C'mon Baby, Finish What You Started

In the beginning there was the void. In the beginning there was darkness. In the beginning there was the fog. In the beginning there was backstory, loading screen and level 1. There was also depending on which universe we are talking about an underpowered .38, a cutscene, a settler, a tutorial and mild tempered enemies with all the lethality of a fresh Danish.

In the beginning there was joy.

When I was a kid, my parents worried that my habit of never finishing what I started would persist through adolescence and straight on into adulthood. Well, nice job Mom and Dad of not sticking to your guns and raising me properly. What the hell, guys? I’d finish this paragraph with some really fancy parental indictments and dredged up childhood memories, except that I’m getting bored and am ready to move on.

I’ve played six different games of Civilization V so far totaling more than 15 hours. I have yet to get a civilization out of the Renaissance. I feel the tide of the game rolling into it’s firmly entrenched mid-game, and my mind turns to happier days of wandering through the fog to find the fertile ground on which I will plant my next urban seed.

The truth is that I love the beginning of games, often so much so that after they are over I lose interest.

I’ve always felt a little guilty about the fact that I finish very few of the games I play. On the off-chance that people are reading this who are impacted by my casual embrace of personal fiduciary duty, my grip on this concept so light and uncertain that it wouldn’t even measure to the level of man-hug, I will not go into the economics of being a habitual game starter. Even with my potential but as yet unproven monetary irresponsibility off the table, I recognize that there is something unseemly, even ungamerly about not finishing games. I am so softcore that if I were pornography, I’d be an AXE body wash ad.

The thing is, I am never happier than when I am starting a game. And, we aren’t just talking about games I’ve never played before. My favorite part of revisiting a loved game is to go back and play just the first few levels, maps or challenges. For example, I get a bizarre thrill to revisit newbie zones in MMOs. Just the idea of dropping into EverQuest to kill rats outside the gates of Qeynos fills me not with dread and self-loathing, but a coppery taste of perverse desire thick at the back of my throat, like when I watch infomercials about 70s soft-rock compilations.

I am just one of those people. I love starting things, feeling the great stretch of potential in front of me. I have begun to learn to play a half dozen musical instruments just up to the point where I am adequately prepared to create the worst one-man children’s zydeco band on the planet. I have written the all important first line of countless short stories, leaving equally numerous erstwhile and largely one-dimensional characters to fend for themselves in their thinly realized worlds. It’s just who I am.

I think the even bigger problem for me as a habitual game starter is the expense and attention that game makers so often pay to their opening act. Everyone wants a hook, and everyone wants to get me, the game player, on that hook as quickly as possible. Beginnings need to be big, capturing the attention so that when you are slogging through the busy work that is far too many second acts, you can’t help but let inertia carry you. Unfortunately the physics of my psyche are not Newtonian.

There is always this moment in just about every game where I sense the shift, where I realize that I have left the beginning behind, where the motor is humming -- or in some cases merely sputtering -- along and what had been the great landscape of possibility has become a long, too often straight road where I mark time with the passing of billboard, minivans and murderously leering truckers. It’s not exactly that I automatically stop having fun, it’s just that I start having slightly less fun and somehow manage to find a reason not to pick back up where I left off the night before.

A day becomes two. Two days becomes a week. Then, when I finally block out some time to jump back into the middle of whatever game I had been playing, the thought of getting caught back up to where I had left off just seems not worth the time. Besides, there’s always a new beginning waiting, whether it’s a brand new game or just going back to replay the start of some loved diversion. The cycle is fulfilled.

I know this runs counter to the way many people consume their games, and perhaps seems alien at best and irresponsible at worst. I could say at this point that I’ll recommit to finishing what I started, but it would be a lie whispered in the ear of a sleeping lover at the end of a one-night stand. I respect you more than that, baby -- enough to tell you the truth. I am going to go right on being a habitual game starter.

I realize that’s a disappointing resolution. Fortunately, from this mire of hyper-self-awareness I believe I have some insight equal to what is deserved by this august audience, and so I would like to finish what I started by saying this ...


I have to admit: I hate the beginning of most games. The beginnings are often tutorial levels designed to teach you how to play, and they go on for too long. I get impatient for the part of the game where the plot is moving along and I'm being kept at just the right balance of frustration and joy.

So I guess you could say I'm a middle gamer. This is why I'm totally addicted to Rock Band: the game is pretty much all middle and no end.

On the other hand, when it comes to game nostalgia, I'm addicted to walkthroughs. Instead of firing up the emulator to play an old RPG, I just read the walkthrough instead. Then I think: wow, I just saved 60 hours of my life. Most games just aren't good enough for me to need anything more than the Cliff's Notes version. Sometimes, the journey is not the reward!

There are two reasons that I don't finish a game: 1. It is broken 2. It is good but not in my preferred genres. I think Killzone 2 is a great game but I probably won't finish it because first person shooters usually start to feel like work and I set them aside. On the other hand, in spite of it's poor control scheme on the PS3, Dragon Age: Origins kept me engaged to the point of trophy hunting after finishing it the first time.

SallyNasty wrote:

Hemidal's pile threads have done wonders for my game completion - I oddly feel compelled to finish games and move on, as though I would disappoint people if I didn't hit my pile commitment.

A thousand times this.

I used to be (and to some degree still am) someone who would always go to the buffet, taking a spoon-full of everything instead of ordering from the menu. I'm forcing myself to go back and clear out the buffet trays one at a time now because the cart basically stretches the length of the Silk Road at this point. Sadly, new dishes are being added at nearly the same rate as the old ones are being finished.

I have the "play just a smidge" disease worst with strategy and rpg games, where the game/camapign/skirmish area is unknown. The early sense of exploration, discovering the undiscovered and imagining the world ripe with potential that could exist, while simultaneously having to accomplish tasks that aren't overly complicated is intoxicating. I usually prefer it to the later game where I'm dealing with known elements and mechanics and just have to work my way through them, often via constant repetition.

headleym wrote:
Elysium wrote:

Unfortunately the physics of my psyche are not Newtonian.

That may be one of my favorite statements ever. It does beg the question as to whether your psyche is in fact quantum.

Nearly infinitesimally small? That's not nice!

Card2570 wrote:

With all due respect, seriously... This sounds like an adult living his/her life with an undiagnosed case of ADD/ADHD. Not finishing what one starts is only one classic symptom you described in your very well written article.

Budo wrote:

I'm like a Bizzarro-world Elysium. Once I get a game, I have to - HAVE TO - finish it.

I feel the need to say that any attention disorder concerning whether or not one persists in hours of grinding or slogging through filler content is likely more akin to OCD. There's a difference between quitting a book because of one boring paragraph than after 200 worthless pages.

ccesarano wrote:

I think part of it is when a game feels like it is suddenly giving you busy work. ...

I think a lot of games have that slog, where at the beginning there's so much happening, but then in the middle the writers couldn't think of any good ideas so basically just sat and waited in the corner until the end of the game was near.

At the same time, beginning a new game always brought back nostalgia of experiencing something new. But generally, yeah, I think the problem with wanting more gameplay is the fact that you're either going to have repetitive levels, or just long moments where nothing happens.

Getting your audience's attention at the beginning of a work is easy. As a game, story, song or film goes on, it becomes more important that the creator respect and understand that the audience will feel more distracted and less inclined to stick around. Catching a fish isn't just about getting it to take your bait; you still need to keep the line taut as you reel it in.

I wouldn't exactly say that I'm the opposite, but my approach (mental neurosis) is definitely different. In fact, I'd say that the beginning of a game is quite often the biggest stumbling block in my completion of it. New controls. New writing. New gameplay. It all takes some getting used to until I grok the enjoyment.

To get the required momentum to get "into" a game (and thus have a chance at completing it), I need to come into the experience with momentum. To that end, my purchasing adventures almost feel like shamanic soul journeys wherein I try to divine which of my myriad choices is the absolute most interesting at the moment. It's also why I try desperately never to buy more than one game at a time. DAMN YOU STEAM!!

I'm in camp Elysium here too...

I think for me, the beginning of a game (particularly if it's new) represents all the gameplay challenges you find throughout the game, but also this sort of meta-game level where you're figuring the game out.

What makes a successful Civ in Civ5? I don't entirely know how fast to expand, what emphasis to put on gold or science, or just when a strong navy becomes important. But experimenting with those factors (while fighting off either Napoleon or Montezuma) adds -in my opinion- an important and exciting layer to the game. Once I've figured that out, or once I feel like I know the answers to those types of questions, a game tends to seem somehow a little less fun.

Though, I was diagnosed with ADD while in college, so there may be some of that involved too.

Same here. No matter how I try, I just can't finish Battlefield multiplayer.

My pile is shamefully large, mostly thanks to Steam, GameFly (always getting the new hotness and their used sales that have titles that I am interested in below $20), and Goozex. I've been trying to use the Pile threads and had a little success, but I would start into a game and then not finish it. I think the only game that I made sure that I got through was Secret of Monkey Island because it was held up as such an example of a classic adventure game. However, the Pile threads have been a good motivator when I need to try to clear a little off the Pile.

90% what happens to me is that I will get a game, start it, put it down, not finish it, then come back to it once the sequel comes out or the sequel is announced. I've done this with Halo 1&2, Mass Effect (which when I picked it back up, became obsessed with and finished right when I got ME 2 in the mail), and I will be doing it with Fable 2 starting this weekend, in anticipation of Fable 3 coming out this month.

Something about the sequel of a game coming out compels me to finish the first one. (The only game I did not do this with so far was Assassin's Creed, I played AC2 to completion without finishing AC1.) I'd like to think that it is akin to watching a TV series on DVD versus week to week, you get instant gratification instead of waiting until next week or next season to find out what happens (this is what I am trying to do with Mad Men currently). I'm also the same way with movies based on books, I refuse to see a movie based on a book until I read it first (Charlie Wilson's War for a recent example).

So I certainly have a foot in Camp Elysium, but I can't say that I'm a card carrying member. If sequels to games were not as common as they are now, I imagine that the number of games I would actually finish would dwindle down to a very low number.

This is why I need at least a half-decent storyline in my games.

After the first hour of gameplay for every game, every game mechanism has been experienced. Apart from maybe a new combo move, weapon or other icing on a stale cake. As the years go by, this becomes even worse, as the game clichés keep piling up in my memory.

After the first hour of gameplay, when the game mechanisms have been grokked, a compelling storyline is the only thing that might keep me going. If not, it goes on the pile.

I'm not in Camp Elysium, but I'm not a completionist either. I don't start games with an aim to finish them, particularly if the finish is becoming tedious. I start games with an aim to have fun, and if the game's systems are fun enough, I come to appreciate the sense of familiarity and home.

I could play this new game, and it could be great, or I could fire up Starcraft 2 and know that I'm going to have an awesome time with my friends.

Right now, my game of choice is predictably Civ V. I've played 5 Civs to completion, aiming to get a different victory condition every time. It's not for completion. I want to see new things, too, but in an environment where everyone knows my name.

You might say that I'm the opposite of Elysium. I don't like starting new games, but when I start them and like them enough, I invariably want to play them, and play them, and play them. Finishing them is just a side effect, and usually met with some degree of disappointment.

"What, the game's over already?!? It's only been 60 hours!"

I think the odds are stacked against us, when it comes to finishing games. Part of it is nature common to all of us. Part of it is our individual nature; and this seems to be where a few overcome the odds against finishing a game. Yet another part of it is the way games are made to both sell themselves, and sell future versions of that game.

As human beings we are hard wired to crave what is new. I tend to boil things down to "caveman" tendencies far too often, but here I go again. Craving what is new is what kept us moving around, finding new food, and keeping us out of living in our own waste. It also makes us learn. I don't expect that the mechanism is too far separated from our sense of curiosity. So we actively seek out things that are curious and intriguingly unfamiliar. Toys, in short. I believe that there's a difference between a toy and a game. The toys are the objects of fleeting fancy that are neat to play with until you've figured them out or they're no longer new. A game is an activity or a challenge that no matter how new or old, it holds the challenge and interest. It's the difference between scrabble, and mousetrap; or a Rubic's cube and a jack in the box. Too many of the "games" I've purchased are toys and not games.

I wonder if, like me, the people who only play a game until "the complex systems are figured out", also like having and using tools. I like computers. I like figuring out how they work. I like setting up my home network. Building and wiring and configuring my mame cabinet was more fun than playing it. I like using saws, ratchets, drills, and even the overly complex wine bottle opener. These are all puzzles in themselves. I would argue that so are the stats systems of game character development, quest managements systems, inventory, weapon features, even how to make the character move, jump, use objects in the game world and [for mmo'ers] dance. One you've figured out the tool and have satisfied yourself that you have gained competence with it, what interest is left in using it, without a project. Do the games we buy have interesting enough "projects"?

Borderlands is one of my recent steam sale acquisitions. I love post apocolyptica. I finished Fallout 3. I've recently considered re-installing it. Borderlands, I'm having trouble starting it up in the evenings. To be honest, I can't remember which quest is the main plot line. There are too many quests, too much to do, too much to complete. My attention is scattered at so many targets that it feels like work keeping track of what is done, what needs to be done, which are high priority... sounds like how I think from 9 'til 5. Don't expect I need any more of that after a long day at the office. All of this to avoid the criticism of being "on rails"; or worse, being unable to assign a marketing catch phrase like "open world" or "sandbox". I suppose a lot of gamers feel reigned in by linear entertainment experiences. I for one, love to escape into a movie, and I don't care for one second that I don't get to choose what the protagonist does next. I do expect a little more interactivity from a game, but I don't find it frustrating (invisible walls aside) that I'm unable to wander off the plot to fetch a magic box, or take a wasteland bum some booze, and forget why or how I was saving the world in the first place. I suppose, as well, not every gamer spends their day managing projects and workloads, and so, that aspect of a game that requires it, would still be a challenge and area of interest. Regardless of the steps involved and the parts of our being that are engaged while completing a game it really all boils down to the ending. Here again, marketing and business step all over the welcome mat of closure. After all, why would we buy the sequel to a game that was engrossing, escapist, exciting and satisfying, unless there were some hangnail of plot left dangling. Surely quality, satisfaction, and enjoyment alone aren't enough. Afterall, the next one won't exactly be new to you will it?

I absolutely feel the same way about the Civ series - the beginning is by far the most enjoyable portion of the game. I love the sense of exploring this unknown world, wondering what you'll find as the fog lifts . . . by the mid game, when the world is usually pretty well settled, I quickly find myself staring longingly at the "start new game" button. It usually doesn't take long to give in.

dejanzie wrote:

This is why I need at least a half-decent storyline in my games.

After the first hour of gameplay for every game, every game mechanism has been experienced. Apart from maybe a new combo move, weapon or other icing on a stale cake. As the years go by, this becomes even worse, as the game clichés keep piling up in my memory.

After the first hour of gameplay, when the game mechanisms have been grokked, a compelling storyline is the only thing that might keep me going. If not, it goes on the pile.

There's another way. More than a few games, particularly the good online multiplayer games, have the "mastery" hook, where the game encourages and rewards mastering the skills of the game. I guess the way Civ has tried to offer that reward in the past was with increased challenges of difficulty level and varying win states.

Egg on my face. I just passed 47:25 on conference call 206.

Elysium wrote:

Unfortunately the physics of my psyche are not Newtonian.

Dude this is an awesome line, loved.

I agree, your parents totally dropped the ball. You barely fit into society

Question, how do you get budgetary approval from the finance committee? Just wondering....

Great read. Thanks for sharing, I think if I spent more money on games I too would end up in the non-completionist mode more often then not.

The three completions that come to mind are the original doom when it release back in or around '95, Doom II and Rock Bands 1 and 2. Other then that, It is hard to remember seeing those ending credits etc., except for tempest at the arcade, I got through the black levels to the end once.

My Dad -- 73 years old and still kicking -- has the same issue. He loves the start of Civ games, but then he petters out by 1900 or so. What he really needs is the ability to turn his civiliation over to AI just so he can see how the game plays out without having to manage through the 20th century. Is something like that moddable? Firaxis should totally build in the "AI button" for casual gamers -- like my 73 year old Civ-fanatic dad.

Double Post.

My wife's like that; she's played Act I of Diablo II more times than I care to fathom...