Confessions of a Distracted Gamer

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.

Comments

I think many of us at GWJ have the same issue. The problem lies with the sheer amount of shiny that is released, especially at this time of year, tends to dilute the overall luster of even AAA titles. Years ago there was only 1 or 2 high profile titles a year, and those could lead to many hours of enjoyment, even repeated playthroughs. I can remember when Super Mario Bros. 3 was all I needed in my NES for pretty much a whole year. I guess what it really comes down to is that we're spoiled .

I'm right with you on Planescape. I've restarted it multiple times, got fairly far, and then I get distracted by something new. It's still installed though, I hope someday to have the time to beat it!

This is an interesting topic, and I find myself agreeing with what you're saying. In single player, narrative-driven games, I do often find myself losing interest somewhere along the way - at some point the game turns into a responsibility to finish it. Not always of course, some games are so good I never get to this stage. But even a good game like Batman: Arkham Asylum, I'm at a point where I feel like I *should* play just to finish and get it over with, but I don't really feel a real desire to. There are too many other games competing for my attention.

Thinking about it, many of the games that really keep my attention over long spans are, like you mentioned, games that give discreet "chunks" of satisfaction and accomplishment, and along with that - games that have options for what to do in any given play session. Arkham Asylum - if I want to progress, I have to do the next part of the story. World of Warcraft, if I want to progress, I have a lot of options for what to do and where to do it ingame. Even games like Fable II or Fallout 3 where you have a main story mission, if I don't feel like doing that, I could still go off and do side missions, or just kill bandits, and still see my character rewarded tangibly for doing so. A game that doesn't force me down one set path, that gives me options for what to do in a play session, has a much better chance of keeping my attention long-term.

Elysium wrote:

A round of Counter-Strike is discreet.

While I agree that playing Counter-Strike should be accompanied with a heavy dose of shame and self-loathing, surely you meant to say "discrete" here?

I once read you guys had an editor? Is he drunk again?

I completely agree. I find often myself in a similar position. There are a few single player games that keep me enraptured to the end, but it is rare. However, games like Call of Duty, Battlefield 2, and other online shooters will keep me playing for years after release. Meanwhile, my pile of shame grows.

A round of Counter-Strike is discrete; it is anything but discreet. =)

Edit: Aargh! Scooped by that nemeslut Quintin Stone!

This is nothing more than an elaborate attempt at excusing games from your backlog, isn't it? You'll not get off that easy! Back to Red Faction: Guerilla with you!

100+ titles on Steam I own are still unfinished. I feel your pain.

I don't know whether I completely agree with you or disagree with you, I just know that some of my favorite game experiences have been story-driven rather than no-end-in-sight games (ie. Soul Reaver, Uncharted, Grim Fandango, etc.). But I can totally see your point about amount of time spent with games, being the chunks of satisfaction type, I've recently been playing Aion and of course Peggle. It doesn't seem too black-and-white, but what ever does?

Don't forget Mount & Blade.

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.

If I hear that you finished more than one of these games, I'm calling the SPCA!

Yay, another Elysium article that shows that we are polar opposites as gamers.
I'm a main course gamer. In fact, I make a concious and organized effort to focus on a total of two games with "endings" at a time, with one MP game, usually L4D thrown in as filler. This is incredibly satisfying to me - you're focused enough to retain the plot and mechanics of both, while still not playing so much of either so as to get sick of them. I also make a point of playing almost every game I buy to completion.

I don't get the notion that accomplishments in story-driven games are less meaningful because of the bigger goal hanging over you. Why are you stressing about this big goal? I'd guess that you're stressing about it because you don't think you'll never accomplish it, which means you enjoy the game less, which means you won't finish it. It's like a self-fullfilling prophecy.

You see keeping track of a winding narrative and game mechanics as a burden. Why? It's only a burden because you're playing too many other games at the same time - focus! The less games you play at any given time, the more you're able to get absorbed into them. I can totally see myself losing interest in a game if I was all over the place - so I focus. Sure, a lot of games come out at the same time, but the fact is those games aren't going anywhere. We should be able to resist the lure of "ooh, shiny!" in favor of a more complete and satisfying experience for any given game purchase.

Of course, all of this is a function of the time you have on your hands. I can totally see how limited time could lead to more distractability - especially if your time is mostly in half-hour chunks. You know, if my gaming time was mostly in half-hour chunks, I think I'd be playing non-narrative games pretty much exclusively - to get fully absorbed into a complex game, I need at least an hour of play.

Sorry if this all sounds like its coming from my gaming high horse - I really don't mean it to. I'm just trying to suggest that there is an alternative to distractable gamer syndrome, if you want it.

Oh, and Planescape: Torment is awesome, and anyone who hasn't completed it is an inferior human being.

I don't get the notion that accomplishments in story-driven games are less meaningful because of the bigger goal hanging over you. Why are you stressing about this big goal? I'd guess that you're stressing about it because you don't think you'll never accomplish it, which means you enjoy the game less, which means you won't finish it. It's like a self-fullfilling prophecy.

You see keeping track of a winding narrative and game mechanics as a burden. Why? It's only a burden because you're playing too many other games at the same time - focus! The less games you play at any given time, the more you're able to get absorbed into them. I can totally see myself losing interest in a game if I was all over the place - so I focus. Sure, a lot of games come out at the same time, but the fact is those games aren't going anywhere. We should be able to resist the lure of "ooh, shiny!" in favor of a more complete and satisfying experience for any given game purchase

I appreciate the spirit in which this was stated, and I understand in a rational way that these may be meaningful arguments, but what I hear (feel?) when I read it is:

Have More Fun! DO IT NOW!

I think it's fair to just stick with your first sentence. You and I are very different gamers.

I think one thing that may not necessarily come through as strong as it should is how much fun I have. Even in the ADHD way of devouring small chunks of games, I have a blast.

hubbinsd wrote:
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.

If I hear that you finished more than one of these games, I'm calling the SPCA!

I, for one, applaud this imagery and welcome our new canine overlords. Bravo, I say! This line really makes the article best in show.

Video games seem to split down a line between those games primarily concerned with the execution of a particular gameplay system (Madden, Counterstrike, Peggle, even WoW) and those primarily concerned with providing "narrative content" for you to consume (JRPG, Bioshock, the big single player plot games). We like to say that the latter sort of game has a "story" or whatever. But as the piece correctly points out, these plots and stories are pretty marginal and it's rare that one is good enough to really drive you to keep interacting with the gameplay system just to get the next round of story crumbs.

Games that try to mix sandbox with plot do especially poorly in my mind.

Elysium wrote:

I appreciate the spirit in which this was stated, and I understand in a rational way that these may be meaningful arguments, but what I hear (feel?) when I read it is:

Have More Fun! DO IT NOW!

I totally understand how you felt this - because I think I sometimes actually tell myself this

I think what I was specifically trying to address was statements you made such as

Elysium wrote:

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.

and postulate that your ennui might perhaps be just as much an effect as it is a cause of your distraction.

But yeah, so long as you're having fun, more power to you.

psu_13 wrote:

Video games seem to split down a line between those games primarily concerned with the execution of a particular gameplay system (Madden, Counterstrike, Peggle, even WoW) and those primarily concerned with providing "narrative content" for you to consume (JRPG, Bioshock, the big single player plot games). We like to say that the latter sort of game has a "story" or whatever. But as the piece correctly points out, these plots and stories are pretty marginal and it's rare that one is good enough to really drive you to keep interacting with the gameplay system just to get the next round of story crumbs.

Games that try to mix sandbox with plot do especially poorly in my mind.

I agree. Story in video games is never compelling for me, especially in open world games. The only reason I want to move a story forward in any game is to see a new weapon, enemy, item, mechanic, environment, etc.

Elysium wrote:

Have More Fun! DO IT NOW!

Fun gaming is Serious Business! I have to disagree with your contention that nobody wins Peggle, however... Peggle Party or Duel multiplayer brings out the fierceness in everybody. Some chick on Live called me a f*ckface the other month because I beat her with the crablobster.

Dysplastic wrote:

Oh, and Planescape: Torment is awesome, and anyone who hasn't completed it at least three times is an inferior human being.

You were most of the way right.

Some chick on Live called me a f*ckface the other month because I beat her with the crablobster.

Yeah, but to be fair, you totally are one.

Elysium wrote:
Some chick on Live called me a f*ckface the other month because I beat her with the crablobster.

Yeah, but to be fair, you totally are one.

Pshhhh. I accept no insult from people who use that lameburgers zen owl. She was the one who was the f*ckface!

Elysium, If you don't finish Brutal Legend and Uncharted 2, I will come down there and beat you with a stick! Seriously though the games are not that long, and I would imagine your are probably 3/4's done at least one of them by now. I managed to beat both games in under a week. I didn't have to do one of those marathon play sessions either. They were the perfect length, easy to put down and pickup at a later point. Do yourself a favor and finish them. The dialogue alone is worth playing for.

I am driven away from narrative games because of time. I don't have much free time these days, so gaming is snatched in 10-30 minute increments typically. A couple of times per month I can wrangle an hour or two for something multiplayer, but not often.

I still REALLY want to complete Fallout 3 and complete that story (same with Fable II, and a host of other games sitting on my docket), but the activation energy to get in there and complete it is high. First because you have to recall more than the system mechanics of the game but also this massive story, your mission hooks, etc. Second because there are other, more seductive appetizers that can be played in 10-15 minute increments that making loading them up quick and easy. And when time is a factor, quick and easy rule the day.

But I try to make some kind of progress on these games by focusing (like Dysplastic) on working on one game at a time. That seems to help; though I am often sorely tempted by the new.

P.S. This doubly applies to the epic strategy games I crave diving into (GalCiv II, Civ IV, etc.). While you don't have the narrative to remember, you do have all of that "stuff" you were doing in last game: why you queued up those units, what your intentions were with x race/player, and so on.

I completely agree with you Elysium. I got tons of games like Trine, Defence Grid, Oblivion, Bioshock, Fable 2 to name a few which I was totally into but after some hours into the game I just lost interest or had my fill and never completed them.

However I did complete other games like The Witcher, Planescape: Torment, Mass Effect and some other games (mostly RPG's). And thanks to an active guild have played WOW almost non-stop since Nov 2004.

I don't think its so much the game's fault as it is our own personality. Wanting new Shinies, sampling games without finishing them is perfectly legit. After all you don't have to complete a game to fully understand what it brings to the table.

Gaald wrote:

Elysium, If you don't finish Brutal Legend and Uncharted 2, I will come down there and beat you with a stick!

Elysium was just looking for a convenient way to get rid of his french poodle. Once his wife hears that the two have been messing around, she's sure to throw that bitch out of the house.

I find that the difference between the two types of games discussed is most prevalent for me at the end game.

Story driven game -- A long delayed push to the end: I spread out the main quest of the game as long as possible while working on side quests until I either feel there's nothing left to do or I stumble on a earlier than expected main quest ending (hello Fallout 3). Then I'm done. I've tried to extend the games (Oblivion, Fallout) with expansion pack purchases, but I just end up losing interest well before the added content is complete. My item collection and character building desires fade, and I'm left feeling like I'm in a sandbox world without a shovel.

Quick rewards and no end -- Goodbye self control: If the game is even somewhat good there is little to stop me from allowing it to become all-consuming. Currently I'm in the middle of Dawn of Discovery and I don't see an end in sight. I'm always wanting to spend a few more minutes to get to the next population level or get that next industry started. I will play these games past any meaningful ending point, trying every different scenario until I either get tired of a frustrating mechanic of a game (playing whack-a-mole with AI city building during a Civ IV conquest) or I realize that my life outside the game is getting out of control. I quit but I can always can come back in full force with an external trigger like installing to see if it works on a new PC or someone else talking about the game. I actually reinvested myself in Medieval Total War two additional times after watching the History Channel. I have always wanted to, but never been able to just play these games a few hours a week. Maybe the next game I will exhibit more self control...

I have way more games left unfinished than I like to think about, but Brutal Legend man, I don't know how anyone could possibly leave that one lying around. I played it on and off at first, but once I made it to the Goth section I knew I had to, had to see it through without stopping - sleep and housework be damned. When I got to that amazing ending, where the game rips your heart out and stomps on it before the last fight and then explodes in a shower of awesome I just about stood up and applauded while sitting in my room at 4 AM.

Seriously, that is one that's worth finishing.

Yeah, I'm in the play one story game at a time column. I play lots and lots of quick 10 or 30 minute increments in non-story-based-un-ending games. But when it comes to story, I'll wait until the baby and wife are asleep, sit down in the living room with my glass of scotch, then DEVOUR a story based game until I'm supposed to get up and go to work. One game at a time, one night at a time, it's like a feast for my narrative-starved brain. Batman and Brutal Legend are both examples of games I simply sat down and devoured when I wouldn't be distracted.

Jayhawker wrote:

Elysium, it sounds like renting games may be a better option for you. Have you considered Gamefly?

+2!

Have you considered Gamefly?

Well played, Jayhawker. Well played.

Man, do I wish their service worked for me. I don't know if you've heard, though: they're terrible.

Honestly, as I sat there with those 10 games in my queue for a month, and only one of the three games I was paying to receive at my house, I kept thinking how great it would be to actually have the service they advertise.

hahaha. well done ser

Elysium, it sounds like renting games may be a better option for you. Have you considered Gamefly?

*ducks*