When Enough is Enough: Finishing the Game (or Not)

As Nathan begins the latest foray into Yooka-Laylee (his 3rd for The Lunch Zone,) he muses aloud: “I was struggling on whether or not to play this again because I’m not sure what else there is to say about it.” And that got us to talking about the increasingly rare feat, at least for us, of actually finishing the games we play. It seems there’s a never-ending list of reasons why we can’t seem to finish what we’ve started: obligations and other interests in the real world are, of course, a major hurdle to overcome, particularly for graduate students and young professionals. And as Nathan noted, so too is the ever-abundant list of new games that might distract us from the adventure at hand. Thanks to digital distribution, in particular, we’re always only $10 and a 2-minute download away from that next hit of dopamine.

In a 2014 GDC (Game Developers Conference) talk, game designers Richard Rouse (The Suffering, State of Decay) and Tom Abernathy (narrative lead at Riot games) note statistics that show that something like only an average of 1/3 of gamers finish games (of course, this stat is tricky because not all of those players finish every game, but it gives us an idea as to how few of us actually make it to the end of most of the games we play). And this isn’t only an issue with games that are “too long” or “too bad” to finish; Rouse and Abernathy use Steam achievement data to show that only 47% of PC players finished the very short and universally praised Portal.

Our conversation got me thinking: what does finishing a game even mean? We could define it as completing the main narrative, though that doesn’t work for all games (like Tetris) and seems a rather anachronistic standard for the hypertextual narratives featured in most games that do have stories. The bulk of content in Fallout 3, for instance, lies outside that main storyline so, by this standard, a player having only accessed ¼ of the content could claim they “finished” it. On the other hand, we could define it as beating the last boss, stage, or otherwise challenging obstacle, but this could easily become a mandate to “100%” a game what with hidden stages, optional bosses, unlockable challenges, et cetera. Must we extinguish every challenge of a game to be able to claim it finished?

I suppose the best answer really just comes down to the individual: a personal balance between getting the most bang for your buck and playing a game because you’re having fun, not out of some obligation to squeeze every last drop out of it. What do you think? How do you know when you’re finished with a game?

Ryan House

Ryan House is a PhD student in Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Twitter: @ludoscholar

2 Comments

  1. I make a distinction between “beating” a game and “finishing” it. Beating a game, for me, means I’ve completed the main storyline/quest/boss. If I get the end credits, I beat it. If I play through all the side quests, 100% it, it’s finished.

    • I think that’s a really helpful distinction, Julie! I know I’ve beaten many more games than I’ve finished, in that case. On a side note, a friend once told me a story about “solving” an NES game, and she wasn’t talking about a puzzle game, either. It took me by surprise; I remember thinking something like, “huh…that’s weird but accurate.”

      I wonder, though: what compels you to finish a game after you’ve beaten it? How often would you say this happens?

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