Even before The Order: 1886 first released, the game became an engine of controversy. From what I’ve heard, a leaked playthrough on YouTube suggests that the game is only six hours long, and that half the time is cutscenes. But why exactly are those bad things? What makes these claims such strong criticisms that they need absolutely no other context to justify them? That the gaming community accepts these claims at face value suggests a large problem we have when it comes to talking about games. As a community, we’re more comfortable speaking in broad statements that lack context than we are in engaging with the specific content of a game.

From what I can tell, this line of thinking dates back to the product review approach to gaming. It essentially means that you can (or even should) determine a game’s quality by checking off a list of features; that a game succeeds if it has this many hours, this much content, doesn’t have any major technical problems, etc. In its defense, this thinking might have been viable at some point. In the 70s and 80s, for example, games had a limited ability to express themselves, so it made sense to look at most of them as commercial products.

Because we’re living in the year 2015, it only feels appropriate that this approach has received criticism in recent years. Games are a lot more than commercial products. They’re artistic endeavors that can communicate complex ideas if they want to, and the dominant approach to critiquing games can’t engage them as such. Even if it tried to, it would likely conflate the information you’d find on a game’s Steam deck or on HowLongToBeat.com with what the game actually says.

That’s not an imperfect solution; that’s actively harmful. If we looked at games like that, we’d risk missing out on fantastic games with strong, well-considered messages just because those messages came to us in a three-hour package for $60.

What we need to do is develop some sort of language for games that gets to the heart of what makes a game work or not. We need to be able to analyze the ideological content of a game, or how it resonates with us emotionally. Which, to be fair, some of our language might be able to do now, albeit with major modifications. The current language is just too murky and limited. For example, a lot of us draw a hard line between ‘cutscene’ and ‘gameplay”, but I’ve never seen the term ‘gameplay’ defined at length. This probably explains why I can find so many examples of it bleeding into cutscenes, and not just in the quick time event sense. Older games like Night Trap and Snatcher, and even more modern games like Magical Diary implement very important gameplay elements directly into their cutscenes.

On top of that, we’ve had to work with a limited emotional register. Game reviews still focus a lot on fun, although I’ll admit that this isn’t a hard limit. We’re perfectly capable of focusing on other emotions when they’re prominent in our games (think To the Moon or any survival-horror game). Even then, though, we don’t do this as often as we should. Games aren’t always going to easily signal what you should be feeling, and some might not even signal on purpose. So writers generally need to be more attuned to subtext in games.

These are the kinds of problems that the old tools we’re currently using couldn’t possibly hope to solve. As I previously said, we’re inclined to speak in broad, unproven assumptions that are just waiting for somebody to pull out their real meaning. Let’s go back to the hour count for a good example. Focusing on the number alone and holding up bigger as better completely ignores what the game actually does with its time, and whether or not that times serves the game’s end goals well. This is how we end up with bloated open world games, full of padding to pump up the hour count.

To be fair, this is mainly a concern with AAA games. The indie scene generally doesn’t have the same obsession with length, if only because price isn’t as consistent an issue with indie games. Yet putting price aside, indie games do a great job illustrating how ridiculous it is to judge games in raw numbers. Are we going to say that Fate/stay Night is better than Katawa Shoujo just because it’s longer? Is Dungeons of Dredmor a better game than Narcissu simply because it has more content? That what each game’s content entails is less relevant than the fact that it has this much content? These aren’t the kinds of questions that have real answers. Holding up length and content in games as an end in itself makes false equivalencies like these far too easy.

Talking about a game’s mechanics looks like a step forward, although one that would run into very similar problems. Two games could use the same mechanics very differently. Returning to The Order, I’ve also seen it criticized for using quick time events. Not for how it uses them, but simply because it uses them. Yet I can name lots of games that use quick time events well, from The Walking Dead to Liberation Maiden to Asura’s Wrath etc. What makes them succeed where The Order fails?

The only way to resolve this tension is to look past the specific devices as ends in themselves, and to begin asking what the game is trying to do with those devices. To do that, video game writing must stop looking at games in the broad, simple terms that it’s been comfortable with for so long. Errant Signal is one of the better examples of game reviewing that evaluates games for content/subtext, but it’s not the only one. Features like Critical Distance, Good Games Writing, and Worth Reading consistently highlight the kinds of writers who avoid these problems.

I just wish that these writers were the norm, and not exception. Video games need to move away from broad generalizations with little relation to what a game actually does. No other medium does this, and it certainly isn’t doing this one any good. For all the talk surrounding The Order: 1886, I still have no clue what the game’s about, or how it plays. That alone should tell us there’s something wrong with how we’ve been discussing it.

 

  • What’s with the graphic used here?

    I think this demonstrates the kind of abusive relationship players feel like they are in with the video game industry. $60 is a ridiculous price to pay for anything like a video game. It’s just way, way, way off mark. I think players feel like they are being had by their (drug) dealers.

    A game with a premise like Order here should be maybe $30 if its an exceptional game, more realistically $20 at launch, like the price of a theater ticket, maybe times two. And that’s only for theater goers, which most people are not. Most people are used to watching movies on television probably, or something like Netflix. $8/mo divided by a family of four or more, not even necessarily living together. Video games are so impossibly antiquated in this respect and players know it, but don’t know how to react.

    The Order isn’t even streamed, like a movie, even though it’s aim is to be cinematic. $60 for this game might as well be $300 for the privilege of something like watching a movie while it is in theaters from home. The $60 price tags are to try to soak up the disposable income of the money-is-no-object set, while still being aspirationally priced for working class people. It would be smarter to release the game in advance for a much higher price, so that it can come out at around $30 or less at launch time, so the inertia is there from day one, but instead the inertia is drawn out while people wait for the price to inevitably drop. It’s a bad move by publishers that only makes an sense in the light that maybe/probably publishers are afraid that as soon as the game drops it will be “pirated” and so there is only a tiny window to do business within.

    • Cinnamon267

      Budgets have to go down for price to go down. Which isn’t going to happen any time soon for AAA.

      • If you sell 6 units for $10 the end result is the same as selling 1 unit for $60. Especially when the physical object is a compact disc. That is then 6 times as many people talking about and sharing your product.

        • Cinnamon267

          Everything has to sell as well as GTA? Not happening. Regardless of price.

  • catstronaut

    I am aggressively unconcerned with hour counts—my favorite games are probably Super Mario Kart, Chrono Trigger, and Mushihimesama Futari, all incredibly short in the grand scheme if you consider Chrono Trigger in relation to the rest of its genre. I’m more likely to be upset because a game is too long and padded out, because I just don’t have the time or patience for that in my life. I’d rather have a short, sublime game that I can play and replay.

    That being said, new games are *incredibly expensive*, and I don’t think it would be unfair to say that The Order is overpriced on release and not worth your time until that price drops significantly. But furthermore, if we’re considering length, The Order is even too short *on its own terms*. Having only seen the game played and having only heard reports from my two friends who have played it, I might be portraying it unfairly. But both of them said the ending was very unsatisfying, and it just sort of… ends in the middle of everything that’s happening, without any resolution for the main villain. To me it sounded like the end of the first Gears of War, where you spent the entire game taking out one locust nest only to find out that there are hundreds more out there. What kind of resolution is that? Nothing happened!

    In that sense, I would say The Order’s length IS a legitimate gripe. Mushihimesama Futari is approximately 30 minutes long, but I could play the game endlessly. The Order is, by most accounts, a fairly by the numbers cover shooter with a good story that has a bad ending. So players are likely playing it for the story and the visuals, which likely don’t become more complex or resonate more for players as they play and replay the game. If that experience is over quickly, then that’s really all they got out of it.

    I do agree that reviewers should try to review the game holistically. But in the case of The Order, I think they might have done just that.

    • Story based games, games that navigate spaces are going to be a little bit longer than movies, because they just can’t jump cut like a movie, and it wouldn’t be satisfying if they did. Moving through the space is their singular strength, which if not exalted reduces the game to something that should have almost certainly been a movie in the first place–or otherwise could be said to be more puzzle based than story based.

      So in that way story based games should naturally be longer than a feature length movie, but the amount of story content within them probably shouldn’t be. In other words, if all of the navigation was cut out, the end result should be a feature length movie. Longer than that it begins to feel like you are wasting your time.

      Chrono Trigger is pretty long, but in fairness the abstract party based or cast of player characters narrative is pretty much the only game format that lends itself to longer, more drawn out stories since it can easily cover a lot more ground (temporally and territorially.)