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Apr 4, 2012

The Burden of an Ending: why finish videogames?

I have never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. I have tried, several times,

Game Over

I have never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. I have tried, several times, but each time, I’d get past the destruction of the ring, see another hundred pages of Tolkien’s fairly leaden prose staring up at me, and put the book down.

Mostly, this makes me feel guilty. There is a unfair and unreasonable fixation on finishing things in contemporary culture. Even the idea of cultural consumption, of consumers, is inextricably linked with the idea of completion: to truly appreciate a work, we must use it up in its entirety, depleting it of all possibility. A task left unfinished is no task at all.

This feeling is amplified within videogames culture. If you don’t finish a videogame, you won’t get the achievement that validates your time. You won’t have ‘clocked’ the game, to use an old expression. You won’t have successfully navigated all it has to offer, you won’t have unlocked all the possible content programmed into it by its designers. You won’t have got your money’s worth.

We are willing, seemingly, to put endless hours into games we don’t really enjoy, in order to reach a completion point. An ending becomes a payoff for digital labour. We grind our way through immeasurable repetitive actions in videogames because we can tell ourselves that an end will be worth it. An ending will validate our labour.

Recently, I have been dipping in and out of videogames that I didn’t play when originally released, and it feels great. During sales, I’ve bought Medal of Honor, Alan Wake, Rayman Origins, Battlefield 3, and Alice: The Madness Returns, all for not much more than the price of a cinema ticket. I have played all of these games for no more than a few hours each, and I doubt I’ll return to them.

Yet I feel confident enough in my tasting of them to say that I have a feel for all of the games, and do not need to play any more to feel satisfied. I have been able to appreciate all of these games, despite the fact that I will never get the pat-on-the-head achievement for completion.

Despite feeling guilty about my Lord of the Rings non-completion, I never felt like it greatly impacted on my appreciation of the book. I never joined Sam in the scouring of the Shire, but I do not feel that I would enjoy the book any more if I did.

Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books put it best recently when he argued for the strengths of non-completion.

“To put a novel down before the end, then, is simply to acknowledge that for me its shape, its aesthetic quality, is in the weave of the plot and, with the best novels, in the meshing of the writing style with that weave. Style and plot, overall vision and local detail, fascinate together, in a perfect tangle. Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility.”

Some of the best artists understand that the burden of an ending is one simply not worth bearing out. Two of the Coen brothers’ best films, No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man, are perfect examples of abandoning the need for a traditional ending. A Serious Man in particular is a perfect case of trusting your audience: the film ends on a stunningly open note, with apocalyptic events bearing down on the film’s characters without clear resolution.

However, far from being maddeningly noncommittal, A Serious Man is a masterclass in forming a framework of narrative, character and texture so strongly that events do not need to be spelled out for resolution to be achieved. A Serious Man is structured like a series of three-part jokes, each time intentionally depriving the audience of the punchline.

Very few videogames have the confidence to intentionally deliver a nimble ending. In truth, the vast majority of videogame storylines tend to be overwrought and overloaded with narrative responsibility. Very nearly the entire medium is grounded around the idea of climax and payoff, even in terms of gameplay: boss battles are still a needlessly common trope used as a surrogate for emotional crescendos.

Equally, despite the formal expectation of an elaborate climax, many videogames end poorly (and no, this will not be an article about that other major ending ‘controversy’ raging within some videogame circles at present). Videogame developers have data suggesting that many, if not the vast majority of players will never finish their game. So why spend money and time making it perfect when you could instead focus on the first few hours that players will actually see? This is why we get games like Knights of the Old Republic II, which have botched, glitchy, and clearly unfinished ends.

So why finish videogames?

Is getting a taste of things enough? Of course it is. Should we feel compelled to finish a videogame, either as reward for hard work or on the compulsion to avoid missing essential material? Certainly not.

How we engage with videogames is deeply personal. The choice to finish a videogame or not is best left to individuals.

Ultimately, though, the fixation on completion, on holistic consumption is deeply flawed. Videogames are not work, and we should not be guilted into providing a quota of digital labour before we are permitted to understand a videogame. Videogames culture should be confident enough to taste, and be brave enough to resist the fixation on completion.

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10 thoughts on “The Burden of an Ending: why finish videogames?

  1. James O'Connor @Jickle

    Hey Dan,

    I’m going to post a whole bunch of semi-connected thoughts. One of the luxuries of commenting on a blog rather than maintaining one is that my writing doesn’t need to be as well laid out or eloquent as yours is. 😛

    As a man who is lucky enough to be inundated with freebie games, but who is not quite lucky enough to have very much time to play them, I have naturally dabbled in far, far more games than I have finished, and I’m (more or less) fine with that. But still, I’m not entirely sure I agree with everything here. Allow me to delve into some of my thoughts on the matter.

    I do agree with the notion that you can put something down before it ends and still be immensely satisfied with where you left off. I know I’ve made decisions like this myself with some games. When I last played Resident Evil on the Gamecube, Jill was locked away in a room, out of save ribbons, extremely low on ammo, with several zombies right outside the door. I thought to myself ‘there’s no way she would ever leave this secure room for any reason. She would simply stay here and wait for death’. I did the same thing with one of the Silent Hill games – decided that, realistically, the character I was playing had little reason to keep fighting, and left him there to die in the fog. To me, these seemed like thematically sensible points to stop playing. Also, I should have stopped reading Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ 100-odd pages before it ended, and I would have stopped playing the Prince of Persia reboot right at the final action if there wasn’t an achievement/epilogue DLC. Brendan’s recent impromptu ending for ‘Beyond Dawn’ was quite lovely too.

    I also don’t disagree with the fact that a lot of games mess up their endings, but I’m not sure how I feel about the notion that videogames ‘aren’t work’. I think making a statement like this presupposes, or at least gives the impression, that work is inherently bad in some way, or at least problematic. Obviously you don’t want me to make some glib first-year connection to Huzinga here so I won’t :P. I tend to think of work as anything productive – typing up this comment, and getting my thoughts in order for it, was work. A player can certainly choose for a game to be work if they want to, whether in obvious ways (preparing for a Street Fighter tournament) or less obvious ways (trying to get the ‘true’ narrative in Sine Mora, for instance, is a task that will probably haunt me until I die). The Lord of the Rings is perhaps a convenient example for a book that you stopped reading early, as the story’s climax comes well before it actually ends (I’ll admit I’m making an assumption based on the films here, I can’t stomach Tolkien’s prose). If you’d done the same thing with The Life of Pi or The Crying of Lot 49, you’d carry considerably less weight in a full discussion about or analysis of either text – even if you’d gathered the essential meanings of both texts, the textual make-up of those last few pages is extremely important. With your example of A Serious Man, you’d have no way of knowing that it ended so indecisively without actually witnessing it.

    Of course, a videogame that ends really well after being shitty for 25 hours is of no interest to most people (I’m looking in FFXIII’s direction here), but if you haven’t completed any of those games you listed in your entry, how can you say for sure what you have or haven’t missed out on? It’s certainly not essential that you complete every game you own, but it’s problematic to deny that there’s sometimes value in reaching the end (which I don’t reeeeally think you’re doing here, but still!).
    The idea of ‘clocking’ a game, I think, is actually often at odds with the concept of a player as a ‘consumer’ (a word I’ve become extremely wary of). Really wringing the sponge dry isn’t as simple as seeing the end credits or hitting 100% on Hard mode. To use yet another example from the Resident Evil series, a few years ago I stumbled across, and was fascinated by, a pair of online walkthroughs for the game that explained how they could be finished on professional without first ever visiting the merchants scattered around, and then how to finish without visiting merchants or using anything other than the pistol and knife. Obviously the guy who wrote these guides knew the game inside out, and would have completed them many times over. Obviously, this guy’s love of the game came from far more than just dabbling – his extensive experience with the game resulted in a roadmap for a whole new play style. From completion and mastery, a whole new way of examining and critiquing the game arose, which I personally think is pretty interesting. Insert your own references to de Certeau here.

    I also don’t know that the emphasis on finishing games is quite as engrained as you suggest it is, but then no one I know seems to ever finish anything these days, and I frequently find myself talking with (some) authority about games I’ve never even played, so maybe my experiences aren’t typical.

    So basically – no, finishing a game isn’t a necessary requirement for having some authority to discuss it, and yes, videogame endings are frequently disappointing and poorly thought out. But I also think that the idea of completing or mastering a game (whatever that may entail for the player), and the possible benefits of reaching the final credits (or going beyond them) shouldn’t be understated either. Sorry if this response is quite meandering and vague in places! I always greatly enjoy reading and engaging with your writing, so I hope you’ll indulge the bloat of my response here.

  2. Grover Jones

    Oh, I can walk away from movies quite easily. Gattaca was dreadful.

  3. Mr Ak

    @Grover I would not say the same for the third movie, however. Mainly because there was twenty odd minutes of schmaltz, and I needed to pee. Better example of a walk-away film would perhaps be Gattaca – the takeaway from that movie was the visuals and the world, not the boilerplate story.

  4. Grover Jones

    @Mr Ak, I agree completely, and that’s one of the reasons that I do reread and replay. There’s always more to be gotten out of something the second (or third, or fifth) time you go through it. Take Lord of the Rings for example, I first read it when I was 7, and have read it at least a dozen times since. I can’t believe anyone would stop reading before Frodo heads to the Grey Havens.

  5. Grover Jones

    The one thing I love about both books and computer games is the replay/reread value. If I purchase a new book or game in a series – like Assassin’s Creed or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time – then I’ll go back and reread or replay the earlier books/games in the series. I’m currently replaying Assassin’s Creed II as I purchased Revelations and want to get a feel for the game again. I’m happy to spend weeks/months replaying or reading a series in order to get to the new volume.
    @Patrick, if you’ve managed to complete Dragon Age (as I have along with Origins and DA II), then I’m surprised you’re getting stuck in AC. I found DA a lot harder than AC is.

  6. Isaac Groves

    Hell, why finish anything by this logic? The Melbourne Comedy Festivals on at the moment, I wonder how far they’d get telling setups but not punchlines?

  7. Mr Ak

    I agree, but I think there’s also an interesting counter-example to be had.

    There are rare games (mostly from Bioware) which I don’t consider finished until I’ve played them through twice. For a game like Dragon Age, the first playthrough is plot discovery and mechanical understanding, but the second playthrough is the one where it becomes about creating the most satisfying story. And I don’t mean in the sense of creating optimal happy endings, either. I mean it more in the sense of theatrical play: like creating a romance which can only end in tragedy, or forming a friendship which you’ll have to betray for the greater good. Given I play those games for the ability to play with a narrative space, I think there’s a real sense that the first ending is merely the rehearsal dinner.

  8. Kim Price

    I think there are games that are meant to be finished, many of these are RPGs, but also games like Alan Wake and Heavy Rain have definite stories with endings that wrap it all up.

    Other games I play for the adventure of it. Take Borderlands. Yes, you can finish the story, but who cares. That is not why I play the game. I play it for the obscene number of gun options and shooting things in the head.

    I don’t finish many games, but I still feel fulfilled. 🙂

  9. Ruprecht

    The prospect of finishing can be an excuse for playing, especially in story heavy games. In a RPG I rationalise the questing and levelling as being preparation for the final, climactic battle, for which I inevitably end up being overpowered.

    I agree that not all games have to be finished. I get this often with open world games. Once I’ve sampled the environment, the mechanics, and the hijinks one can get up to, I may not bother with finishing all the missions. (eg Saint’s Row games, red faction guerrilla)

    Then there are the roadblock games, where you just hit a frustrating section of a game you were otherwise enjoying and eject it from the tray, never to return. I got this with GTA Vice City and Darksiders.

  10. Patrick Belton

    I find it is different for different games – I never felt compelled to finish the Assassin’s Creed games, usually because I reached a point I could never get passed. However, I have completed multiple times the Bioware RPGs, like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, and will revisit them, and I can’t quite identify why (other than the promise of alien romance…).