Let’s begin with a mea culpa that doubles as a confession.
I can’t finish video games.
While there’s been a completed BioShock here, a Mega Man Battle Network [number] there, and a Pokémon [color] in between, the bulk of my inventory space is cluttered with abandoned save files. I have yet to make it to the conclusion of any Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy game. I sat on a couch and, like a more helpful Navi, read walkthroughs out loud while I watched my roommate complete Kingdom Hearts II (NA 2006). My console-averse partner was even capable of playing through Fire Emblem: Awakening (NA 2013) in both modes. To be clear, this collection doesn’t encompass Steam Sale Syndrome – those $4 bundles bought in a frenzy, never to be downloaded – though there’s plenty to be said about that as well. No, I’m only counting games that I purchased and continue to purchase with the sincere intent to play.
Before you say that this seems like an overwrought vendetta against role-playing games, have some more:
The Mario series? Not even the mini-game oriented Mario Party Advance (2005).
The Metroid series? I’m ashamed.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)?
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)?
No. No. And No (in the case of an open-world game like Skyrim, it’s not so much about finishing than it is about not quitting after 40 minutes. I spent more time creating the featured image for this post than I did on Skyrim).
Most recently, I found myself starting Child of Light (2014), again to no avail. The art is gorgeous. The story and dialogue are more interesting and sophisticated than those in many Triple-A titles. The mechanics productively disrupt a few RPG standards. So why is it another addition to my growing list of “incompletes”? Why does my excitement flame out so quickly?
What I do play fairly regularly now, with far more consistent devotion and feelings of accomplishment, is a small subset of games: League of Legends (2009), interrupted by periodic StarCraft II matches and recurring MMO phases [currently focused on ArcheAge (2013), Guild Wars 2 (2012), and Path of Exile (2012/2013)]. I willingly accept when three MOBA matches bleed the rest of my downtime and goodwill away, and return for more the next day. Even as Risk of Rain (2013) turns into a cycle of digital death, depression, and futility, I refuse to stop.
The arbitrary division between what games I am willing to invest my time into, and what games I am not is the Gordian Knot of the article.
So, if it’s not a general case of genre – of, say, first person shooters versus puzzles – than there must be a more
sinister specific element at work. An element that impacts my ability to immerse myself into most video games. Not the immersion that comes from “character identification” or “realism” (both are kind of silly terms in my opinion), but the immersion that comes from investment. I conceptualize investment from two directions: narrative and gameplay.
The most obvious culprit is narrative taste. I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a child, and at this point, I have stubborn opinions about storytelling, about writing and content quality. I’ll be the first to admit that my obsession with words – what they (could) mean, and how they sound on a purely aesthetic level – can create a barrier of entry that is unfair to other mediums. In terms of film, I have a tendency to forget about the lighting, design, and camera angles. With music, I prioritize lyrics at the risk of neglecting the instrumentals, the vocals, and how they all work together. With an art form that is as interactive as video games, there are so many other components that supplement dialogue and the written word. I understand and readily acknowledge that, but when I look at most game narratives, whether critically from a distance, or up close as player one, I just don’t find them…compelling.
Narratives are what I teach, what I research, and what I consume to relax. And while I enjoy reading supplementary materials – like League champion backgrounds, or the Path of Exile digital comics – I can’t force myself to actually play through a narrative-driven game. It might be that I expect too much from a medium that’s only begun to explore the role of stories in gameplay. I assume that because video games are more capable of presenting nonlinear narratives and adaptive storytelling, they should offer me something novels and films cannot; I assume that BioShock (2007) will be the rule, not the exception. What I feel like I receive, though, is a game narrative less richly developed than a novel, less dynamic than a film, and with play mechanics that are rarely challenging. Games that are considered “subversive” are frequently only so if we keep our context firmly planted in stagnant, outdated traditions; as I mentioned earlier, Child of Light is certainly a quality game (I haven’t finished it so I can’t offer a fully informed opinion), and its tweaks to RPG and platformer conventions are laudable – but this “tweaking” is also why it lacks re-playability, and in my case, completion-ability. Child of Light is another, albeit more thoughtful, version of the forward grind formula that does little to convince me of video game’s innovative potential.
In many ways, video games are still navigating away from/out of the standard monomyth: the hero(ine) and the quest where the “right” way is paved, and the completion order is fairly obvious. There might be trivial deviations, but for the most part, there is a clear hierarchy of what moves and paths are most efficient, preferable, and optimal. I find this weakness noticeable in games that are finite (with a beginning and ending) because the narrative’s superficial nature is now front and center. The gameplay is framed by a skeletal story that only provides structure, a flimsy excuse for why I must go here and do that, why I cannot yet explore this other area, why I must complete the other quest first. Even when the game is an open one like Skyrim, what I see is flashy cut scenes illustrating – instead of changing – epic tropes that have been told and re-told for hundreds of years. What I play is the standard hero role. Rehashing dragons, empires, invasions, etc.
The “story” is a manual of gameplay rules delivered through a superficial persona that, when swapped out, generates a so-called “new” game with the exact same gameplay. If this is the value of the fictional world in a game, then MOBAs, RTSs, and some MMOs are at least honest about it; on the surface and at the heart, competitive e-sports neglect lore because these games are about dexterity, competition, and strategies. Pretending otherwise simply encourages derivative design in terms of both narratives and mechanics, resulting in games that do not succeed in either.
When I attended my co-editor’s board game night, I was struck by the narrative complexity of a game played on a piece of a cardboard (I don’t know what these games are made of and I’m sure they’re expensive but let me have my hyperbole). My eyes did glaze over after 10 minutes of rule-explaining, but I appreciated the types of narratives that could be generated by gameplay. In video games, emergent narratives are storylines partially created by the player (e.g. in The Sims), and emergent gameplay refers to strategies/techniques/situations that spontaneously or unexpectedly arise. On the other hand, as I watched the board game session from my comfy couch, I realized that even just listening to the rules and participant comments allowed me to experience an emergent <something> that collapsed the distinction between gameplay and narrative. Talk of backstabbing, trading, negotiations, spies, killing, money are the board game mechanics at work, but these words also created a spontaneous, interactive, fluctuating story that offered insight into the political machinations of the colonial “Great Game.” There was strategy. There was character (faction) identification. There was the overarching real story of imperial struggle, and the new one that the players continually built together within this particular match. And, as a bonus, I’d argue there was an imperative to learn about a time and place that is not fictionalized or abstract; to play this board game is to necessarily understand some aspect of a complicated, tragic, and violent history.
Frankly, video games could learn a lot from board games (and I’m not talking about Candyland), where narratives and mechanics are so seamlessly integrated. The story isn’t forced and so, the gameplay doesn’t suffer either. I realize that there are shitty board games just like there are shitty video games, but even the video games that are critically acclaimed are hard-put to prove they can offer the same technical and narrative quality.
(Or maybe I’m just petty and contrary and you agree with none of the above. That’s okay too.)
And that brings me to the second culprit: gameplay.
You may have already noticed that I couldn’t really talk about narrative without touching on gameplay and that’s because, well, games involve gaming. It would be redundant to treat video games as another iteration of print literature and to expect print-literature-style storytelling from them (ditto with film). But, it’s also apparent that narrative quality impacts gameplay in a vicious cycle. My Co-editor’s board game is not easily “solved” – that is, I see no one optimal set of choices and play styles that guarantee victory. As a result, the emergent narratives are fluid and interesting.
When I turn back to video games, stale mechanics tend to correlate to stale narratives. How many video games released as is are “broken,” with two or three classes, builds, decision trees that are just indisputably better? How many video games rely on patches to fix careless mistakes, and on player creativity to liven up the gameplay (e.g. defeating the Elite Four with a party of all magikarps)? When a game is rooted in the same story countless other games have used, it’s hard for developers, programmers, and other involved creatives to envision something fresh. The reverse is true as well. When grinding time sinks are the primary way to guarantee player investment, can a writer or programmer really disassociate their design from the baggage that accompanies these overused mechanics?
That isn’t to say I dislike grinding and questing and collecting – I love them. Sometimes, all I want is mindless repetition and the occasional reward-drop, or to try a new character build against a horde of AI creatures. It’s just that when a story is forcibly paired with this type of standard play, I’m being hammered on all fronts by the unoriginal and the clichéd (less is more!) – and now, I’m without the illusion of choice altogether. The world needs me. I’ve been chosen. I must level up. I must continue to the end. And for what? To reach an (solved) ending I could achieve much faster with a build other people have already finessed and posted online? A limited game does not challenge me and earn my investment. Why spend all this time thinking about moves, items, breeding, and stat distributions if any one of my Pokémon could one-hit KO the in-game gym leader? All I can say is thank goodness for PvP breaking the monotony.
Of course, there’s another factor that has everything to do with the individual player:
We play just like we read: for different reasons.
What role do games play in my life now versus “then”? What need do they satisfy?
I’m sure most of us have played a lackluster game because our friends were – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Games are capable of constructing communities that cross geo-political boundaries, and on a micro scale, can help us maintain connections with friends and families. Games can be a form of escapism, used to de-stress from a long day’s work. Games can, like any art, help us experience lives outside of our own. The only issue is time sink. Do I have time to play a game that does not fulfill my primary reason to play? Do I have time to sink 4 hours into a game that does not challenge me or force me to think in a different way, that does not immerse me? I’m inclined to say no, and maybe this is why I’m a chronic quitter. If only a part of my in-completionism can be attributed to taste or personality, then the rest of my “no” is largely immersion-based. And so, I sincerely ask, where are the games that can be immersive? Where are the games that take advantage of the video game medium to deliver something interesting, something thoughtful, something different? Where are the games that aren’t the equivalent of trashy romances or thrillers or dime-a-dozen sci-fi, but instead, dare to push their genres forward? Or at least, cleverly and cheekily poke fun at those genres?
Where is the game equivalent of House of Leaves (2000) which – perhaps pretentious – aims to transform the narrative of ghosts, madness, and love? Where is the Pulp Fiction (1994) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Alien (1979) of games that can redefine viewer experience at the same time that they elevate underappreciated genres? When James Cameron recycled Dances with Wolves (1990) for Avatar (2009), he still explored new methods of telling tired stories. Why are we content to accept, with only the smallest grumble, Triple-A titles that give us the same things in modified, shiny packaging, but then reject with laughter the indie games that grapple with more difficult questions (hampered by less funding)? By the same token, why do cultural critiques of games focus on the art, the dialogue, the surface level story without acknowledging that there is an inherent, structural homogeneity that should be dealt with (evolved) as well?
Yes, let us by all means Tamora Pierce the fuck out of the damsel in distress, include a range of romance options, incorporate voices typically sidelined, showcase a variety of peoples and bodies. But let us also re-conceive what it means to have a narrative that can play and gameplay that can speak. Let us inject layers into our creation, consumption, and critique of video games.
And maybe then, a chronic quitter will be converted to a chronic finish her.