can make up for unremarkable cinematography, and fantastic camerawork and technical execution can make excusable the lack of any screen presence.

Beyond the ongoing debate over “games as product” versus “games as art” (I’d argue for the middle ground—we clearly regard games more thoughtfully than we do a pair of Nikes, but we don’t necessarily need to get them like a Jackson Pollock), the biggest argument for shorter, tighter game experiences is time. Who has the time? I don’t. Most gamers don’t. The vocal minority of us that participate in these sorts of online dialogues are the exception to the rule, and I feel pretty confident more than a few of you have a fair share of unfinished adventures left lingering because, at some point, you just gassed out and had to move on. The numbers cited by game-production consultant Keith Fuller, corroborated by statistics culled from Steam Achievements, are something like 90 percent of single-player stories are left unfinished—that only 1 in 10 ever reach the end of the narrative. That’s crazy, but also understandable. If you’re a student, you have a full-time job. If you have a full-time job, you have a full-time job. Your personal time is a precious, limited commodity.

If it weren’t in service to my current career one way or another, I don’t think I’d have finished half the games I’ve played. Not because they were bad, but because a great many were just too long, usually by a handful of hours. BioShock is a fantastic example. Ken Levine’s magnum opus has it all—a great story, a smart hook, strong gameplay, and an unforgettable atmospheric setting. But you’d be hard pressed not to find even the most ardent fan admit how the third act dragged on and felt like an artificial attempt to inflate game time to double digits at the cost of narrative cohesion. Hell, Levine himself admitted as much during a GDC talk in 2008. It felt like what it was: a tacked-on fetch quest. A chore. I don’t think trimming down our time in Rapture would take anything away from it. It would only ramp up its replayability and, without a doubt, the number of potential players that complete the journey.

In the end, I’d rather pay $60 for a better experience or the best experience a developer can provide. And if that’s on the shorter side, all the better, because that just means I have more time for more games. The occasional six-hour story won’t become the norm. The Skyrims and Mass Effects will always exist to provide escape to their fully realized worlds. But if video game storytelling is to become less cumbersome, some of them need to be allowed to let go of excess baggage.

Originally posted on EGMnow February 20, 2015.