I don’t play most videogames all the way through more than once. Not when there are tons of options available to me, or I know I could have achieved a different ending, or even when there’s some super-cool character or pathway just waiting to be unlocked. I also don’t often fully re-read novels, and if I completely re-watch a movie it is a significant thing. When I tell fellow nerds that I’ve seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail six times all the way through, for example, it fails to impress. “Pfft,” they say. “I’ve probably seen it sixty times.” This irks me to no end. It’s one thing if you’re an academic conducting a comprehensive study. Otherwise, why does it matter how many times you were exposed to something if your one experience was so meaningful?
It’s no secret that players are often given incentives to play over and over again.
It’s no secret that players are often given incentives to play over and over again. We welcome it. At this point, we not only expect to spend 30-40 hours with a hot new release, but to work through it more than once, usually in the hopes of earning alternate content. In spite of that, I don’t think it’s bad or “a waste” to have one defining run through a story-driven game and then put it aside, especially if that run takes ages to complete. After all, videogames have always depended on user choice, and what better way to demonstrate the importance of your choice than by living with what you didn’t choose? Yes, there are those that prefer to stay in their virtual worlds indefinitely, but for most of us ennui has a way of setting in sooner or later. Just take a gander at the forum posts of folks who became bored with Skyrim and the like after the big quests were finished. Knowing there are things you never explored can enhance your own interaction.
It’s true that there was a time when not knowing what to do in a game could be fatal. Constantly retracing your steps or restarting entirely used to be essential to figuring out the tricks of survival in order to get the single “good ending.” Fortunately we seem to finally be at a point where most games have some way to keep you from getting totally stuck, and we should take advantage of that. If you know you won’t screw yourself over because of some irretrievable McGuffin you forgot to pick up hours ago, you should be free to play without guilt. You might not get every point or power-up, but a well-designed game should at least give you the chance to have a full and satisfying experience the first time.
This approach doesn’t mean you have to forget a game exists after you’re done. It can be fun to introduce a title you’ve already conquered to someone else to either watch them play or let them watch you. In that case, though, you’re not invalidating your own “first time” so much as absorbing pleasure vampirically from someone else’s. After I beat Portal I remember booting it up for my brother and eagerly watching him figure it out, occasionally dropping hints and waiting anxiously for his reaction to the ending. I had no desire to do it again for myself, but I enjoyed witnessing his first experience (which sounds a lot creepier than it was, I swear). It also doesn’t mean you can never restore a save to fix a mistake, or even that you can’t retry a final sequence to see if you get a better ending if you shoot the bad guy instead of your girlfriend. But once you’re done, you’re done, and your relationship with that title will never be mine.
I feel like this is something many of us understand intrinsically. The second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) playthrough is for acquiring, for measuring, for mastering, for deliberately doing what we weren’t able to do before using our past experiences as a control group. The first is when we fumble and explore, when every action involves some sort of risk. Starting Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for a second time means you’ll no longer be as confused/horrified when the game tricks you into thinking you just wiped your memory card. Whether you only play once or not, that first arc defines your relationship with that game. It might take months, but it has a beginning and an ending, and everything that comes after occurs in its shadow.
Whether you only play once or not, that first arc defines your relationship with that game.
In 2009, David Cage gave an interview with G4 where he claimed, “The right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it’s going to be your story. It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decided to write, and that will be a different story from someone else. And, again, I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it … The game is always fair with you, so I would like the player to be fair with the game. Bear with the consequences of your actions.”
This is the way I usually play, and will most likely continue to play, and I am not ashamed. I picked the wrong killer in The Colonel’s Bequest , I didn’t save Lara’s legs in Chrono Trigger , I gunned down Lebedev in Deus Ex , and yes, I had Wrex killed in Mass Effect . All of these are things I’m not entirely happy with, yet I live with them and accept them as my canonical experiences with these games.
The objections to this approach seem to be along the lines of: Why? Why shell out 60+ dollars for something I’m intending to play only once? Why risk missing so much due to a botched run-through, especially when you can still accidentally blunder into a hopeless situation (as in the Wrex case)? Furthermore, this clearly isn’t a play strategy that’ll get you far in game genres that can only be enjoyed on multiple playings. I’m guessing there aren’t many who would abandon Super Smash Bros. after defeating Master Hand once for fear of tainting their relationship with the game narrative.
Obviously there’s nothing wrong with putting a variety of options and paths into a game; it is part of the world-building that seems to be our current cultural moment. Nor is it wrong to try and see every result offered (or to use a walkthrough, if you’re that kind of person). However, for me at least, there’s always one playthrough that really counts, one run that defines my emotional understanding of that game, and there’s something to be said for keeping that pure. Some games support this through a randomizing mechanic that redesigns a certain feature every time, like the dungeons in Diablo or the branching conversation topics of Façade . Even this is unnecessary, though, because every experience of even the most linear of games is, after all, always unique to the player. You may have failed to hit every move exactly right in Dragon’s Lair , but you didn’t fail the way I did.
It could perhaps be said that, these days, too much focus is put on all the things a player might do in a game without teaching them to appreciate the things they actually do. Even hailed works like Heavy Rain that make consequence into a selling point capitalize more on the appearance of open-endedness than its realization. What gives your actions so much meaning is the idea that it could have gone another way. Actually play through all the options in a scenario and you’ll often find they have less overall impact than you thought. If someone ever designs a game that is infinitely variable, where the way you hold the controller in Chapter One impacts the identity of a major boss several game years later, then there will be even less of a reason to repeat the experience.
So don’t feel bad about putting your discs up on the shelf after the final cutscene. It’s ok to not be a completionist. It’s ok to say goodbye after your one experience. And it’s ok to admit that it even if you don’t, there’s no taking back your first time, no matter how much you may want to. You’ll always have Level 1.
Andy Hughes is a regular freelance contributor to Topless Robot, which is to say a really cool person. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org