header is screenshot from The Order: 1886
Still Too Long, and Not Linear Enough
Ed Smith

If we’re talking prevailing market sentiments and the tastes of videogame buyers, such as they might be singularly perceived, The Order: 1886 is like the philosophical opposite—it’s so totally unvendible, so nakedly uncommercial, that it’s almost comical. If The Order: 1886 were a used car, the conversation would be like, “is it safe?” “Nope.” “Do you have the service history?” “Not at all.” “Is it a quiet runner?” “It catches fire.” “How many miles has it done?” “800 billion.” Nevermind all of these factors in the year 2024. If we’re talking mainstream, boxed videogame releases in 2015, The Order is naturally, metaphysically, compositionally antithetical to the notion of profit—obscure studio, esoteric premise, highly linear, less than six hours long, and not even set in America. It’s like selling a gun that shoots backwards.

So I’m about to explain how I often get frustrated with my own navel gazing, which is in itself exceptionally navel gazing—navel gazing²—but I promise it eventually serves as preamble to an actual point. I keep writing about how videogames don’t do this, and aren’t that, and have been cultivated, calcified, and codified sufficient that it now seems impossible they could ever be X, Y and Z, and I can imagine someone reading all that stuff and thinking well, this guy is just missing the point. Looking through the window from the other side for a second, talking endlessly about the stuff I talk about when I talk about games, maybe it’s like complaining that you can’t make the characters in films do what you want to do, or that conventional fiction goes page one, page two, page three, etc and there’s no variation. I keep saying how games need to be more human, and game-makers more elitist, and game players encouraged tacitly to play in ways that are more harmonious with the text as authored, but that’s all just formally wrong—maybe, as people have said to me and elsewhere over the last 15 years, games just are not for that.

And so I think about who games are commonly regarded as being for—and this is reductive and broad swipes and I’m not offering a comprehensive immutable exegesis here—but I think for a lot of people, involved in games from every angle, games are for you to do what you want in them, and for you to play them for a long time. That’s what the mainstream videogame, as a cultural object, as is most extensively and mutually understood, as a commercial prospect and an entertainment form and a spiritual being, is nowadays for—something you play for a long time and which lets you do a lot of what you want to do, or if you want to be more precise, is at least designed with ‘what the player wants to do’ at the forefront of its designers’ decision making. So let’s ignore, for a second, the idea that the mainstream videogame could be for something else, or that what it’s currently, generally for might represent some nadir in the history of culture, as a human imperative. Instead of asking why isn’t the videogame for this, and this, and this, what I’m thinking about now is why is the videogame for that, and that, and that. Why does The Order: 1886 feel like such an abhorrence?

The thing about length must go back to how expensive games are to buy. We talk now about how the inflated cost of AAA game production necessitates recommended retail prices in the $60, $70, or even $100 dollar ranges, but back in the ‘90s, when something as major as Goldeneye 007 could be made by twelve people, a new mainstream videogame still cost you $50—in ‘90s money. It feels like at some point, since videogames were listed in catalogues alongside videogame-playing devices, then they—the games themselves—could be classified under ‘consumer electronics,’ and priced accordingly. It’s because you’re locked in to the brand. If you want to watch a VHS, a DVD, a Blu-Ray, or a whatever there are dozens of different machines that will do that for you—you’ve got plenty of choice in how to watch this thing, so the thing is less expensive. But if you want to play the PlayStation game, well, you either play it on the PlayStation at our prices or you don’t play it at all. It’s a closed system. So naturally if you’re handing over a large quantity of money for something, you want to feel like you’re getting a large quantity of product in return, and the easiest way for game-makers to quantify and justify and market this favourable ROI to you is through sheer available playable hours—videogames by the ounce. It’s objective, too, and maybe that’s the nucleus of this whole thing, that videogames were historically kept in the section of the store with the other ‘objective’ products—the toaster that won’t burn, the stereo that has bass boosting technology and a graphics visualiser, the lightweight vacuum cleaner with easy-change bag. In the same way you’d expect your new TV to last several years before it gets screen burn, the way videogames were marketed and sold during the earliest days of their mass commercial breakthrough means we expect a quantifiable, proportionate amount of product in return for our money. 

Or maybe it’s a bit more dire than that, and maybe the whole system of game production—where you have a vocal percentage of customers who just want games to be games, in the most reductive sense of the word, and game-making companies that pursue, care about, and respond to the bottom line exclusively—is a system where just making the same again, but bigger, more, is the path of least resistance when it comes to getting everyone what they want. If everyone loved the mechanics and world and premise and whatever of your company’s last game, well, you already have a lot of that stuff concepted and designed and programmed and coded, and you’ve got a bedded in audience with pre-existing brand awareness, and you’ve got a simple pitch—if you liked that, you can have even more of it, the same but bigger. It’s like 20 chicken wings for $6.99. The easiest sales pitch is lots of something in exchange for, what seems like, not much of something. 100 hours of game for 60 of your dollars. The customer’s ‘up’ by 40.

But of course for that to become the chief guiding principal, the kind of north star of how everyone thinks about and invests in and conceives of and makes mainstream games, it’s not enough to just emphasise this literal exchange of money for time. There also needs to be a correlative decrement or degradation of the implied value of art—you need to create a consumer culture where people fundamentally feel that the best way of spending money is on more, and more, and more, but to do that, you need to make it seem like everything else that might come into the equation, like auteurship, subjectivity, integrity, and general artistic quality are characterised as secondary or tertiary or even less. And that’s why, I think, when I recall the response to The Order: 1886—the kind of consensus, general, atmospheric response—there wasn’t so much attention given to what the game actually was. It was more important that the game wasn’t long. Point being, if game length is so important now, it’s not just because we’ve continually emphasised its significance as the deciding factor when choosing to spend your money. It’s because we’ve done a poor job—and perhaps at some less tangible levels actively operated to prevent—heightening and ‘selling’ games based on artistic value.

And then there’s the thing about linearity—this idea, not necessarily that linearity is always bad, but that if you lessen it, disguise it, or, best of all, make a game without much linearity at all, then that’s intrinsically, naturally, philosophically better. This isn’t to say that linearity is also always right, or that it’s not possible to catalyse something exceptional from non-linearity, the sandbox, and the open-world—I don’t think that Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, would be as impactful if it used the same structure as The Order: 1886 or Spec Ops: The Line or something. The problem I think is that if a game is linear, in the extremely (by comparison to other videogames) prescriptive way that The Order: 1886 is linear, then at some level it seems to be perceived as a shortchanging of the audience, like the developer is somehow trying to get one over on their customers. It’s like you’ll hear ‘yeah, this game is good, but it’s very linear,’ almost like ‘yeah, this is a good vacuum cleaner but it is quite loud,’ like the linearity is automatically perceived as some kind of deficiency. But I think this arises from what is actually a kind of honest and—perhaps inadvertent and crudely articulated—consideration for games as artistic propositions. I agree that games should strive to express, and find methods of expression, unique to their form.+ If the objective (again, so much as we can unify the entire history and world of gaming behind one objective) is to distinguish games from films, books, and so on, well then films and books and TV are comparatively ‘linear’ experiences, and so it follows—by this simplified, Boolean logic—that the less linear a game is, the more distinguished it is from its artform peers, and the closer it is getting to that objective as establishing games as artistic possibilities on their own terms, and therefore it is better than something that is linear.++

But I don’t think The Order: 1886—for example—is linear. I don’t think that what we call linearity, or the linear game, is even close to comparable to television, movies, books, or anything else in the world. Just because you’re following a relatively strict route, completing actions perhaps one at a time, and performing as a sort of captive to the game’s design, it doesn’t eliminate or even lessen the artistic and experiential qualities unique to the videogame. Metal Gear Solid is linear, especially by modern standards, but still feels completely ‘of the videogame.’ The Order: 1886 is moreso linear, but in the moment-to-moment, minute-to-minute details of your experience at both the micro and macro levels, there is still something that couldn’t be replicated using another form. I don’t think it’s possible for a videogame to be linear. If choice, freedom, and videogamic structures that are strictly un-The Order: 1886 are considered more authentic to the form, I don’t think it’s because they actually are, only that they appear so more apparently. And then I guess there’s an even broader question: why is being able to do what you want in a game considered more valuable and worth your money than doing what the game wants you to do? Maybe this is the part that does come down to personal taste, rather than any type of objective art theory reasoning, but I’d rather someone who knows how to spin a yarn and craft an experience and guide me through something just give it to me, and sit at their feet and listen and defer to their voice for the time we spend together. I don’t need it to be about what I want to do all the time. I think someone else’s perspective and work and expression are worth spending money on—and I hate how in videogames that attitude seems contrary.+++


I’m not convinced that videogames’ unique methods of expression are especially well equipped to handle what I would consider more complex, compelling, and meaningful subject matter, but nevertheless, I think we have to keep trying, and not just do all the heavy lifting with cutscenes.

++ In an article for Unwinnable, I wrote that I also think that in the 21st century there is something psychologically essential about open-world games.

+++I’ve never played a game where I’ve thought ‘this would be better if it were longer’ or ‘this would be better if I were in control of it more.’ But I’m always thinking the opposite. ‘I wish this were shorter’ and ‘I wish this had a stronger voice.’


Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.