I never got Geralt past Novigrad. Or stopped the Joker’s evil plan, whatever it was.
Frustrated ambitions are the norm in the save files on my PlayStation 4: Kyrat is engulfed by chaos, my hunter is lost in Yharnam and the usurper Delilah still sits on Dunwall’s throne. Nonplayer characters must be panicked, but I can’t say for sure. I quit almost every game before I finish it.
Quitting games is the dirty secret of playing them. It is, I’m convinced, the most universal gaming experience. The problem is oversupply: Too many games with too much hype are hitting the digital shelves annually, and we can’t finish them all. Even for the un- and underemployed — demos in which I’ve done my time — the days are just not long enough.
We’re complicit in this cycle
And yet, collectively, we keep buying more entertainment than we could possibly play. Open-world games often contain hundreds of hours of quests; even comparatively short campaigns boast lengths of 10 or 15 hours. More and more games are being “sold” as a service, offering gameplay that may continue indefinitely.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the never-ending pipeline. Games zip through the zeitgeist, constantly snatching our interest. It can be tempting to interrupt whatever we’re playing for the next thing, then the next.
And we often seem OK with that. We walk away from unexplored levels and unattained objectives without a second thought, only paying lip service to our vague sense of shame.
Which means that either video game marketing is making fools of us all, with its hype machines duping us quarterly, or our enjoyment of games has nothing to do with finishing them. I may be biased as a serial quitter, but I believe the second explanation. It’s time to stop seeing the act of “finishing” each game as the ultimate goal.
It’s an odd paradox, but it’s true: You don’t need to finish a game to have fully played it.
Of course, that’s counterintuitive for a number of reasons. We’re talking about a medium premised on the very idea of victory. We want to value completion, not just resolution. If you get bored of a TV show and stop watching it, you forgo the gratification of narrative closure. But if you quit a game without beating it, the loss is more literal: You have elected to fail.
At the same time, video games belong to their own category. We treat them differently from any other art or entertainment. If you tell someone you’ve read a novel when you only read half, you are rolling the dice, and you know it. You didn’t read that book. If you fall asleep midway through a movie, you invalidate the experience of seeing it. You can’t really have a serious opinion on either work of art without attaching major caveats.
But if you play just five hours of Far Cry 5, you will likely understand what the whole game is about, warts and all. You’ll feel the fluidity of its combat and the giddiness of its emergent gameplay — and also its glib world-building and stupid plot. If someone were to ask for your opinion on it, giving one wouldn’t seem so out of place.
Clearly, gamers share some kind of cultural agreement that beating a video game, especially a big one, doesn’t really matter. If someone asks us if we’ve played something, it’s usually not to question whether we’ve finished it.
That’s partly because lots of games don’t offer conventional narratives at all, let alone “endings” as we understand them. Sea of Thieves is a nautical sandbox. Indie hit Her Story can only be solved to your subjective satisfaction. The success of persistent online games like World of Warcraft or Eve Online rests entirely on continuity. In strategy titles, the middle parts are usually the most fun.
And the few games that do attempt traditional resolutions often fail to stick the landing. Third-act fumbles are consistent across publishers, indie to AAA: Firewatch coaxed a nuanced and nerve-wracking tale from a handful of clever elements, only to douse it with a disappointing anticlimax in its final minutes. BioWare was all but forced by fans to release an extended cut for Mass Effect 3’s infamous ending. In both cases, the creative product was otherwise critically well-received.
Obviously, there are exceptions. Inside and The Last of Us — two celebrated games on opposite sides of the developer spectrum — offered tonally perfect conclusions, and enjoy better reputations because of them. But by and large, modern games don’t execute endings well. Many games just dutifully furnish another bigger, badder boss.
And that’s totally OK.
Games can be less than the sum of their parts
Endings are de-emphasized in video games. That’s not an indictment.
Rather, it’s the logical outcome of a development process founded on a layer of “core loops.” While gamers have come to appreciate that term as a basic tenet of design, we don’t really acknowledge its conceptual implications. What a core loop suggests is that any individual slice of gameplay is more relevant to the overall experience than an ordered succession of them. In other words, the whole of a game is worth less than the sum of its parts.
It may sound like a negative generalization, but it’s double-edged. Core loops exist as their own entity, independent of a game’s narrative or larger context — which means it’s sometimes possible to scavenge fun from places you’d least expect. Far Cry 5 works just fine as a fishing simulator. You can safely ignore the entirety of Skyrim’s campaign while still being overwhelmed by the amount of things to do.
But the flip side is that fatigue can strike at any moment. When players are sustained by loops, not stories, quitting takes on a complicated calculus. I quit games for lots of reasons I recognize and still more that I don’t. I quit Grand Theft Auto 5 when it railroaded Michael, Trevor and Franklin into a long story mission that I kept botching and couldn’t ignore. I quit Batman: Arkham Asylum because of its dinky-ass detective work, which constantly hampered my flow. The Fallout games are just too big for me and the Souls titles too exhausting.
But in each one I found a reason to be interested, and an experience worth remembering. I don’t feel like the game failed me, and I certainly don’t feel like I failed the game.
This past week I’ve read more about God of War’s vaunted ax mechanics than I have about its story. Having not yet played a minute of it, the story is easy for me to imagine: the weight of legacy, lineage, and the hopes and burdens that travel from father to son. But the ax, in its way, might come closer to summarizing the gameplay. I can imagine quitting God of War when I get tired of throwing that ax. It would be as petty as any reason for quitting a game. But it would also be equal and opposite to the reason I started playing in the first place.
We need to embrace gaming’s ability to provide experiences that let us walk away whenever we want and still feel like we got our money’s worth. No other art form provides the same amount of flexibility in consumption.
They say quitters never win, but in gaming, things aren’t so clear. The virtual world makes quitters of us all. That may be something to celebrate.