What does it mean to finish a game? It’s a surprisingly complicated question, so let’s look into that before anything else. Finishing a game can mean something very different to different people, and it varies based on the game itself too. I’ve “finished” Fallout 4, for example, in that I’ve done the main story with all three main endings and gotten every achievement. However, thanks to Bethesda’s packed world building, I don’t feel like I’m done with the game yet; there’s still so much to explore. I’ve seen people who are having the same (wonderful) struggle; even after hundreds of hours of playtime, there are still new secrets to find. Other open world games, like the Assassin’s Creed franchise, will explicitly tell you what percentage “complete” you are, but it’s not a number that I always agree with – I often feel done with the game long before that 100% mark due to the high number of collectables, optional constraints in missions, or repetitive side quests that I just don’t want to do. In linear, story based games, finishing the story may seem like a natural point of conclusion, but what about those that have New Game Plus modes or achievements for replaying under various different added constraints?
And yet, knowing that ‘finishing’ a game doesn’t really mean anything, every single time I start up a new game I’m thinking about how long it’ll be until I’m done; all my play centres around progressing towards some kind of end point. I feel a constant pressure to complete, even if I don’t yet know when that sense of being finished with the game will come, or why I want it so much at all. A good example happened yesterday, when I loaded up the choice-based island escape game Dyscourse. I’d heard it was about half an hour per playthrough, so when mine overran to somewhere around the hour mark (even though this does appear to be a more realistic estimate), it made me genuinely anxious. My position is somewhat unique because I’ll usually feel under more pressure to finish a game so that I can comment on it in some way, and I’m often delayed by making notes or even researching something for later, but nonetheless the constant need to progress, to complete, is something I know many gamers feel.
For me, it wasn’t always like this. One of my earliest memories is my father taking me and my sister into town to buy a Nintendo 64. At the time I didn’t know that’s what we were getting – I vividly recall him warning us that it was something that would require supervision to use because we wouldn’t be able to set it up alone and, for whatever reason, this made me guess that it was a camera tripod. (I also remember being very excited about this prospect, though I have no idea why.) Luckily, considering all the things in my life that essentially evolved from this moment, it wasn’t a camera tripod, it was the N64. He also bought Pokémon Stadium for us, which allowed you to play Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow via the 64 without owning a GameBoy (which we never had).
Yellow must be one of the highest playtimes I’ve accumulated in my gaming history. My sister and I, together or separately, would play for endless hours. And yet we didn’t come even close to completing it, not because we couldn’t, but because we just never bothered. That wasn’t the way that we wanted to play. At a guess, I’d say we beat about four of the eight gyms (for the uninitiated, consider these like the equivalent of boss battles). So perhaps we finished about half of the game as it was supposed to be played, but we spent so much more time just exploring for new Pokémon and training up our Pikachu which ended up being incredibly powerful, despite our having no reason to own such a powerful Pokémon as we had no intention of actually using it to challenging the tougher gyms.
I’m well aware that a sheen of nostalgia is speaking here, but these really were simpler times. Without any pressure to finish, we could play in the way that we found most fun, and without any of the stress that is now an uncomfortable companion to the vast majority of my gaming. Rarely anymore will I just pick up a game to play, to meander through a game world for no reason other than fun. Another unfortunate side effect of this is that I play far less games without win states, like The Sims, or Animal Crossing, than I used to, which is a shame. And overall I’m really not sure why I get this preoccupation with the end. Am I just impatient?
Maybe that does play a part, but I think the sheer amount of time that games take up is another big part of it. Each game is a time commitment, sometimes a very large one, and there’s always something new to be playing, not to mention my backlog. I also want to spend a fair amount of time with each game thanks to the monetary investment that I’ve put into them; even though I never rarely buy AAA games immediately on release thanks to that £60 standard price tag (side note, I hear that $60 is the going price in the US, which should come out at about £40 this side of the pond, and yet…) gaming is still an expensive hobby and I want to feel like I’m getting some value for that money – finishing a game is the easiest way of evaluating that.
Games that bulk themselves out with uninteresting side quests or collectables (often to justify that high price tag) don’t help the issue. I would previously try to 100% complete these kinds of games, but recently Dragon Age: Inquisition severely hampered me due to wanting to play side quest after samey side quest despite really only being interested in what was going to happen in the main plot and to the companions. After this experience I re-evaluated heavily. Before, I felt justified because I didn’t want to miss anything but actually I now see that missing a few fetch quests would have increased my enjoyment of Inquisition by forcing me early on to accept that I would never see everything and that actually my experience would be better if I didn’t. Plus, it would have allowed me more time to play the literally hundreds of other games that I want to play.
This screen haunts me.
And yet, even after this re-evaluation, I find that this pressure to get to the end remains. Through examining the pressure, I was reminded of another experience with the N64, this time with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was one of the earlier games that I remember having in the house, but for whatever reason my parents said that it was their game and we couldn’t play it. (Another side note, I have no idea why that was – me and my sister played Goldeneye 007 which was far more violent, and my parents never actually played Ocarina of Time – more fool them.) However, when my sister and I were teenagers we picked it up and played it from start to finish, including grabbing all the collectables and extras. Actually, I played it, and my sister sat next to me reading the walkthrough so that we could streamline this plan. It’s a somewhat unconventional way to play, but it was one of the greatest memories I have from video games. Even though we were ensuring that there was a completely direct line from start to finish, I felt no stress, partly because we were having so much fun, but partly because I didn’t have to worry about missing out on things or having to backtrack. It was all the good parts of completion with none of the stress.
All these varying experiences I’ve had leave me without a solid conclusion about why I feel this pressure to finish games, but with the clear need to work on a solution so that I can more fully enjoy myself. These solutions are slowly forming, but figuring out how to apply them to different games is more difficult. I’m now quick to put down a game that I’m not enjoying because I realise my time is valuable and there’s no point in forcing myself to play something when I could be having fun with something else. Occasionally, I’ll consider the option of strictly following a walkthrough as I did with Ocarina of Time (rather than just dipping into it as needed) but I haven’t yet found a game that I want to apply it to. I’m interested to see what happens when I do. Mostly, I’m just reminding myself that the value is in the journey of the game, not the destination. As cliché as that might sound, it is certainly true, and reminding myself of the logic of it helps to remove some of the pressure that I feel. But with the big game release season just passed, I’m floating in a world of unfinished games, including several very long, very open ones like Mad Max, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and The Witcher 3, and it’s honestly pretty overwhelming.
Nonetheless, putting my finger on the problem is the best way to begin to address it, and I’m going to endeavour to improve on worrying less about finishing and more about playing in ways that are more fun for me. If this has resonated with you, I’d love to hear how you deal with it, and more generally if you find yourself stressed about any aspect of your gaming life, I’d encourage exploration of why that is and how you can let go of it. It’s strange that I have to remind myself of this so often, but games are primarily for fun and even though there are other valid approaches to playing and examining games, fun should be where much of the focus is!