I was reading reviews of Alien: Isolation trying to decide whether to buy it when a phrase jumped out at me - one that I almost never see in game reviews.†
A number of critics described the game as "too long."
Customers often use length as one of their essential metrics for value in a single-player game. They've come to expect a certain amount of playtime for a retail game, typically 15 hours or more at the low end. "Too short" has been leveled at dozens of games, but "too long" is very rare.
So I bought it to see what they were talking about.
The game is good, evoking the tension of Ridley Scott's original movie by pitting a single protagonist against a nigh-unstoppable xenomorph. There is little direct combat in the game, and almost none with the alien - if it sees you, chances are you're dead. The tension that this power imbalance creates is solid. But about 2/3 of my way through the game I started feeling annoyance, rather than tension, and I was tempted to turn it off.
This isn't to say that "too long" is the best way to phrase criticism of the game. Plenty of games are longer than 15 hours and nobody complains.
What I think we're really talking about here is that the game's mechanics don't present sufficient opportunities to challenge the player's increasing mastery over 15 hours. No matter how good I got at operating inside Alien: Isolation's systems, dealing with the aliens always felt pretty much the same. And, by the end, that wasn't terribly interesting to me.
When we design single-player games, we typically use a difficulty model that maps pretty well to this:
As the player proceeds through the linear experience, the level of challenge increases. Of course, there are dips and plateaus and peaks inside that line, but if you average a hundred games together this is fairly close to what you'll see.
As the player's mastery of the game's mechanics grows, the difficulty of the game increases in kind. This creates what I call "friction" as the player struggles to advance by increasing their mastery to a level sufficient to overcome obstacles. This is the heart of gameplay in a single-player experience.
What's happening in Alien: Isolation is that the vertical axis isn't rising sufficiently to keep the player engaged with the game's mechanics throughout the time the narrative needs to play out. The friction levels off and the game becomes less interesting as a result.
I think it's instructive to compare Alien: Isolation to surprise indie hit 5 Nights At Freddy's, another game that uses a relatively helpless protagonist with even more limited means of interacting with their environment and its dangers.
I'm not saying 5 Nights At Freddy's is a better game than Alien: Isolation (it's probably not), but it does understand a very important principle of game design better.
What makes 5 Nights At Freddy's work as well as it does is that it recognizes the amount of meaningful friction it can wring out of its mechanics (not very much) and restricts the game's narrative length accordingly. "500 Nights At Freddy's" would have been a significantly worse (and less acclaimed) experience.
But by keeping the length of the game's narrative short, it can more precisely control the friction the player experiences as they master the game's mechanics. By the fifth day, players need to have achieved complete mastery to survive.†
It's hard to think of ways that the mechanical friction could have been increased in Alien: Isolation. The typical methods that designers use (increasing enemy numbers, strength, adding time or environmental constraints) aren't appropriate in the game's narrative.†
So how can we fix Alien: Isolation? Delving deeper into the game's structure can give us a picture of how rethinking the narrative could help us get more value out of the mechanics.
One of the biggest problems we have as game designers working in a narrative mode is giving players meaningful choices to influence those narratives. Players have lots of granular control on a moment-to-moment basis, but the choices they make either navigate them towards a failure state or a success state. Some games have small branches, typically leading to a different ending cutscene at most.
We sometimes refer to this as the "roller coaster" model. As designers, we work hard to create really great experiences for our players, and we want to make sure that they get them all in a single playthrough of the game so that work isn't wasted.
What if Alien: Isolation hadn't been structured around the roller coaster model? Instead of demanding that players experience every set piece, every plot moment within 15 hours of play, imagine a version of the game where the narrative is only two or three hours long.
The story starts at the same place (with Ripley arriving at Sevastopol Station) and ends at the same climax (with Ripley triumphing over the alien). But in between? I don't want to spoil any plot points for those who haven't played the game, but there are numerous subplots and characters that could easily sustain their own narrative.
Imagine giving the player a few meaningful choices early on in the narrative - maybe they accompany one person and not another, or decide to explore one area of the station over the other. Then we accompany the player through the real ramifications of that decision.
Instead of hitting all 12 of the narrative's set pieces, maybe we only experience three or four of them. But we also use storytelling to hint at others - players can view events happening from a distance, or find the corpse of a character that they may have protected on a different playthrough. We imply the existence of a world around the player, not just a roller-coaster track.
And at the end, we can even drive home the implications that the game has more to offer them with statistics - display a "22% Of Station Explored" message, for example, to get completists to replay the game and see what they missed. And each of those shorter narratives could contain a significant amount of content that would be new to the player.
We can call this the "haunted house" model, where the experience is intentionally incomplete and designed to be repeated multiple times with varying choices by the player. It's not surprising that the haunted house model would be more appropriate to a horror game.
Think about Ridley Scott's original Alien movie. Would it have been able to muster the same level of tension if it were 15 hours long? It's doubtful. So why do we think a game can do it?
Replayability is one of the greatest assets we have as game designers. When a game is "too long," when it doesn't have the mechanical friction to support its narrative, we betray the player. If a meaningful way to increase that friction doesn't exist, we need to adjust the narrative in response.