We’ll simply never get around to some video games, no matter how great or how universally acclaimed they are. It’s bound to happen every year. Every September through the holidays, the triple-A calendar is stacked with launches, all offering open-ended multiplayer experiences or dozens of hours in a campaign. We tell ourselves we’ll play them some day. We never do.
And then comes a time when we realize it’s just too late.
You can always read Moby-Dick or Anna Karenina as an act of self-improvement, but video games, even their classics, are not so timeless. The hardware expires, their canons are rewritten by sequels, their looks are improved by remasters or reboots down the line. For everyone, there’s at least one game they never got around to finishing or, worse, even starting.
For me, a meat-and-potatoes console video gamer, a classic example is something like Watch Dogs. Somewhat like the first Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft followed it a couple of years later with a sequel that moved the story to another location with totally new characters, played much better and was more expansive and interesting than the story offered by its predecessor. Still, the first one is there, part of the series’ canon, sitting on my shelf, pristine. There still seems to be no reason to visit it four years later, especially if it’s an open-world experience that’s going to take dozens of hours to finish if you’re playing it in a natural and curious way (as opposed to just plowing through the main narrative, full speed). Watch Dogs 2 was great but it basically mooted the original work. There’s not a compelling reason to take up the first Watch Dogs, even if I have it on my shelf frowning at me like The Great Gatsby with an un-creased spine.
And then, well, there’s The Last of Us.
This is the hardest game for me to admit that I’ve never finished. It feels like I should have my video gamer clearance revoked. This is a major narrative work from a studio that is famous for taking on big ambitions and getting them right out of the box. Look! I have played it, OK! But it launched in June of 2013 on PlayStation 3 — a time of year when I am both distracted by E3 and still very invested in my baseball career with MLB The Show. I got around to playing The Last of Us about two months after it released. But my work reading and writing about video games spoiled just about everything imaginable for Joel and Ellie’s story by then. It was very hard to build enthusiasm or momentum to push through to the game’s conclusion. I didn’t even make it to Pittsburgh in the game’s story.
I never had this problem watching Game of Thrones or Westworld — both of which had all of their major arcs spoiled by my interactions with colleagues long before I sat down to watch. But those are passive experiences, and there’s still some intrigue in finding out how it all happens. The Last of Us requires me to work for something whose payout I already know, and when that realization hits, I’m done. I’m sorry. That game, and a few others like it, throws the most withering and accusatory glare every time I dust my shelf and allow myself a smug grin at all of the great stuff I’ve accomplished otherwise.
With those sins confessed, here some of my colleagues at Polygon join me to talk about games we wish we played — and they’re still good! But it’s still just too late.
Susana Polo, Riven
I am deeply, deeply embedded in the Myst series. Myst was probably the first non-edutainment game I ever played. Myst IV is my favorite video game, and most people don’t even know that there were more than two Myst games. And yet...
I have never finished Riven. When it ran on my family’s computer — a DVD of it came with the DVD drive we bought so that I could play Starship Titanic — I was too young to get very far in it, and online help wasn’t really... a thing. In college, when I first really dug into the series as an adult, I made it all the way up to the final colored marble puzzle and was flummoxed by the looming frustration of going to each secret dome on each island and examining the fuzzy holograms that sort of indicated generally where the marble was supposed to go. It’s the puzzle game equivalent of playing all the way up to the final boss and then never playing the game again.
I’ve tried to return to the game in the intervening years, but have run into that age-old problem: Obsolescence. My hard copies of Riven don’t run on modern operating systems while Steam copies freeze and quit at random. I played a mobile port for about an hour before I realized that without a cursor to show me what on the screen was an interactable object, I was essentially playing blind, either solving puzzles by memory or tapping and fondling every inch of a room to see what did anything. Not the ideal play experience.
Fortunately, there’s hope: The Myst 25th anniversary edition, featuring hard and Steam/GoG copies of every game in the Myst series. I know what you’re thinking: Did I shell out for the “real, working” Linking Book box set from the Kickstarter?
You bet your sweet bippy I did. I have a marble puzzle to solve.
Cassandra Marshall, Half-Life 2
I grew up exclusively playing on Nintendo consoles and on my family’s Apple computers, and I usually had to fight one of my brothers to really dig into one of the games that had been purchased and approved by my parents. I purchased my first console, the 360, in 2007. I played through a ton of shooters, and eventually purchased my own PC a few years later. I let Half-Life 2 sit in my backlog for a couple of more years. It was, of course, one of the most recommended and acclaimed shooters of all time. I figured it could wait while I dug through newer, shinier titles that interested me more. Part of me was also hoping the final Episode or eventual sequel would come out, and I could play the entire Half-Life 2 experience as one neat little package.
Eventually, I bit the bullet. I ordered a pizza, cleared my calendar, and settled in to play Half-Life 2, the game that I had been repeatedly told would knock my socks off. And... it didn’t. It was fine. It was fine. It wasn’t until about halfway through the game that I realized I had played all of its successors, the games that had been inspired by its design and mechanics and storytelling tools. The game really had been as influential and amazing as everyone said, and I could tell it had influenced a dozen other games I had loved. It’s like watching an old movie and seeing a beat that you recognize from a Simpsons joke you love; you respect the original material, but it doesn’t capture you in the same way.
If I had played Half-Life 2 as soon as I built my first gaming PC, I probably would have much fonder memories of it. As it is, the entire game is all kind of a blur. Ravenholm was pretty neat, I guess, but everyone expected me to take something more than “pretty neat” away from the game. It’s a shame, especially because Portal holds up wonderfully by comparison. It’s not you, Half-Life 2, it’s me.
Ben Kuchera, Steel Battalion
The game I always wanted to play and will never get to is Steel Battalion. I kept meaning to track down a copy of the game with that giant, beautiful controller, but it was barely ever possible to find in stores to begin with. Now it’s for an older system, and the servers have been shut down. Finding a copy with the hardware in good condition now just seems like an impossible undertaking in terms of both price and the space needed to set it up and play it. The game was slow, it was difficult and it didn’t even bother trying to bring in a general audience, and I have no clue why I didn’t pick up a copy in college when I had the money and room necessary to make it all happen. Going back feels impossible, and it’s going to make Steel Battalion always feel like the one that got away.
Jenna Stoeber, Ico
When I first got into gaming, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were mentioned in the same breath as must-play games. Although the praise for SotC was unconditional, Ico always came with a warning: it’s basically one long escort mission, and Yorda is so annoying. I tracked down a copy of SotC, which remains one of the best games I’ve ever played. I was interested in Ico too, but over time the number of complaints I heard about Yorda built up; no matter how good the game was, fans couldn’t help but harp on about how frustrating Yorda is. Without having played it myself, that’s the only context I have; It’s good, but...
The more games I played with “annoying” supporting female characters (if ANY female characters), the less I wanted to bother circling back. Since Ico game out, NPC AI support has gotten better and female characters have become more interesting and well-rounded, like Ellie in The Last of Us and Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. There are so many great games in my backlog whose recommendations don’t end with a hesitant “but ...” (like The Last Guardian) that it’s hard to justify looping back to something with such a big caveat.