In 1961, three students at MIT had a question: Can we simulate a spaceship? From there, things got more complicated. Can we simulate two spaceships? Can they shoot at each other? Can they explode? From there, Steve Russell, Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen created the game Spacewar for the PDP-1 computer. The impact of the digital diversion was phenomenal; now everyone wanted to waste universities’ money by creating these computer games on multi-million dollar machines (machines that were supposed to be figuring out the secrets of space, science and math). Once again, a bunch of dorks screwed up the world.
From Spacewar’s concept of interstellar dodgeball came even more simulations of things that people could never accomplish in real life: shooting space invaders in Space Invaders, shooting asteroids in Asteroids and shooting white pixels in Pong. Games got more and more complex (shooting tanks in BattleZone, shooting wire-frame monsters in Tempest, shooting gangsters in Hogan’s Alley), and soon gamers started to want something else in their endeavors: a reason. The rift of telling a story versus not telling a story is one of the most distinguishable lines in an industry where mixing game genres (action, puzzle, racing) is more common than mixing drinks (gin, vodka, rum), even though both are prevalent and were part of the formula for creating Katamari Damacy. It’s a curious question then: what is more appealing, short games without a story or longer games with a narrative? The answer’s more difficult than the puzzles in Final Fantasy X.
It’s important to note the difference between a narrative and a full-fledged story. A narrative sounds something like this: “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded white door. There is a small mailbox here.” Before you could say, “examine mailbox,” the objective of the game (in this instance, Zork) was revealed to you (in this instance, find all 19 treasures of Zork and install them in your trophy case). Stories, however, start before you get to play, and end well after you’ve finished off the big bad boss. Take Final Fantasy VII, for example. Once you clear off your memory card, lock the doors, inject your drip IV of Mountain Dew into your arm and boot up your PlayStation, you’re dropped into a world where the Shinra corporation is running a rather large monopoly on the energy needs of the planet: a group called AVALANCHE is ruining the day for Shinra and you getting caught somewhere in the middle. The story then becomes essential to the game and your reasons for playing through and winning. The problem with the entire concept of the long game with the story is that if your story starts to lose steam (“Well, we’re fighting Shinra because of global warming!”) or stops making sense (“Well, we’re fighting Shinra to avenge the honor of Ricky Gervais!”), you start to lose your audience. When your audience is one, that’s a vital demographic to lose.
The games that don’t have stories tend to be shorter experiences. Narratives in these games are mostly kinetic, whether it is moving the block to make a line (Tetris), moving the airplane to avoid the ground (Microsoft Flight Simulator) or moving the wide receiver to catch the ball (Madden NFL 2007). When stories are added to these types of non-story games, they end up looking rather silly (Blitz: The League, Ace Combat 5, Tetris Attack). Also, without a story, the game has to shine. A poorly designed game with an intriguing story can (and sadly, sometimes does) sell well. A poorly designed game without a pretty story to distract it can sadly look as bad as Pac-Man on the Atari 2600.
The advantages and disadvantages between long games and short games could fill up a book, or at the very least, a third of a page in a college newspaper. It all comes down, I suppose, to personal preference.