Limbo screenshot[The Game Beat is a bi-weekly new GSW column by Kyle Orland examining the video game press and the process by which gamers get information about the games they love. This week, it examines the industry’s somewhat misplaced obsession with a game’s duration, rather than its content.]

Without a doubt, Xbox Live Arcade’s Limbo is an instant classic. The reviews are near-unanimous in their praise. Limbo is “bleak and beautiful.” It’s “haunting.” It’s “elegant and minimalistic.” It’s “clever." It’s “gorgeously constructed." It “will stay with you for a very long time.” Some are already calling it “a masterpiece.” Others are breaking out the dreaded a-word: “Art.”

But there’s one other thing Limbo reviewers are almost equally unanimous about. Some seem almost reluctant to bring it up. Others seem proud that they were able to find some flaw to balance out an otherwise glowing review.

Regardless, the critical consensus seems to be that Limbo is excellent but, well... it’s kind of short.

“The only real complaint I have of this game is that it is so short,” writes Gaming Age. “Probably the only flaws that I can think of with Limbo are that the game is sadly shorter than it should be,” writes Planet Xbox 360. “If you are concerned about the game’s length, you might want to see how low the price can go,” writes Cheap Ass Gamer, living up to its name by complaining about the value of a high-quality $15 game.

Perhaps nothing speaks better of Limbo’s essential quality than the fact that the only negative most reviewers could come up with is that they want to play more of it. Still, it seems a bit gauche to bring up the game's length when everyone seems to agree the game is almost perfectly crafted in every other respect. It’s like whining that the Mona Lisa wasn’t painted on a bigger canvas, or that Casablanca wasn’t padded out with more fight scenes.

But many critics seem to agree that Limbo's length is lacking, even if they can’t agree what that length is exactly. “Four hours” seems to be the number most commonly cited in reviews, but plenty of critics claim it only took them three. Plenty more mention getting stuck in Limbo (HA!) for five or even six hours.

My personal favorite quote on Limbo’s length might come from The Review Crew, who say the game took them three to four hours, but “of course it will take you longer if you get stuck on the numerous puzzles.” I mentally inserted the unwritten subtext: "(Note: This game may take you a while if you are not as awesome at video games as we are)"

This brings us to one of the maddening facts that makes video game criticism different than criticism of most any other medium: length is not an absolute fact. Different players play at different paces -- a game that’s a two-hour breeze to some might be a ten-hour slog for others. The very idea of a set length doesn’t make sense for many games. How long does it take to complete The Sims? Tetris? The Multiplayer mode in Modern Warfare 2? These games are only as long as you are willing to keep playing them.

This should be the critical length benchmark for every game: not “How long until I reach the end?” (Are we theeeeere yet?) but “How long do I want to play?” Yet publishers constantly describe the “number of hours” for upcoming games as if that was a feature as concrete as “number of players.” What usually goes unsaid in these inflated marketing claims of “hundreds of hours” of longevity is that 90% of those hours will be spent mindlessly grinding for experience points, or repeating endlessly similar escort missions, or chasing down hidden doodads that have long-since ceased being interesting to collect, all in pursuit of some quasi-mythical and utterly pointless “100%” on some statistics screen.

Perhaps this marketing push is why many critics seem fixated on length. Or perhaps they’re just used to judging games less as carefully constructed works of art (or even craft) and more as mere value propositions. “Give me X hours of gameplay for every Y dollars of my investment” is the unspoken context of this type of review.

The relative quality of those hours -- and whether all those hours eventually come together into some sort of satisfying whole -- don’t seem to matter much to these critics. As long as the game is suitably distracting from the essential emptiness of everyday living, then more quantity equals more quality, as far as they’re concerned. And hey, if that game only costs $20, that leaves $40 extra in the budget left over to take the family out to a thoroughly enjoyable two-hour movie. Er, wait...

This value-based approach to reviewing seems ill-suited for a game as carefully constructed and self-contained as Limbo. Heck, it seems inappropriate for any game, especially considering that reviewers often rush through their single, straightforward playthrough of a game as quickly as possible in order to meet some very tight deadlines. How are these reviewers supposed to judge replay value when they’re expected to move on to the next game on their review pile almost immediately? In fact, you’d think most reviewers would appreciate a shorter game, given the mountains of unplayed games sitting unloved on their shelves (poor babies).

Still, it seems wrong to totally ignore the issue of game length. Games are consumer products as well as works of art, and sometimes even a good game doesn’t provide sufficient value for the money. One of the most elegant solutions to this problem I’ve seen came from the sadly short-lived Game Buyer magazine, a Future publication which ran for four months in late 1998.

Each review in Game Buyer came with a horribly unscientific graph with time on the X axis and the game’s “tilt level” on the Y axis. So a game that started slow but had tons of replay value would have an upward curve, while a game that started with a bang but fizzled out would curve downwards. Bang! The value proposition in a handy visual format -- you don’t even have to waste any words in the review text!

To be fair, many reviewers seem to be handling the problem of Limbo’s length appropriately, even without the aid of graphs. The Telegraph review mentioned a "perfectly formed running time of around four hours," while 7outof10 pointed out that the game "packs more spine-tingling wonder and horror into its opening hour as those games manage in eight or more." Some reviews, most notably Paste’s and Eurogamer’s, even managed to capture the game elegantly without mentioning the running time at all (or, in the case of Eurogamer, downplaying it).

But perhaps the most elegant statement on the matter of Limbo’s length came, surprisingly (to me at least), from “>IGN’s review of the game: “While [five or six hours] may sound short, it's better for a game to leave us wanting more than to overstay its welcome.”

Amen.

[Kyle Orland is a freelance video game journalist with over a decade of experience, if you count reviews for his college paper and fansite Super Mario Bros. HQ, and he’d appreciate it if you did. He’s written about issues surrounding the game press for a variety of outlets, most recently at his new blog, which is also called The Game Beat.]