Why Can't I Finish a Damn Video Game?
Rarely do I see the conclusion of a story-driven game. I'm hardly alone.
Image: Metro 2033
The first game I didn't finish was also the first AAA game I had ever played. Fallout: New Vegas. The next game I didn't finish was Stalker: Call of Pripyat. And then I didn't finish Mass Effect, though I came within a few hits in the final boss battle. I didn't finish Bioshock or Metro 2033 or Metro: Last Light Redux. I finished Telltale's Walking Dead Season 1 but that's really more of a book or movie than a game. (There are a couple of other notable exceptions that we'll get to later.) I think this is more a problem with the games than it is with me.
I hadn't really thought about this tendency until my most recent unfinishing, which was Metro 2033 Redux. To be clear, I think this is possibly the best video game ever made and maybe one of best fictional apocalypses in any media. It ends well before it actually ends, however, like most of the titles above. The story had been told, the mysteries revealed—the Metro 2033 Redux world had been laid bare and all there was left to do was end. I think about that game a lot and have even revisited my favorite chapter/level, but I have no interest in finishing it.
In some part, this has to do with the game's crappy monster combat. The human enemy AI is great and the inter-human battles are always interesting—not just from a combat perspective but from a story perspective as well—but the monsters mostly just come in literal waves. The game has some interesting monsters that do interesting things, like the tragic ape-like "librarians" (below) that gaze at your character with confusion and something like despair, but they get little screen time compared to the stampedes of teeth and blood driving most of the monster-based levels. The monsters come in bigger and more long-lasting hordes, while the game supplies your character with more powerful weapons, up to and including a fully ridiculous rapid-fire machine-shotgun. It might as well be the first monster battle.
Metro's crappy monster combat wouldn't have become so notable if the game didn't sluggishly unwind in a frenzy of it. It's boring and empty and the same goes for any of the games I mentioned above, which absolutely should include Bioshock Infinite, which is actually the most glaring example of what I'm talking about. But I managed to finish it in part because, while the conclusion of the story is right there in the chapter titles, I really wanted to see how the two Bioshock universes came together, and the game is smart enough to spare the player a tedious final boss battle (same with Dishonored, which I finished and adore). It wasn't very interesting, still.
I'd like to finish a game and have it not feel like I'd just walked around in circles for several hours. I'm also not alone in my serial game abandonment: According to a presentation at the 2014 Game Developer's Conference, game completion rates for big-title games range from 66 percent (Telltale's Walking Dead) to 30 percent (for Borderlands 2). For Skyrim, among the most universally beloved video games of all time, the completion rate is 32 percent. (For what it's worth, I finished Oblivion and felt pretty good about it; I have yet to properly begin Skyrim, though it will happen someday.)
Ubisoft creative director Jason VandenBerghe wrote something of a manifesto about all of this a couple of years ago. He noted that the dullness of game endings is a feedback cycle. Fewer and fewer players finish games, and so developers put less and less effort into the endings of those games. VandenBerghe argued that these statistics should be taken instead as an opportunity to do something totally batshit rather than something totally boring.
"Tell the fucking truth," he admonished.
"The first Modern Warfare had a great example of this," VandenBerghe wrote. "The final mission was the most over-the-top crazy, punishing, nearly-impossible-to-complete madness-fest in their game. It had almost no explanation, required none ("PLANE! TERRORISTS!"), and it was simply brilliant. The level was a celebration of the game that you had just finished, a self-referential guns-blazing cherry on the cake that was completely unnecessary, but became legendary."
Looking back at my list of unfinished games, I begin to wonder whether the problem isn't so much in the endings, but in the fact that there are endings at all. Is the idea of an ending even compatible with the idea of a game? A game in the old-school sense is a set of rules and not the unfurling of a story. We don't ask what the king is king of, we ask how the king is allowed to move. Why are these two perfectly symmetrical armies fighting in the first place? You know, I'd never thought to ask. Chess is just rules and three-dimensional symbols representing those rules.
Stories and rules aren't mutually exclusive, but it's hard to imagine the infinitely replayable game based on a three-act story. Maybe episodic and semi-episodic games are an answer. If we know the ending isn't really an ending but actually a beginning—as in the Mass Effect series—we'll keep going and designers will stop slowly suffocating their games in the last act.
I don't think it's impossible to have a properly end-able story-driven game. The credits roll as the final moments of the game run out, each one as rich as the game's first moments. The closest I've gotten is probably Dishonored, which is a game that looks and sometimes feels like an amalgam of many other games (Bioshock, especially). That's fine because the mechanics it overlays on that amalgam are something different.
So, yes, let's close on a positive note: Dishonored. Dishonored didn't get around to boring me until near the end of the last DLC and this is because it got this combination of rules and story just about right, at least relative to any other game I've played. The rules are physical, mostly to do with how the player is allowed to move around some three-dimensional landscape, and they're ecstatic. A new power can change how the player might move, or at least why a player might move. Corvo, the game's iron-masked protagonist, begins as a pawn and ends as a queen, in a sense. Landscapes and enemies are simple enough and they don't really need to be anything but. The player changes and the rules change, which is enough most of the time. At its best, Dishonored feels like a balletic board game.
There should be more like it.