I've been thinking, and I've come to the realization that most of our games are very childish.
I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean that most of our games are based around achieving the same kind of experience that we had as children, hearing fairy tales. A game is often trying to get that same sense of excited wonder... except, of course, we're adults now.
Sure, there are games that arguably aren't trying for that. I don't know that match-three games or go are trying for it. I don't see how football tries for it.
But the kinds of games I like to play - RPGs, shooters, weird indie games - they all have the same smell as a fairy tale. Not just the stories, but the gameplay itself is like a fairy tale on crack. In a fairy tale, the hero would get his father's sword, or the mightiest armor in the land, or whatever. In our video game fairy tales, that just happens over and over and over... but it's fundamentally the same basic event. Similarly, our endless fights are the same basic events as the fewer fights of fairy tales.
For a while, I've been basically, unconsciously, trying to figure out how to make a game more like a fairy tale. Make the fights more unique, the pacing more... like when we were young.
But let's look at what the experience I'm talking about is. What is the experience of a child hearing a fairy tale?
There are several elements at work, but one of them is that, at least if you used to be me, kids don't let tales die. You hear the story, but then you spend a long time thinking about it. Going over it. Admiring it. Perhaps thinking about different ways it could have turned out. If you were me, you spent more time doing that than the story could possibly have taken to tell.
This was not during the story, though. During the story, you'd be too busy listening (or reading) and imagining. If the story was broken up over several days, the intervening hours could be sheer pain waiting for more story, even if the story really wasn't very good in the first place.
Another element is that feeling of newness. These days, a story has to be really spectacularly interesting to get a flicker of that old feeling. I've just seen too many elves firing arrows at too many orcs.
But here's the thing... I picked up some fairy tales from other cultures. Japan, middle Europe, and the classic "Arabian Nights". Reading these fairy tales gives me that feeling, even though they aren't any more complex than, say, Rapunzel's or Loki's stories.
As far as I can tell, those are the two main components, and that started me thinking.
It's a fragile situation. Over the years, I've started to read differently. The stories I read these days try to make up in length what they lack in newness - not their fault, exactly, I just have seen a lot of stuff. But this has made me read in a very different way, a way not suitable to fairy tales.
I find that, reading these foreign fairy tales, the effect is strongest if I slow way, way down. Even read aloud, or pretend someone is reading it aloud. And then, when I reach the end of one or two tales, I stop. I find that they whirl around in my mind for hours, just like they did twenty years ago.
Looking at it, games are the same way as the books I normally read.
So... what if we decided to treat it like a fairy tale?
I was playing Persona 3: Fez. It's a rather spectacular game, but I'll never finish it. It's toooooooooo looooooonnnnnnnnnnnnggggggggggggggggg. The ideas are excellent and rather fresh for me (since I haven't played much of the other Persona games), so it starts off by hitting the right "fairytale notes".
But they bloat it up with gameplay.
"Ahhhh! What is this fool saying? Gameplay is what a game IS!"
Well, yes, but there's such a thing as too much. A steak is nice. A whole cow is not, even though it contains many steaks and is more deeply complex.
If you think of gameplay like food, then playing Persona 3 is like sitting down to dinner at a sushi restaurant. It's great, a lot of subtleties. Except that the chef keeps serving you sushi and sake and won't let you leave. Hour after hour.
How much sushi can you eat?
Apparently, I'll eat sushi for 43 hours.
But that's not what I want. And although the story is fairytale-ish, the actual experience certainly isn't. The fairytale-ish experience would be that the sushi chef shows you a hundred platters of sushi, but you can only taste three of them... They taste so good that you can't forget, and you can't help but stay awake at night, wondering how the other rolls might have tasted.
For a child hearing a fairy tale, there is a kind of half-comprehension. There are big ideas, they are fascinating and interesting, but there's also this feeling that there's a lot more to it, a lot more you can't quite see... but maybe if you think about it for a while, or maybe if you hear the next fairy tale...
To me, a game is a fairy tale PLUS the ruminating you do afterwards. Except that instead of hearing the fairy tale and then ruminating, you're asked to ruminate while you hear the fairy tale. That's not right!
In the end, what this ends up doing to me is the "endless restart syndrome", which I'm sure you're all familiar with. I'll play the game for a few hours, then I'll restart as a different character. I'm ruminating on the experience of the game... except that I haven't finished the game, haven't even seen the depths the gameplay can reach.
I'm really, really bad about this. I've played Oblivion for at least a hundred hours since it's release, but I've never played any character for more than fifteen - usually five or six. It's gotten to the point where I generally decide to ignore whole chunks of potential, just so I can finish the game. IE, I'll decide to play as a wizard and never, ever even think about how the game might have gone if I was a warrior or a thief.
This isn't good. That's like reading a fairy tale and saying, "okay, let's skip all the parts about Mordor so I can finish the damn thing."
In the past, I've been very hesitant about my opinions on length of play and replay value. I've always felt, in my heart, that short games (6-15 hours) with high replay value are better than long games... even if the long games also have high replay value.
I've always been a bit hesitant to say so, because a lot of people seem to hate the idea. They want to be able to play the game once, get everything there is to get out of it, and then throw it in the trash. And I could never place my finger on exactly why that's such a shitty way to do it. I always blamed it on artistic aspirations on my part, even though that didn't quite fit the bill.
The reason I want short games with high replay values is because I want to ruminate on them. I want assisted rumination: once I've finished the game, I want to be able to say, "wow, that was cool... let's see that again, from a slightly different angle."
With a long game, I don't get ruminations, either assisted or the more ordinary kind. There's simply too much, and too much of it is bland. I might say, "woo, that boss was cool!", but I'm not going to sit in bed unable to sleep because I can't forget that boss.
With short games, I do. Katamari Damacy... it's kept me awake. I've also had dreams about it, which is really how I judge whether a game is a classic or not. If I dream about it or it keeps me awake, I can write a truthful review: This was a triumph. I'm making a note here: "huge success". It's hard to overstate my satisfaction.
Perhaps it's just me. Perhaps there's nobody else out there who feels the same way.
But I want short games full of fascinating ideas.
Stop force-feeding me!