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.

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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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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