Right now, I have about thirty Xbox 360 games sitting in a basket by my bed. Of them, I've completed fewer than half. I used to have around twice that number, before a massive purge in which I sold off the bulk of the titles I didn't see myself playing anymore, most of which also sat unfulfilled in various states of disarray about my room. My Steam list is about 200 games deep, of which I've "beaten" maybe a couple dozen.
Some, of course, are the sort of game you don't "finish" or "beat." They're sandbox titles, MMOs, simulators, or games that are heavily randomized in some manner (such as The Binding of Isaac or Dungeons of Dredmor). Accounting for all of those, though, there is still one truth that is abundantly clear: I have not, and will probably never, finish the bulk of the games I own. Yet I keep buying more. New games just coming out, intriguing titles I missed when they first hit shelves, even old classics I'll probably never touch, but want to have around just in case the urge strikes me.
Why is this acceptable? Would you buy a movie you'd never watch straight through? A book you never intended to finish? Perhaps, but the sentiment seems a bit sillier in those cases, and why? Is it because video games, as an electronic extension of more traditional gaming, are in some way more juvenile? No, that's not it. The medium is still young, but it's maturing rapidly (especially its indie adventure game scene, which is absolutely stellar). There are plenty of titles, though, where the appeal is found in multiplayer, not in a finite story or campaign mode. Such titles have a theoretically infinite lifespan, only cut short when a more compelling replacement finally hits shelves.
But what about something like Skyrim? Let's broaden that further and include the previous Bethesda RPGs, from Oblivion up through Fallout 3 and New Vegas. These are deep, massive RPGs with dozens of hours of enjoyment to be had simply following the main quest thread throughout. I've poured hours upon hours into each of the franchises, though, and have never come close to finishing even one. In fact, I remember my Fallout 3 character had hit level 12 before I tackled a single story quest beyond my arrival in Megaton. I believe I had become a werewolf in Skyrim before (or maybe shortly after) I slew my first dragon.
Bethesda RPGs are particularly apt examples because they're so grandiose, so sprawling, that their actual storylines feel almost like afterthoughts. They're certainly there, and generally well-crafted, but the games don't lock off the bulk of their content behind arbitrary triggers in story quests. They main storyline, as important as it is, is just another questline. This is how the vast majority of games work, providing a story or "hook" meant to contextualize the gameplay, but eventually simply serving as an excuse for it.
It's a roundabout way of saying that, while game storylines don't always suck (many of them do), they're generally not that engaging in their own right. One doesn't play Ninja Gaiden to discover if Ryu will avenge his slaughtered clan, but rather to test one's skills as a human Cuisinart. As soon as that gameplay experience is no longer what is desired, we put them down, whether temporarily or permanently. This is the unique purview of videogames among artistic media—that they do not have to be "completed" for the player's experience with them to be "fulfilled." That is, while fulfillment in film and literature generally comes from the message they offer when taken in their entirety, games engender fulfillment through the interactive experience of playing them instead.
Experience and plot don't have to be separate. Heavy Rain, Braid, and Spec Ops: The Line are all games in which their greatest impact comes from their completion, from the termination of their narrative arcs. Most games, though, even when they have good storylines, are more about how they play than what the player is working toward. Some, which don't have explicit storylines at all, play in such a way as to deliver a message that doesn't require completion of the work to understand.
And then there are games like Persona 4. I'm certainly advocating that you finish it, because it is awesome on the whole, but its greatest moments aren't really tied to the culmination of its storyline. More often, they're the direct result of a social link event, each of which presents an arc between the protagonist and at least one other character, a self-contained storyline that fits within the greater narrative arc of the game. You could easily step away from it after some of these and feel as though you'd gotten something worthwhile out of the game.
That's the core of it; even those games that aren't just popcorn entertainment tend to have tons of smaller, equally satisfying experiences on the way to the end goal. And, in many cases, the "message" actually permeates the entire game rather than resting squared away at its end. Games, after all, are long ordeals, and involve direct intervention by the player. They aren't just there to tell you something, to lead you along to an arbitrary end point. They're there to make you experience something, and you are the judge of when you've gained something—whether a simple sense of enjoyment or something much deeper—out of it.
Date: January 10, 2013
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*