danbruno.net

Length

In an essay entitled “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” the late poet Mary Oliver wrote this about “Song of Myself”:

The detail, the pace, the elaborations are both necessary and augmentative; this is a long poem and it is not an argument but a thousand examples, a thousand taps and twirls on Whitman’s primary statement. Brevity would have made the whole thing ineffectual, for what Whitman is after is felt experience. Experience only, he understands, is the successful persuader.

I always liked this insight. Communicating a felt experience can take time; notwithstanding the advice of countless writing instructors, concision is a tool, not an ideal.

Video game critics sometimes argue that games are too long, which is certainly true sometimes. But as with poetry, long video games can do things that short ones cannot, and their length can be essential to the experience. We might take a hypothetical eighty-hour RPG and trim it down to a more manageable sixty by removing some ill-considered sidequests, but it won’t be improved if we trim it down to ten—those hours are doing something.

Maybe the game needs chapters full of ostensible filler dialog for the shock of an ally’s late-game betrayal to land properly, for example. Or maybe it’s important for that one interminable dungeon sequence to actually be interminable to convey a sense of despair. In cases like these, the length of the game is vital to communicating the intended experience. Or, as Oliver put it, brevity would have made the whole thing ineffectual.

Video games can be long and also use their length well.