The Problem of the Inevitable (Yet Challenging) End in Video Games

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick sits on my bookshelf like a mountain whose cliffs bear the scratches and divots of many failed attempts at the summit. My ability as a reader is such that I have the necessary skill to finish it; doing so is a matter of dedication. The 2005 GameCube game Killer7 enjoys an occasional spin in the disc drive but spends most of its time gathering dust. Like Moby Dick, I know that I have the basic mechanical skills required to see it through to the end. What stops me is the the mental commitment required to wade through the unconventional game systems and surreal themes that make Suda’s games so uniquely challenging.

Although it is an extremely odd game, Killer7 illustrates the subtle shift that has occurred in the structure and difficulty of single player games. The skills needed to finish the average linear or plot-driven game have come to resemble those required in other media: getting to the end of a game is less about sheer skill and more about making the intellectual decision to persevere.

The popular Uncharted series demonstrates the experience-driven approach to finishing games. It is an approach that rewards persistence and plot development over specific skill development. Rather than allow the player to accidentally jump to the wrong ledge or run out of ammo in a crucial fight, Uncharted limits possibilities in order to shepherd players through scripted interactive experiences. Hanging off a ledge in Uncharted strongly conveys the illusion of danger even though the player’s next jump is limited only to safe options. Having unlimited ammo in Uncharted 2’s chaotic, unexpected yeti battle frees the player from having to focus on mechanical limits to finish the fight. Therefore, the player can focus their attention on more pertinent narrative questions like “What the hell is a yeti doing here?” Finishing the game is about answering these questions rather than mastering the details needed to get from point to point. The game is structured to avoid hard barriers to progression given that the player possesses a minimum amount of dexterity.

BioShock deconstructs skill-based barriers to progression and then absorbs them into the game’s fiction. The narrative incorporates player failure with the vita chambers by justifying them within the story rather than treating them as inexplicable, immersion breaking, time rewinding mechanisms. Because the vita chambers are densely distributed and act as part of the overall plot, a player is narratively justified in working through the game via brute force. The plot makes it logical that enemies retain damage even after the player dies, which means that finishing the game is ultimately about a dedication to exploring the plot to its end. BioShock is not designed to “beat” the player, as the conclusion is inevitable.

A game like Super Meat Boy is considered retro because it embraces the old, antagonistic paradigm between player and game that BioShock strives to replace. The main challenge is not found in the dedication to unravelling a narrative or digesting themes but in skill-based competition. Super Meat Boy reminds us where the notion of “beating” a game comes from. Growing up, many of my friends would use the grammatically murky, yet intuitively understandable phrase, “I finally won that game,” to indicate that they had finished it. Super Meat Boy recalls games like Battletoads, in which finishing was actually like achieving victory; the rules were set up as an explicit test to solve, and the plot was window dressing.

In many modern games, the required skills for success are relatively untaxing, which turns the idea of finishing a game into a subjective concept. Mechanically and dynamically, the first gunfight in Red Dead Redemption is essentially the same as the last gunfight, but the story serves to differentiate these encounters and provide a sense of progression. Seeing the end of the game is determined by the player’s interest in the narrative arc rather than their development as a sharpshooter.

As game plots become more sophisticated, the concept of “finishing” a game grows increasingly murky. In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston’s death signals both the end of one story and the beginning of another. By continuing the game as his son, Jack Marston, the player can continue the bleak, existential search for freedom that permeates the entire game. Even after completing each quest, the world continues to exist in a partly romantic, partly purgatorial limbo that can never be completely conquered. Ultimately, the player must decide when the game is done.

This concept of the player defined ending is at the core of the 2008 Prince of Persia game. In the end, the player can chose whether the Prince honors Elika’s ultimate sacrifice or whether he acts in his own selfish, yet understandable interests. Interestingly, the credits roll after she dies, which signalled to some players that choosing to stop playing was a legitimate end to both the ludic and narrative processes of the game. As Michael Abbott said of the game:

Some will say the game offers no choice at all. The only real action the game allows is resurrecting Elika. I say poppycock. The credits roll when they do for a reason. Anything that happens after that is a coda. The game invites you to walk away…or not. It’s up to you. The genius of this moment (in an otherwise highly problematic narrative) is in the way it provoked me to reflect on a character’s death, assess my choices, and assume responsibility for the one I made. (“Prince of Quitting”, The Brainy Gamer, 5 January 2009)

Prince of Persia’s extremely forgiving rule structure downplays penalties for failing and relaxes its skill-based demands on the player. Instead of memorizing certain moves or overcoming harsh challenges, finishing the game is a matter of being invested in the game’s environment and story. The required investment is unexpectedly high because the game does not define what “finishing” the game actually means. The player is left to push on until they have found the scenario that resonates with their experience.

To say that we “beat” a book sounds strange because there is no explicit contest between a reader and the text. Similarly, many modern video games are less antagonistic than their predecessors and are more focused on presenting the player with a largely self motivated experiential journey. Unique cases like Prince of Persia stray even farther away from challenges of dexterity and tactics in favor of pursuing narrative challenges that ask the player not only to invest themselves in a plot, but to decide when that plot is finished.

In today’s plot-driven games, challenge is more complex and subjective than simply reaching a state of victory or defeat. Removing hard skill barriers ensures that most players can make it to the end. Thus, the challenge for both designers and players becomes linked to their abilities to find meaning in the journey, to navigate the dense parts and to unravel the themes braided into the story created by the authored plot and the game mechanics. This is the type of challenge that can’t simply be “beaten.” This is the type of challenge that keeps me from finishing both Moby Dick and Killer7.