There’s a big difference between novels and short stories, beyond the obvious ones. It goes beyond word length, beyond character arcs and sub-plots. It resides in those final moments when you know that the story’s ending but you see that the ending will leave you wanting more.
In a novel that’s mostly fine, in fact it is desirable. Wanting more is all right when you’ve gotten a major emotional payoff from the resolution of the main, and possibly sub, plots. It’s the feeling of “I love this restaurant but I’m so stuffed that I don’t want more right now”; it’s what makes readers come back and buy the sequel. But as short stories that give that kind of major payoff are rare (and a lot of them go on to win multiple prestigious awards) the short story ending often end up feeling lacking.
The same is true for games. Most games are short stories. Only the largest, most complex games, can assume the mantle of being the play equivalent of novels. And those games don’t get played a lot, or at least not by many people. Even here on the Geek, where the most rabid gamers come, how many of us sit down to 20+ hour games on a regular basis?
Instead we play short stories. We play games with one, possibly two, main arcs. They are the Settlers and Carcassones, the TTR and TTA, the Tzolkins and Twilights and Trajans. They don’t deviate, don’t meander, don’t run around collecting interesting side characters for us to care about. And that makes the demands on their endings so much higher.
We want to get a payoff at the end of the game, and it has to come at the end. If the main payoff comes in the middle then the last part of the game feels lacking – it isn’t interesting, doesn’t hold our attention and forces us to sit through pointless play. If it comes too late, i.e. if the end of the game builds up to the payoff but doesn’t reach it, the whole play feels lacking.
So we need to create games where the payoff comes at just the right moment. The tension must break in the final moments of the game, neither before nor later.
Of course, this is hard to achieve. Game experiences are player dependent. They’re subjective and based on that player’s playing style. Some gamers like to build up their engine. If a game offers engine building but then makes that aspect secondary in the resolution those players will be disappointed. A prime example of this is, for me, Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition.
TI3 lets you build an engine, create your fleets, conquer your neighbors. But in the end it all comes down to victory points which are only partly related to the building part of the game. That makes me, as a engine builder, angry. Even if I win I’m disappointed because the game ends at the wrong time – TI3 promises to be an engine building game but at its core it’s based on non-production related VPs. For me its a short story that ends too soon, without a satisfying resolution.
At the same time I’ve got friends who swear by TI3. They’re much more win oriented, rather than build oriented, and for them it ends at precisely the right time. They get a payoff from scoring fastest rather than building most.
Thus creating payoffs is about finding the right target audience. And I don’t think that TI3’s packaging does that. It promises 4X, not point race. And while TI3 is a great game it isn’t the game it promises to be.
Settlers of Catan, on the other hand, promises to be a build game and it delivers. There’s a race in Settlers as well but the race is secondary to the building. When playing Settlers I don’t feel that the game abruptly ends just when it was getting good. Instead I feel that it ends at just the right moment, when I’ve built up my settlements but before I’m bored (i.e. inundated with resources and not caring).
I should add that I like TI3 better than I like Settlers, because the in-game payoffs are greater for me in TI3 (there’s more thinking and scheming in it and less randomness in the tempo). But when it comes to endings I prefer Settler’s ending by a wide margin.
I just don’t fancy the game all that much.