Game Not Over
In my last article, Putting Down Video Games (And Picking Them Back Up Again) I described my habit of juggling many video games at once. My attention captured by a new conquest, a game of mine might lay abandoned for weeks, months, or years before it returned to favor. A few games I may never return to, their dusty PC DVD-ROMs forced to sit waiting forever, their saved games carefully preserved and their anxious menus silently anticipating a selection which would never be made. Yet, while these small tragedies do occasionally occur, I generally consider myself something of a gaming completionist, approaching each game with the genuine intent to install it and play it, from the day of it’s purchase forward, in power leveling and in grinds, for more gold, for less gold, in beta and after being patched, until a head crash do us part.
Unfortunately, games are becoming more difficult to actually complete. In an admirable attempt to provide players with longer, deeper, and more satisfying game experiences, game developers are depriving their players of the unique experience of completion that comes from completely mastering all that a game has to offer, from its basic mechanics, to its most ominous challenges. Games, which in the past would be presented with a well-defined endpoint, now withhold their ultimate conclusion via their myriad of tantalizing badges, achievements, and unlocks. While, the concept of an endpoint is entirely antithetical to open world games, some MMOs are so brazen as to boast of their lack of an end point right in their titles (I’m looking at you Everquest). In this onslaught of gaming timesinks, the prospect of exploring every zone, completing every quest, and besting every achievement is rapidly becoming exceptionally daunting, and while these increasingly extensive games undeniably represent a step forward in gaming, they simultaneously threaten to transmute the unique and satisfying experience of completion into a never-ending hunger for achievement.
Early video games can be viewed as either being very short or incredibly long. A game of Pac-Man, for example, lasts until the player loses all of their lives. For average players, this period is relatively short. However, extremely dedicated players might exert the Mitchellian effort required to reach the 256th level’s kill screen. A select few might additionally attempt to play a perfect game. Achieved by eating every possible dot, energizer, fruit, and ghost without losing a life, this feat demands a master gamer and takes approximately 3.5 – 5.5 hours. Thus, the average Pac-Man player’s gaming experience was one of achievement, but very rarely, if ever, one of completion.
Alternatively, other games of this era avoided a kill screen and presented the prospect of unlimited play to the highly skilled gamed. The quintessential example is Robert T Mruczek’s 49-hour, 300,007,894 point Star Wars (1983) marathon. While the game’s score counter rolls over at 100 million, the game is still playable (unlike the kill screen games), and thus this accomplishment is more of an achievement milestone rather than one of completion.
The games I love the most represent a blip in the never-ending achievement driven radar of the gaming landscape. These games provide an encapsulated gameplay experience whose payoff is delivered in the satisfaction of totally completing the game. Classics such as The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, Mega Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog, provide the gamer with a journey which can be completed in a single long afternoon and satisfy the player with a clearly defined end point and a gratifying sense of success and fulfillment. Players can rightfully claim to have fully completed a game, to have explored the entire map, seen every sight, and to have truly beaten the game. They have won. Game over. At the same time, players return to these games, thanks to their strong core mechanics, the experience of accomplishment granted by completion, and the feasible challenge of consuming an entire game in one sitting. This remarkable combination results in a unique gaming experience which is seldom found in modern games.
In an attempt to further expand the hours of playability with which they can be credited, modern games include countless collectibles, series of side quests, seemingly unlimited secret unlocks, differing difficulty settings (with the most challenging setting initially locked), and a wide array of achievements. Until all of these tasks and challenges have been successfully undertaken, one cannot claim to have really completed even a relatively short, straightforward game such as Portal. In open world games, the problem is even more pronounced. The player is granted a great deal of freedom, but when the virtual borders of the gamespace have been revealed, and the bulk of the world’s mini-goals completed, the worlds of games like GTA begin to feel more empty than completed. MMOs feed their players a steady diet of accomplishment, but more so than any other game form, the designs of Everquest and WoW are fully intended so as to never be completed, to always dangle one more quest, one more dungeon, one more item, and keep their subscribers paying. Players may feel secure in the knowledge that by purchasing these almost limitless games they are getting the most entertainment bang for their buck, yet by doing so they stand to sacrifice another meaningful gameplay experience.
Both early and modern video games emphasize boundless achievement rather than the satisfaction of completion. In older games, this was often a result of the limits of technology, while the open worlds and limitless journeys of modern games are a result, instead, of technological advance. And yet, while these modern games are hailed as improvements over the small limited designs of both earlier games and my self-described golden age of games, that particular joy of completely finishing a game stands to be lost in the game designs of the future.