The Length of Games and the Frailty of Memory

Recently, GameSetWatch linked to an article at You Are Lose! asking if a long game can tell an engaging story:

When RPGs or strategy games stretch into the dozens of hours, played over many weeks or months, how am I to be expected to recall something that happened in the beginning of the game?

The longer a game, the more likely I am to put it down for a lengthy time and forget major details about it. This is a major detriment, I think, to games’ ability to tell a story.

The author, Korey, makes a certain amount of sense. As he points out, many games will present information in the opening cutscene that’s not referred to again until hours later. In the middle, there’s a whole lot of content going on. However, I think that when interactive narrative is handled properly, works of equivalent scope need to be longer than their non-interactive equivalents. Let’s look at Valve’s Portal first.

Portal is short for a mainstream digital game. I’ll call it four hours, although that number varies wildly depending on the player. Its story, however, is quite short. It fits into the short story or television episode category. There’s little character development, few plot complications, and a neat conclusion. There are essentially five plot events: the awakening and introduction to GLaDOS, the brief encounter with the Companion Cube, the attempted execution, the escape, and the killing of GLaDOS. However, the vast bulk of the game is gameplay. Puzzle-solving, exploration, and learning. The story events hold greater weight in the player’s memory than, say, that one puzzle where you had to fling yourself across a room.

Digital games handle time differently than other media. All forms of media make use of a technique called ellipsis, where time is condensed by eliminating unimportant events. No one goes to the toilet in novels and movies, because it’s not relevant to the plot. Hours and even years can be skipped when fading from one scene to the next. Digital games do this too, often during level transitions or cutscenes. However, interactive entertainment is much more likely to include story-irrelevant action. Shootouts, exploration, and box-stacking are carried out continuously, without any events being cut out, in order to maintain immersion and avoid disorienting the player.

Because the player is controlling the action, and because digital games have gameplay, an ongoing activity that is only loosely tied to story, much more action is left in. This gameplay is often repetitive, in a way; the same sorts of actions are being performed by the player in slightly different configurations. When done well, the player is engaged, but she has little stress on her mind to remember the specifics of these events. An hour-long Starcraft level is compressed to, “I struggled to protect the Terran base from the Zerg.” At the same time, because the player is actively involved in progressing the story, she is more likely to remember the important events. I can remember the generalities of a real-life conversation where I quit my job quite well, even if it happened months ago.

As with many things, there is a point of diminishing returns, here. If I can only play for an hour a week, a 40-hour game will take me most of a year. That is indeed a long time to remember story specifics, as Korey says. But a twenty-hour game played three hours per week can be finished in under two months, which is a reasonable amount of time to be expected to remember events. A lot of this depends on the individual player’s available time, memory capacity, and attention span. However, it’s not an entirely fair comparison to claim an equivalency between game duration and movie duration. Games have less story than a film of equivalent length, and their story events are easier to remember due to the player’s immersion with the game.

What are your experiences with long games, as a reader? What games have you considered just too long? Do you have an example of forgetting an important story event before the end of the game? Let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “The Length of Games and the Frailty of Memory

  1. The length doesn’t matter much to me, it’s just like reading a thick novel or watching a long running tv series.

  2. Well, I think Wild Arms 3 is kinda long and hard to recall. I remember several times when I thought ‘this is it!’ only to be greeted with more obstacles…The story just seemed to drag on forever and I gradual started to lose interests in the game as time went by.

    But ultimately I think whether you’ll remember the story depends largely on the impact of the story itself, being ‘actively involved’ doesn’t necessary mean that you’ll remember it more clearly, though it adds a lot to the gaming experience. For example I have no idea what I talked about with my friends or ate for lunch 3 days ago but I remember most of the plot twists in Final Fantasy 4 which i played more than a decade ago, even though it was a story told entirely in pixels with little to no animated sequences. So my theory is, if the story is good and memorable, you’ll remember it.

Comments are closed.