Are Story-Based Games Focusing on the Wrong Thing?

5 mins read

An obsession with scope needs to be left behind if Video Games are to keep creating stories that captivate existing players and reach new audiences.

HBO’s The Last of Us, the adaptation of Naughty Dog’s classic video game, is a critical and commercial success. It stands as a reminder that video games can tell powerful narratives that connect to millions.

This potential is being limited, however, by how single-player games are sold.

The industry’s biggest press conferences, award shows, and marketing campaigns have become a contest of size. Developers boast about having the biggest worlds, the largest solar systems, the most colossal universes to explore.

The two biggest single-player releases of the last year, Elden Ring, and God of War Ragnarök take upwards of 50 and 30 hours to beat respectively.

This kind of marketing is not exclusive to the medium. In cinemas, Avatar 2, has been notable for its lengthy run-time and for pushing the limits of what can be done on screen.

But there’s a reason every blockbuster isn’t Avatar, and every film director isn’t James Cameron. Media at the cutting edge of technology takes a stupidly long time to make.

In January 2023, prominent games journalist, Jason Schreier tweeted: “Fun fact: Video game production cycles have gotten so long that if a big-budget game studio started working on a brand-new project today, it would likely be for the PlayStation 6”.

With the PS5 being just over two years old, it’s obvious how such a statistic would affect the depth and quality of its games library.

Increasing financial costs of development mean publishers are more likely to commission multiplayer games, or games as an ongoing service over self-contained stories.

And, even when single-player games are commissioned, sheer size often gets in the way.

Games development has always been intense, with “crunch” – severe and oft unpaid overtime – being the default way to manage deadlines.

As games continue to grow in scope the effects of this have become more apparent. Several recent releases have been refunded on mass due to poor quality. Famously, CD Projekt Red’s, Cyberpunk 2077 was removed from the PlayStation 4 store completely.

We’re seeing a decrease in quantity and quality. The worst of both worlds.

Longer playtimes also lead to players simply giving up. Amy Hennig, director of Naughty Dog’s original Uncharted trilogy discussed this with IGN. As she says, who would finish a 40-hour campaign? There are too many other things competing for our time and attention.

Other forms of media are becoming shorter and infinitely accessible. Games are going in the opposite direction.

Despite this shift over the past decade, I think there is still hope for tighter focused single-player campaigns. This is most obvious within the indie scene, where shorter experiences are bread and butter.

At the peak of the industry, however, I believe it is Insomniac Games that are leading the way. First, releasing Spiderman Miles-Morales in 2020, a shorter, 15-hour sequel to their original Spiderman game. It took two years from development to release. Then, in 2022 they released Ratchet and Clank, a Rift apart, which stands at around 11 hours.

Image Credit: Insomniac Games

Both titles sold in the millions and scored highly with critics. Developers on Ratchet and Clank praised the lack of crunch time and the company’s working conditions.

Here, we see potential for the future. For fantastic stories told in more widely accessible, and sustainable ways.

There is certainly still a place for sprawling epics like Elden Ring, Breath of the Wild, and The Witcher 3. But if we want more stories to match The Last of us‘ newfound mass appeal, these games should be the exception and not the rule.

Featured Image Credit: Naughty Dog

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