Looking through my stack of old games the other day, I realized the enormous quantity of games I’ve never finished. It’s an amount that easily dwarfs the number of games I have completed. I’m not ashamed of it, and I will lay claim in conversation to having played them. It’s a glorious thing to walk through life, sampling everything, committing to nothing. What other medium allows us to be so blithely indifferent to its consumption? If you say you’ve read a book or seen a movie, there’s an implicit assumption that you watched the entire movie or read the book from cover to cover. Consuming the totality of a book or a movie is often a defining factor in its quality. We sheepishly admit to never having finished Moby Dick or we proudly tell people we walked out of Pineapple Express. But the videogame we never finish is hardly a source of embarrassment or disgust. We played it, and that is enough.
Why don’t we complete the games we start? The industry’s common response is that people don’t have as much time as they once did, or that the modern audience’s tolerance for difficulty is markedly lower than it used to be. There’s truth to both of these statements, but there’s also a ridiculous nostalgia behind them. It implies there was a moment before Rock Band and Wii Sports when we all finished Super Mario Bros. and beat Metroid without the help of Justin Bailey. The late ’80s and early ’90s have become a sugar-coated era in game history that many game developers seem content with simply refining. In truth, the answer is more complicated than either of the aforementioned explanations.
It bears mentioning that there’s a cultural bias against videogames that keeps deep, prolonged engagement with a game from being socially acceptable. We bestow finishing difficult books or sitting through long, artistically challenging movies with a dignity playing videogames just doesn’t have, perhaps deservedly so. On a cultural level videogames are psychologically moored to the television, an apparatus associated with fleeting thoughts and background noise. Viewers flip from channel to channel consuming small bits of programming, occasionally tuning in for an unbroken hour of content. Television and triviality walk hand in hand, and it is not insignificant that videogames are forced to share this space. For many, videogames are considered an extension of television viewing, something to be cut off or on casually with little regard for the continuity of the experience.
Although this explains why I don’t have a problem heeding recommendations from friends who are only half way through the game in question, it doesn’t explain why so many of us stop playing a game at the 50-percent mark. One major culprit is repetition: The notion that the first level of Halo is much like the last level of Halo. I understand and sympathize with the developers’ logic – once you teach the player the basics, he or she will want to be tested. So the game tests the player, over and over in increasingly more complex ways. The problem is that despite the developer’s best efforts to reward the player with crazier level designs, wilder power-ups and twists in the storyline, it’s often a matter of diminishing returns from the moment they understand how the game is played. The gameplay mechanic becomes a fixed thing, unchanging and implemented in exactly the same ways over and over. Instead of supporting the narrative, repetitive gameplay often undermines it by erasing the distinctions between one level and the next.
The JRPG is a great example of this. As cliché as its narratives now are, initially they represented the vanguard in videogame storytelling techniques on consoles. However, the constant grinding and menu-based combat, often criticized as a being a kind of mindless and slow button mashing fest, clearly became a stumbling block for players whose main interest was in exploring the world and the characters who inhabited it. In the past 10 years alone we’ve seen a sea change in the way JRPGs handle combat such that older titles, like the Phantasy Star series, would now be considered unplayable. Innovations like the hands-off approach of Final Fantasy XII, the more action-oriented Tales series, and the bifurcated gameplay styles of Persona 3 have proliferated in response to this dissatisfaction.
It’s a difficult thing to provide incremental changes to gameplay and vary the ways in which game mechanics are used, especially within the confines of a narrative. As if to avoid this difficulty, many of the most popular games forgo a story or any semblance of closure, relying instead on variety that’s generated either by other players or a skill-based simulation. The best of these games are usually a combination of both of these aspects. Street Fighter II illustrates this idea well. The game is as much about learning the nuances of each character’s fighting style as it is about competing with other players. These games aren’t finite experiences confused about whether their goal is to challenge a player or to tell a story. Another popular genre, the sandbox game, uses A.I. to imitate a multiplayer world, providing the illusion of chaos and random chance. The sandbox game has similarly made story a secondary component to the actual experience of playing the game. In the Grand Theft Auto series the story sits to the side, always there for the player but never imposing itself on the larger experience the game offers.
It’s this relatively low cost of entry that allows me to eventually rack up 80-plus hours of game time with a version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and only six to eight hours with a game like BioShock. When people sit down to play a linear game, it requires a psychological investment. Players want a two-hour narrative experience, even if games today only demand 15-minute intervals of time. Nobody wants to watch one cut scene and play for 10 minutes before dinner. Still, properly enjoying this type of game requires commitment, and when that adds up to even 8 hours over the course of a week, that turns into a large singular commitment to one thing. Stay away from a game for too long and you forget the controls, your next objective and so on. After enough time, reinvestment in the linear experience becomes too big a hurdle to jump.
So is it an unbridgeable gap? Is the strictly linear game forever the domain of college students and bachelors with hours of free time to burn? A few games indicate otherwise. Portal introduced its gameplay conceits and wrapped up the story all in about 4 hours, to everyone’s resounding satisfaction. Longer games have done it as well. Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time utilized careful pacing of both the story and the time altering game mechanic. Super Mario Galaxy also managed a similar feat, not through its story but through the sheer variation in gameplay it offered. And there’s something to be said for Grand Theft Auto‘s pursue-the-story-if-you-like design; although with a story demanding at least 30 hours of a player’s time, even that weighs heavy as an obligation. It would be interesting to see if narrative games trend towards front-loading, focusing the best of their content and story in the initial hours. The latter portions of the game serve as a coda to those early hours, a sort of bonus section for the more hardcore players. The Lord of the Rings films famously found success in providing two separate cuts: one for the regular moviegoer and the other aimed at the discerning fan.
It’s the difficulty of the transition out of the arcade and into the living room that is revealing itself in people’s malaise towards videogame completion. As games move farther away from being money-making amusements and closer to full-fledged pieces of entertainment, developers must take into consideration the ever growing demands videogames place upon a player’s concentration. The heart of the matter is that many videogames are no longer simply a contest of skill. They ask a player to follow a storyline, take in large amounts of visual information and respond to that information with a combination of problem solving and hand-eye coordination in order to move the story forward. Even 8 to 10 hours of this, once considered a paltry sum of time to spend with a game, can sap a player’s motivation. Once, the majority of games could be classified as “pick up and play”; increasingly, they are now of the “sit down and concentrate” variety. Many developers still favor the predilections of the recently emancipated arcade-goer, a person obsessed with testing his skills for as long as possible. Gamers have changed, though; we are now full-fledged media consumers. I, for one, look forward to the day when I finish all the games I start.
Tom Endo has never seen the director’s cut of Legend, but he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t finish that either.