There seems to be a perception out there that the value of a console game is determined by the time spent playing it. You even hear grumblings and see points get knocked off in reviews when a game clocks in at less than 15 hours. If I were an economist or a baseball statistician, I could probably come up with some clever formula to quantify this, like dollars over clear time plus 30% of unlockables. The problem with this “more is more” attitude is that it leads to a ridiculous amount of padding in games, and nowhere is this more true than with RPGs. Since console RPGs are so story-driven, people tend to play them through once, call them “done,” and put them back on the shelf. This is different than with shooters or fighting games, which can be “finished” in a couple of hours, but are meant to be played over again whenever you feel like it. If a game is only going to be played through once, though, than that one playthrough needs to be as long as possible, lest the disgruntled gamer complain that she didn’t get her money’s worth.

I just finished Dark Cloud 2 yesterday, and I really wish I had just quit halfway through. It exemplifies the pitfalls that come with trying to make a game as long as possible. Here’s a game with really nice character design, especially in some of the goofier enemies (Carrollesque playing cards, floating masks, thuggish circus clowns). It’s also got some of the prettiest randomly-generated levels I’ve ever seen, which show a surprising amount of variety for a mechanic that in most games tends to devolve into a lame pseudo-nethack dungeon crawling blandness. At least, the levels seem really nice, until you dive into what feels like the eight hundredth level so you can wander around and whack some monsters for the three thousandth time. What was a great game at level 15 is rendered numbingly dull by level 150.

The scary thing is, the dungeon crawling isn’t even the only game being played here. There’s also the Georama system, which everyone describes as a sort of Sim-City-Lite. The only similarity between this and Sim City, though, is the fact that you’re placing buildings in a field. In DC2, specific conditions must be met in order to advance the plot, and specific materials must be gathered to build the pieces of the town that meet those conditions, so the whole thing ends up being a jigsaw puzzle combined with a series of fetch quests. Once you’ve completed the puzzle, the town you’ve built just sits there, inert. Sure you’ve “fixed the future” or whatever it is they asked you to do, but there seems to be so much more potential for interactivity in this area, it’s disappointing that all you get for your time are a couple of bonus items.

And we haven’t even gotten to the minigames yet. Oh, the minigames. It’s like Level 5 looked at every other game on earth and said to themselves, “we can do that, too!” You like fishing? Got it. Golf? No problem. Taking photos? Check. Capturing monsters and leveling them up? Done, and done. Weapon building? Mecha upgrades? The more, the merrier, right? You know a game has too much going on when it includes more than forty instructional videos to nurse you along, until you realize that what you really need to do is buy a strategy guide (and therein lies the true economics of RPGs — packing in secrets and extras to sell strategy guides).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with packing your game full of pleasant distractions, except that the story suffers as a result of divided attentions. In an age when everyone keeps talking about how games are more and more like movies, you’d think developers would try to concentrate more on things like pacing and story. But in their rush to add value, designers keep throwing new levels and new features in, leaving the writers scrambling to keep up. Or maybe it’s the writers leading the level designers around. I don’t really know. Regardless, you can almost put a finger on the point in DC2 where the story starts falling apart, and from there watch it degenerate into such a senseless mess that even the main characters are literally reduced to standing agape and pleading with NPCs for more exposition.

So at the end of the day, if you’ve got a game that abandons itself from a narrative perspective, and smothers itself from a gameplay perspective, what are you left with? A gamer who’s clearly burnt out on RPGs, duh.