When is a game complete?

My last post, where I once again realized my preference for single–player experiences over protracted multiplayer skill matches, led me to think about a different question: when has a video game been completed by the player? This leads directly into a larger issue currently being discussed about how games are different from other media and culturally important in their own right. The answer to the question, as is often the case, is probably that it depends. It depends on the game itself, the individual gamer, and even the larger gaming community.

The most unique thing about video games is the level of interaction required from the player. Television, movies, and books are, for the most part, relatively linear and straight-forward works. Once you read a book or watch a movie, you’re mostly finished with it; except, of course, for those classic works that you might revisit semi–regularly. Games, on the other hand, often contain many more options, secrets, or side–quests that extend beyond the main plotline or primary purpose of the game.

I would argue that the vast majority of games have a distinct plot and are trying to tell some sort of story. Many other writers have noted how a current game development trend is trying to give games a more cinematic feel. A large number of story–based games are mostly complete when you reach the end of the main adventure. For example, in Super Mario Galaxy, the main goal is to collect at least 60 stars so the planetarium has enough power to track down Bowser. Then you can defeat Bowser and officially finish the game and see the conclusion and credits. Some types of gamers are content with this level of completion. However, some games have no clearly–defined ending point due to their current focus on online multiplayer experiences. Beyond an often short main campaign, when is a multiplayer game like this truly over? Gamers play the most popular multiplayer games for many years after the original release.

For those entranced by the game and willing to invest the time, Super Mario Galaxy has quite a bit more to offer. Defeating Bowser once actually unlocks the player’s ability to collect the final 15 or so stars (out of a possible 120) in order to see the true ending. After this, you can also choose to collect the 120 stars again as Luigi to open up one final level. Super Mario Galaxy has a lot of game play beyond the main story. Thus, many games contain a number of optional activities or secrets available for the dedicated gamer. A great thesis was written by an MIT student, Kristina Lynn Drzaic, about the significance of video game secrets.

As another example, Final Fantasy games are well–known for their epic stories, and that’s arguably the main reason to play through much of that series. But epic side–quests are also one of Square-Enix’s trademarks, even though not many gamers are necessarily inclined to complete them. In Final Fantasy X, to get one character’s ultimate weapon, you have to dodge lightning strikes 100 times in a row. If you miss a single time, you have to start over again from zero. Thus for different types of gamers, which Mitch Krpata at Insult Swordfighting categorized into Perfectionists, Completists, and Tourists, games have widely varying personal requirements for completion, depending on one’s willingness or desire to accomplish sometimes ridiculous tasks.

Finally, the larger gaming community can sometimes extend the life of a game seemingly indefinitely. A great example of this is the PC strategy game Starcraft in South Korea, where it’s practically a national sport. Tournaments with highly skilled players are still regularly held there, for a game that’s nearly 10 years old. Similarly, a large competitive scene developed around Super Smash Brothers Melee, in which some players discovered advanced techniques that practically turn Melee into a completely different game. On top of this, especially in the realm of PC gaming, many games develop extensive modding communities, where the game is fundamentally and extensively altered to extend replayability.

What is the point of all this? I love how easy it is for different gamers to take away such wildly different experiences from the same game. Compare a competitive and a casual Melee player – they’re worlds apart, both in terms of skill level and in describing the game they both enjoy playing. Granted, the best movies also allow viewers to each take something different away from the theater, but you’re still almost entirely limited to what’s presented to you on the screen. Games allow gamers to choose their level of involvement much more so than other forms of entertainment. In the near future, it will be interesting to see if either Starcraft 2 or Super Smash Brothers Brawl develop and sustain the same kind of competitive, meta–game following that the current iterations have had for years.

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