Recently I’ve played Uncharted 2, Brutal Legend, Borderlands, Far Cry 2, Red Faction: Guerilla and a clown car of other high-profile, executive-gamer games. And, I can tell you now that I’m more likely to dress up a French poodle in a maid’s outfit and introduce it to friends as my European mistress than I am to actually finish more than one of these games.
Were video games a food course, for me they would be appetizers, and I would always order the Sampler Platter. Story-based games like Uncharted 2 are not a main course from which I walk away fat and sated, but rather three buffalo wings sitting next to a handful of fried cheese poppers. I love the taste of a new game, the thrill of an unexplored world and the endless possibility posed by an undocumented adventure. Sadly, I am also a victim of rapid-onset-ennui, and even the prettiest game can become stale and shrill faster than an Eli Roth film.
Yet, there are some games that I commit to in a very spiritual way. A wholly worthy game–and even, on occasion, a completely unworthy one–weaves some kind of arcane alchemy that bonds me, enraptured, like the gimp at an S&M party. And, as I cast my mind back on a lifetime of video gaming, what I begin to realize is that the games that keep me engaged the longest are the ones with no end.
As much as I talk about wanting strong narrative structure in games, the truth seems to indicate something far different.
World of WarCraft, Peggle, Civilization IV, Counter-Strike, Lumines–this is a sampling of the more recent games to which I tend to dedicate myself. They share little in common save one element: They have no clearly defined end. They provide discreet victory conditions in consumable, bite-sized chunks, even as they refuse to offer a sense of final completion. They reward and simultaneously tease.
Nobody ever wins Peggle. No one has ever lept from their chair shouting that they have finally finished World of WarCraft unless it is amended with a frustrated prepositional with. Even Civilization, which does have more formalized victory conditions, doesn’t leave the player walking from the game feeling like, “Well, that’s finished; nothing more to do here.” Resolution comes tempered by the inevitable urge to dive back in, try a different civ, up the difficulty, move to a water based map, push for a cultural victory or a hundred other subtle but important permutations.
Something is clearly different about the mechanics of a game with no concrete end. Maybe it has nothing to do with the actual end itself. Maybe a game without a final chapter just plays differently. Something about these games has to mitigate the sense of grand accomplishment by providing tens or hundreds of minor endings, and that is very appealing to me.
I’ve never been one for delayed gratification, and when I begin to think about plowing through a linear narrative that’s what it starts to feel like. Yes, there is some accomplishment in finishing a map or gaining the next level, but somehow those have less meaning because there is this grand, unfinished goal looming over me like the Honey-Do List of the Damned.
Kill the dragon-egg vizier to acquire the skull-shaped key of H’r’mond so that I can open the unopenable chest at the end of time where Dagron the Untenable weaves his grand needlepoint of fate and protects the Signet of Cygnus, the last remaining WMD of the Titans who forged the Soulkeeper’s Locket that has captured Satan’s Brother-In-Law (Kevin) for 10,000 generations … and so on.
A round of Counter-Strike is discrete. It is a single, minor story, similar but unrelated to the next. A quest in World of WarCraft is an impression of a grand story, but itself best consumed and thought of as isolated. Peggle, well c’mon.
As much as I claim to want and love story in my video game, the truth is that I don’t end up playing those kinds of games nearly as much as I might expect. Eventually the burden of having to keep track of a winding narrative, to say nothing of the game mechanics and the inevitable filler that is less game and more barrier, just start to work against me, and unless what I’m doing in the great gaps of time between cutscenes rises so far above as to overcome this backwards momentum, I inevitably just let the game fade away.
Yes, I’ve finished BioShock and Fallout 3, but unless you’re out there competing legitimately for game of the year or decade, chances are I’ll just stop. It’s not personal. Look, it’s not even you. It’s me. I’ve just been going through some stuff lately, and I just got out of a relationship with Fable 2, and I don’t really want to settle down again so soon. No, I think you’re great. Look, your aggregate scores prove that there are millions of guys just waiting to play to the end, and of course we have our memories. Like, remember that time that I skipped through the pop-up in the tutorial too quickly, and couldn’t figure out how to upgrade my stats, and I went around with like 7 strength for a half-dozen levels? Oh man, that cracks me up every time. Let’s just remember those good times, okay?
I’ll still talk about how much I want great story in games, and how awesome it is to have a cinematic experience. I like to pretend to be a professional games writer, and we have to sign stuff that says we will talk about those kinds of things in a positive light before we get our credentials. But, just between you and me, I’m starting to think it’s all a little over-rated. Sure Planescape: Torment was great, but if I'm honest, after four different attempts, and certainly 30 or more hours spent with the game, I've never actually finished it. I appreciate witty, smart writing as much as the next guy, but I don’t necessarily think that means you need to lock it down in a grand epic.
At least, not all the time.