Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Archive for September, 2012

Finishing Games

Posted by Tracy Poff on September 7, 2012

This post is inspired by “Experience Points Podcast #1: Finishing Games“, which itself discusses Tom Endo’s article in The Escapist, “To Do: Finish Any Game“. I’m indebted to both.

Recently, I’ve been doing something I’ve put off for years: I’m trying to beat Gauntlet for the NES. It’s been a while since I made a serious effort at it, but I’ve been playing that game on and off for twenty years. Now I’m back at it, making maps and taking notes. I might even beat the thing, some time this month.

This is a common theme with me, I guess. I’ll start on games, or books, or television shows, and it may be months or years before I ever finish with them. And not because I don’t want to finish them–even games I enjoy a lot might be put down for a few months before taking them back up again.

I know I’m not alone in this. I can’t find the reference now, but I recall reading some time ago that the large majority of players of Diablo 2 never finished the second act. A story on CNN last year indicated that less than 20% of people finish games. According to my Backloggery, I’ve beaten somewhat less than half of my games, and I know that it’s missing lots of games I played years ago but never beat.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this.

I like finishing games. I enjoy searching out hidden items and trying different choices. I’m not above using a walkthrough as a checklist of things to do before calling the game ‘completed’. For me, it’s partly about succeeding at a difficult task, but mostly about experiencing everything the game has to offer. For example, it doesn’t make it any more or less challenging playing Mass Effect and taking either renegade or paragon choices, but I still want to play through it both ways. And as each character class. And as each gender. And with each possible romantic choice. But I’m not going to bother playing on the highest difficulty. The combat isn’t what it’s all about, for me.

This is what bothers me about this statistic that most people don’t finish games. Is it because most people don’t find most games to be good enough to finish? Because they don’t think the game has any more to offer? Do people find games too difficult? Do people just not want to experience everything? Playing halfway through a game and then stopping seems like eating half a slice of pizza and throwing the rest out. It’s one thing to do it occasionally, but if you’re only eating half of every pizza you buy, then either you ought to evaluate your purchases, or there’s something wrong with the pizza.

The EXP Podcast and Endo seem to come down on the side of pizzas being too large. The fault, perhaps, lies in the games for providing insufficient motivation for completion, or just taking too much time. I don’t think this is too far off base. One of the reasons I was able to finish Mass Effect fairly quickly is that the optional missions were short enough that I could play through one easily in a single session and then quit, if I chose. The story missions were longer, but they were also satisfying, and, after I finished the first one, I knew that I should expect them to take longer to complete.

Endo says that “when people sit down to play a linear game, it requires a psychological investment”, indicating that this makes people unwilling to commit to playing a game with a long story. I can sympathize with this; I know that I’m often more willing to watch 2 hours worth of television episodes than a single movie, because I know that I can more easily stop after a television episode than take a break–possibly for multiple days–in the middle of a movie.

I think that this indicates a solution to the ‘problem’ of people failing to complete games. Television episodes can be satisfying because they present both a part of a large story arc, developed over the course of many hours, and a smaller story arc, developed over the course of a single episode. If you watch just one episode, you can still feel like you got a complete, worthwhile experience; half of a movie is rarely so satisfying.

I don’t mean to imply that all games should break themselves into tiny, convenient bursts of gameplay. It works for some games, like Super Mario Galaxy, but breaking Mass Effect up into five-minute-micro-missions would be maddening.

In the end, I’m not even sure that there is any problem with people playing games without finishing them. I think it’s a shame that people don’t see the stories’ resolutions, and I worry about whether the games are really getting a fair chance, but perhaps it’s better for people to play bits and pieces of many games than to play only a few games completely. I’ve heard that the best way to learn a lot of mathematics is to read just the first chapter of a whole shelf full of books. Maybe something similar is true of games.

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