Why Short Games?

As you might have noticed, this blog hasn’t really been “up to par” over the past couple weeks. I’ve been, at best, doing reviews and sharing links. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but that isn’t what I normally do. The only explanation that I have is that post-graduation and post-move, I really just wanted to turn my brain off, churn out content, and play silly video games for a while. That isn’t fair to my noble readers, all fifteen of you, and so I want to talk about why short games have such an appeal to me.

A quick list of all the games I have played over the past few days:

  • Limbo
  • Bastion
  • Team Fortress 2
  • Dungeons of Dredmor

Out of these four, I have completed three (I am including TF 2 as “completed” since I have played lots of full matches).

A quick definition: when I talk about “short games” here, I am talking about games that can be beaten within ten hours. That isn’t purely arbitrary–a ten hour game can be marathoned on a Saturday by people who sleep normal hours. Twelve hours is certainly too much, and the 18-hour play sessions that people go on after big releases like Skyrim are purely impossible for most people.

Of the list of four above, two are gameplay-driven and two are narrative-driven, and they each provide access to something interesting.

1. Narrative-driven short games

In my mind, the comparison of a narrative-driven short game to a short story is accurate. Some evidence of this is the fact that Kurt Vonnegut provided a list of eight rules for writing short stories, and all of those rules apply to the best short games. There is a way in which the short game needs the player to “buy in” to the fiction that is already at hand–suspension of disbelief reigns heavy in a short game. As Vonnegut writes, we have to immediately understand the motivations of the player character in order to have any bond with her. Additionally, since the short game/story often begins in medias res (or as Vonnegut puts it, “as close to the end as possible”), we need to understand a desire for continuing to the end of the game. What I am saying is that a player must immediately know “why does it matter?”

These reasons don’t always need to be understood fully, though. Take the opening of Bastion as an example:

Proper stories supposed to start at the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one. Now here’s a kid whose whole world got twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky. He gets up. Sets off for the Bastion, where everybody agreed to go in case of trouble. Ground floats up below his feet as if pointing the way. He don’t stop to wonder why.

The story and the gameplay become enmeshed here–the ground floating up and pointing the way serves the plot because it provides a clear path for the player to move “forward” on. The narrator fills the player in as the game world itself is completed, explaining that the goal is making it to the Bastion. Gameplay and narrator craft a path, and ultimately, they make a full narrative together. The meshing of the two are also important when we consider Limbo, a game with no narrator or cues to tell the player what is going on.

The narrative in Limbo is purely based on the player’s knowledge of side-scrolling games. It makes no apologies about that. You understand, intimately, that you need to travel to the right, and it is only at the end of the game that a puzzle actually uses “going to the left” as a solvency mechanic. In that way, the narrative of progression, of achieving something that the player/Boy is striving for, is based on removing the obstacles that would prevent you from traveling even further to the right. It is brilliant game design–where Bastion takes the moment to get the player situated in the world, and thus making sure that she is comfortable, Limbo merely presents the player with a situation and allows her to react in the way that she is trained to act in a 2D sidescroller–travel to the right.

Bastion puts the player “as close to the end as possible” by placing them in a world where the only possible way of existing is listening to the narrator, paying attention to the actions of the world that are currently going on, and then progressing from there. Limbo takes us even further toward “the end,” cutting out the narrator and the creation of the world, and reducing player action to going right at all times. This structure underneath the aesthetics of each game is the same as the strong, silent cadence of Hemingway or the verbose, note-laden writing of Wallace. It is a way of constructing the very experience of taking in the game in order to bring the player closer to the end of the story.

And that might be a special power of short narrative-driven games as opposed to short gameplay-driven games. There is a story and getting to the end of that story is important. In the same way that “Hills Like White Elephants” just kills as a short study in melancholy and abuse, both Limbo and Bastion are small experiences that show facets of the diamond that is loss and redemption. The short game, in trying to tell that story, is forced to enmesh ludic and narrative elements in order to give a full game experience in a short time. Because of that, it might be more powerful that large-scale epic story games (I can think of all the complaints I have heard about Skyrim‘s ending being pretty anticlimactic.)

2. Gameplay-driven short games

It is rare for me to be sucked into an arcade-style or pure gameplay game, but when it happens, it is some rough stuff. I get competitive and weird.

But Dungeons of Dredmor and Team Fortress 2 don’t do that to me. I don’t get competitive or weird about them, and I don’t get particularly involved. In my mind, I play them to fill up time. They are both good thinking games, not because they make you think, but because I can play them and turn my brain off completely. I can work through other issues while playing and there is zero consequence to ALT TABing out of either game and jotting down some notes or writing a blog post on something I just came up with.

I have to admit, though, that there is some valorization going on when I play those games. Coming out of a hard situation in a roguelike is a special feeling, and I have had my fair share; the same goes with blasting a bunch of comedic enemies who are attempting to do the same dumb and pointless goal that you are. There is something valuable about losing the self in these game, about annihilating the thinking brain in favor of muscle memory and pure adrenaline. I don’t use a microphone, of course, and I listen to music over the sounds that the games make. They are purely technical adventures for me; I move about in a pure ludic environment, striving toward a goal.

I compared the narrative-driven short game to a short story; the gameplay-driven short game is a haiku. It takes all of our energy. You don’t leave it feeling changed or emotionally involved, but you do have a smile on your face, a spring in your step that came about because of a certain way that elements worked together to make the whole thing enjoyable.

This section really isn’t very long compared to the first one.


I just needed some way to separate these broad claims at the end from the numbered point above.

I’m not trying to become embroiled in narratology vs ludology here. That ship has sailed–good games deploy both as strategies for pulling a player into a world. Short games makes us reframe the debate a little bit, though, because of their pointed nature. They are short stories and haiku. They are violent insertions into lives–they don’t take much time, but they do radically alter our immediate existence in time and space. I was enthralled with Bastion–I sat in front of my computer from start to finish. Team Fortress 2 will pull me in for a match or two at any time, and normally it is when I am supposed to be working.

The point I am trying to make is that short games are different from your standard long-form video games. They transgress, in small and large doses, into your life. They want to integrate themselves into your workflow. That is partially why Facebook games are so damned violent–though they weasel their way in through a demand for constant maintenance, rather than the narrative or ludic devices that that games I have mentioned above. iPhone games, too.

We need to theorize these games. They need to be properly thought through. Not merely aesthetically (Limbo‘s aesthetics) or narratively (what does Bastion‘s story tell us) or purely ludically (what makes level design in Team Fortress 2 so good), but rather temporally. I’m not sure we need more online essays about the 50 hour RPGs, five game long series, or handheld games you have to play three times to get the right endings.

We need to look to short games–that is where the next generation of gamers is going to come from.

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