There have been many concepts and mechanics that have been thrown on the dustbin of gaming history over the years, and more than a few current ones that should probably be feeling nervous, but one thing that’s managed to survive to the present day is the concept of ‘100% completion’. Probably because every other game is a sandbox now, it being much easier to just make a whole bunch of disconnected content and throw it into a big bin than it is to come up with an actual structure.
So you know what 100% completion is: it’s the secondary objective for after you’ve finished the story end but still have a day or so left on the rental period, the obligation to find all the secrets and complete all the optional objectives, like finding all the missile and health expansions in Super Metroid. It’s just extra gameplay for those who have the time for it. But is it? Yes, it is.
But is it? I’ve been wondering if the philosophy of 100% completion has changed over time. I wonder if it’s become less about additional challenge to prove one’s absolute mastery, and more about simply filling a bar. I’ve considered some of the optional activities in many recent games, such as acquiring collectibles in the Ubisoft sandbox game (for there is now only one Ubisoft sandbox game that wears many different masks), and tried to consider such things through the filter of my three-leg game design theory: Context, Challenge and Catharsis. And I’ve been forced to conclude that some of this completionist gameplay doesn’t fit comfortably under any of the three.
Finding hidden documents offers Context, optional missions provide Challenge, and while the game probably won’t tell you to run over zebras it’s certainly an option and it provides Catharsis, but I can’t see where, say, finding all the flags and feathers in Assassin’s Creed fits, or even treasure chests if there’s nothing you specifically need to buy. You could argue that they pose an exploration or observation challenge, but that is immediately removed if icons indicating the pickups are placed on the map. Which is probably unavoidable, because these sandboxes tend to be so large that searching every nook and cranny with no guidance just wouldn’t be entertaining, but all the collectibles side quest is at that point is going down a list. You know exactly where it is, you stand on it to pick it up, you move onto the next. There’s nothing fun about it. The only benefit one gains is the satisfaction of knowing you have achieved 100% completion.
So no longer is 100% completion the territory of extra gameplay that was considered too difficult to be placed in the critical path, and left optional in order to benefit advanced players without alienating the broad audience. Now it’s just a measure to keep players occupied for as long as possible with hollow busywork. Achieving 100% doesn’t reflect the player’s mastery or skill, just their having logged more time in than anyone else, and having the necessary patience to effectively do nothing but follow directions.
It was Evolve that brought this up in my mind. Not because it has collect-athon side quests; the game is so rooted in padding a single core game mechanic out into something that can pass for a whole game that it doesn’t even have a ‘side’ on which quests could be mounted, it’s a great big smooth bouncy ball so slick that not even blu-tack will attach. No, Evolve made me think about gameplay being reduced to filling a bar because the only real sense of progress the game offers is from literally filling a bar.
As is de rigeur for multiplayer games most of your time is spent replaying the same handful of missions. No broader progress is made from completing those in themselves. Instead, you are awarded points for actions you perform in the course of those missions, and that is what levels you up and creates the sense of progress. To progress enough with the first monster to unlock the second playable monster, for example, you have to clock up enough damage caused with each of the monster’s attacks.
But that’s not a challenge or a meaningful achievement. The game is indifferent as to what ends up being the recipient of the damage, you could get the points by whanging bits of pavement at dozy alien cows for half an hour. To say nothing of the other progress bar that’s there for more generalized leveling, for which you receive a string of participation awards at the end of every match. I’m fairly certain you could sit under a bridge flicking your belly button for an entire round of Evolve and still get some points at the end of it. Again, it’s not a record of achievement, it’s a record of how much time you were willing to give the game.
Around 2002 a joke game was released called Progress Quest. It was described as a ‘zero player game’. All that happened was that an RPG character sheet would be created and the experience points would increment by themselves, randomly selecting upgrades as milestones were passed. It was intended as a parody of EverQuest, which just goes to show how dated my frames of reference are, but I think it’s been proved remarkably prophetic by the state of triple-A games today. Where rewards are handed out for actions equally as meaningless as leaving the computer turned on for long periods of time. It speaks to a trend in mainstream culture generally, that a work actually engaging the audience seems to be a lesser priority than just being able to distract them for the allotted runtime.
I know video games are constantly evolving, and by all means, if you’re happy to accept a game’s hearty congratulations for essentially doing nothing but blowing a raspberry and tossing your head from side to side like you’re motorboating a big pair of invisible titties then forget I said anything. Maybe I’m just bitter because it means I have to come up with a fourth C-word to add to the three-leg theory, turning it into more of a four-leg barstool arrangement. Context, Challenge, Catharsis, and Clutter. Or Cocking About. Or perhaps, more appropriately, Condescension.