You know you’ve finished a book when you read the last page; you know you’ve finished a movie when the credits roll. But how do you know when you’ve finished a video game?
I’ve finished the main story line of a handful of video games: Mass Effect, Portal 1&2, Skyrim, all the Bioshock Games, Arkham City, Until Dawn, Tomb Raider and a few others. I’ve seen the final cutscenes and the end credits on all those games, but I don’t feel as though I’ve beaten or finished any of them. Sure, I may have played out the narratives, but in Until Dawn I’ve only achieved one of the possible final outcomes and earned 20% of achievements. In Mass Effect I’ve only maxed out one of the romance options and I never even started acquiring the in-game collectibles. In Bioshock I’ve never gotten around to finding all of the audio diaries, and the list goes on.
Despite all this, I consider myself a completionist. That is not to say that I am prone to completing all side quests, finding all collectibles, and completing the main storyline on all difficulties (as I’ve mentioned, there’s no game in which I’ve done this). I do, however, imbue those aspects of video games with immense value. If I put a game down before I achieve completion according to every possible metric, I feel like a quitter. I don’t feel like I can say I played the game anymore than I could say I’ve read a book that I never finished.
(Though I’ve completed the main story line of Batman Arkham City, I’ve only completed 57% of the game)
Check the global stats for any game, however, and you’ll see that most people don’t complete anywhere near 100% of the achievements, and in many games most players don’t even earn all the achievements related to main story completion. People don’t often “complete” games, and in most games true completion is nigh on impossible. Games differ from novels and film in that they aren’t designed for everyone to stop at the same point; there isn’t always a clear end or a point of victory. Because of the numerous metrics of accomplishment built into video games, of which main story completion is only one, the definition for the “end” of a game based artistic medium is far more fluid than the end of a written work, film, musical work, etc.
(The Last Laugh achievement indicates that you’ve completed the main storyline; only 19.5% of players earn that achievement)
Take, for instance, the Pokemon games. When I was young I thought I’d beaten Pokemon Fire Red because I defeated the “Elite Four,” who serve as a final trial for aspiring Pokemon Masters, and signify the end of the main story line. But I realized my friend had cataloged more Pokemon in his Pokedex, so suddenly I was playing the game again trying to catch up. I collected nearly every creature in the game, but eventually, due to some difficulties acquiring Golem and Machamp, I stopped. Even if I had collected all of the Pokemon would I have beaten the game? The answer is simply no. The main story and the Pokedex are only two of a potentially infinite number of metrics for success. The game lays out level and stats as metrics of success as well, so maxing out all of those values would be necessary for the game to be truly completed. Additionally, the Pokemon games include incredibly rare algorithmically generated “shiny” Pokemon with alternate colorations. Collecting all of these shinies creates still another metric of completion. Even if every metric within the game was fulfilled (which would require thousands upon thousands of hours of grinding and spec training) there are countless player created metrics, such as the famous nuzlocke challenge, that could be used to paradoxically complete the game more.
Increasingly such functions are incorporated into games by the developers themselves. The “new game plus” feature has become more and more common; once you’ve completed a game, you can complete it again with increased difficulty and all the abilities you may have earned in the principal game. Furthermore, achievements and trophies (awards granted out-of-game to individuals who complete certain tasks) have created a game within a game. In video games, most actions are considered positive or negative based on the in-game effects they produce. For instance, in one game, firing a rocket directly at your feet is considered a negative action because doing so heavily damages your character and yields no reward; in another game, it is considered a positive action because you take only a small amount of damage and launch yourself vertically to double your standard jump height.
(damage taken+no gain=negative action)
(little damage taken+double jump=positive action)
Achievements bypass this evaluative frame by encouraging actions which often have no discernible effect on the gameplay (such as the Transmission Received achievement in Portal). Developers can direct players to accomplish tasks which outline an underlying component of the game not apparent in an achievement free play through of the game. Thus, a subtextual game within the principal game can be established by achievements, and this subtextual game can often be no less important than the principal game itself. This introduction of additional material to the game via achievements results in games that very few people actually complete. The numerous metrics of success in every game allow the player to decide which metric indicates that he or she has beaten the game, and when that metric is fulfilled the player will either quit or establish a secondary metric to pursue. This process can repeat itself a potentially infinite number of times, as there is no finite number of metrics in any game.
The only potential exception to this is pure progression based games, such as Until Dawn and those made by Telltale Games, in which the primary gameplay mechanic is decision making. In these games you can in fact attain all permutations of the game in a relatively low number of playthroughs and achieve something as close to completion as possible. It is that fact, along with their lack of endgame, which aligns such platforms with novels and movies, which, as I mentioned at the outset, have a clear beginning and end. With nearly every game outside of this genre, however, the player is essentially unable to “complete,” he or she can only decide when to quit. This is an element of video games which imbues them with a realism absent from most artistic mediums; as in real life, there’s always more you could have done, and how far you go is determined by the difficulty of the challenge and your own desire to keep fulfilling the metrics of success.