In 2010 I moved from my home in Bedford to London for university. After I left, my dad moved from the family home and in his journey to the new place, he left the cats behind. His reasoning was sound: our neighbour Colin was already treating them to the finer things – chicken mainly – and they would make regular pilgrimages to his place, so it seemed as though they were pretty comfy – no need to uproot them. Plus, dad wouldn’t have to buy any more cat food – everybody wins.
I don’t visit home a lot – it’s expensive, I’m lazy, and people like visiting me because it involves a trip to London – and even rarer would it be that I made a journey to the old family home. I suppose that would border a little closely on stalking or loitering, or both. What this means is that I don’t know how those cats are doing now. They were both old and pretty bloody fat. They may well have given up the ghost. I’ll never witness that though; I’ll wait in uncertainty. There’s the odd chance that one of them is still alive, but they were both getting on. You do hear stories of very old cats though, so there’s a chance. I will live in this pleasant enough limbo indefinitely, spared of having to deal with any direct grief. One day, way down the road, I’ll reflect back on them and know for sure they’re gone, but I will have been spared that sad moment that being present would have afforded me.
Sometimes I treat video games in a similar way. There are some that stand proud and dusty on my shelf, as though they take umbrage to the idea that anyone could be finished with them. I’m not. There are great games that through no fault of their own remain unfinished games. Sometimes it terrifies me. I last played Bloodborne the day before yesterday, and I’m concerned that it may slip, that if I don’t make sure to get a good session in at some point today then it will be lost forever. I think I don’t want it to end; I’m afraid of it ending on some level.
Perhaps its the nature of games that does this for me, or perhaps I just have a short attention span. The denial of content is a curious thing. A game can deny you content if you don’t have the skill – the motor skills, instincts, muscle memory, or mechanical understanding – to keep playing. A book will not bar you entry, not like a game. There is nothing stopping you from carrying on reading a book, dragging your eyes across the page; however, did you understand the metaphor? Did you take away the symbolism? A deeper reading is another animal entirely. Books can deny readers content in a different way: by shooting it above their heads if they’re not careful. I also have a stack of unfinished books on my bedroom floor. I’m working on it. You have to be much more active with games to carry on with them; your participation is front and center. You can’t play them on auto-pilot with much success.
I used to be a bit self-righteous about the whole thing, shirking responsibility and putting the blame at the feet of the game. If it can’t hold my attention then that isn’t my problem. If I’m not compelled to finish, then that’s a failing on their part, not mine, etc. This often isn’t the case. Even the best things in life – love, friendship, creativity – require the one thing I wasn’t putting in: hard work.
But you know, I don’t know if there isn’t something a little bit romantic about the whole thing too. There’s something quite comforting about knowing that I have Red Dead Redemption waiting for me, but not yet. I happen to know a thing or two about that ending, but I have yet to witness the emotional gut punch myself. Marston is still out there for me, roaming the wilderness, and at some point I’ll get back on his horse. But not yet.
I think a lot of the reason that this happens to me is tied into the way that I play games. The fun that is woven into the fabric of some games means that the act of playing in itself is rewarding; it isn’t about the end of the level, the goal post, the shiny treat. It’s for this reason that NBA 2K will be a constant contender for my attention. There is no end point; it is a game of basketball played until one has had enough. Sports games end up giving me the best value for money in terms of the time I put in, but they are never the ones that are going to stick in my craw and make me think about things. They are still the purest form of the medium, the relic that still stands as a reminder of the medium’s genesis: it was about fun and gameplay, and nothing else.
In an open-world game there are myriad possibilities laid out in front of you, and your journey through that world is marked with progress, improvement, and narrative. It is rare for me that an open-world game is as good toward the end as it was in the beginning. I had a particular fondness for Grand Theft Auto 3 when I was young. It is no surprise that I didn’t get to Staunton Island – the second of that game’s three Islands – until my second play through, some few years later. I had a real romance with Portland. It was where the story began; it was where your character first found their feet, and it was where you were during a time of infinite possibility. Staunton Island couldn’t really live up to my dreams – nothing could. I sprawled out in Portland and took my sweet time, even on my second play through. I did the side missions; I looked for collectibles; I drove around searching for stunt jump ramps – anything to prolong the opening chapter.
It’s the same, more recently, for Metal Gear Solid V. That is the only MGS game that I have stopped playing before finishing. It is the only MGS game that delivers its story in the format of audio logs in favour of cut scenes. It is the only open-world MGS game. These different things converged and made the experience a very different beast for me. I found that I was inflicted with the same syndrome I had with other open world games – I wanted to revel in the world. I would find myself doing all of the optional missions to gather resources, acquire troops, scout out the guard towers, and I would leave main story missions alone for long expanses of time. I can’t be trusted, it seems, to just bloody well plow on. That’s just it though, what fun is plowing? So much of the time the final act of the open-world game is something that has to be done to be finished with it; it isn’t actually very fun anymore.
Take something like Far Cry: Primal, one of the games that really surprised me this year. It wasn’t a great game, but it wasn’t bad either, and it certainly helped that I hadn’t played a Far Cry game in two years. It was refreshing and the game presented me with some ridiculous opportunities: the skill tree tempted me to explore so that I could one day ride a sabre-tooth tiger, and I relished the chance. When I had all the perks unlocked and had played around with them for a time, there wasn’t much opportunity to utilize them. I had taken most of the bases, completed most of the optional quests, was a near-invincible killing-machine, and there never really was much of a story anyway. The last act was baggy and I found myself stubbornly just wanting it to be over, but instead of just stopping I had to get the thing done so that it wouldn’t hang over me. I just plowed on.
It’s like the final stages of a relationship you know is failing: you’re just going through the motions, feeling nothing where once there was joy. Maybe there was part of me that didn’t want Red Dead Redemption to get to this bitter end point. Maybe that’s the same deep-seeded reason that Metal Gear Solid V lies on my shelf and not on my coffee table. Perhaps I want to freeze these things in time so that I never have to deal with seeing them end.
We also aren’t encouraged to finish them a lot anymore. Look at the way the new Hitman is being handled: releasing each mission episodically is an approach that Square Enix hit upon because they know the majority of players don’t end up finishing their games. Bite-size missions that are easily digestible, for a culture that often prefers the bite-size, and avoids digestion wherever possible. Games designed to not be unfinished games. Perhaps, instead of the responsibility of completing games, I should instead shirk disposability and put the work back in. After all, sometimes, when I think about my cats and I really miss them, I don’t crave the limbo anymore. I crave the closure.