It's happened again: I spent 100 hours on Dragon Quest IX and I'm running out of things to do before I can just go beat the game. Funny thing is, I probably never will.
I have a problem finishing games, and I'm not alone.
It doesn't make a lot of sense. I've poured tons of time into Dragon Quest IX this year, carefully tailoring my characters' vocations, exploring extra grottoes with the aim of getting stronger and accumulating rare items, and going to absurd lengths to gather materials I need to alchemise special clothes for my little team of heroes. What's it all been for, if not for that one final battle that the story's been leading to all along?
It happens to me all the time. The games in which I invest the most time are the ones I'm least likely to complete. And when I griped about this on Twitter, I heard from an overwhelming number of people who said my phenomenon is something they also experience, much to their own bafflement and frustration.
My Precious Time, Curiously Spent
We hear so much about how precious is our time these days, and how the amount of attention we have available to invest in massive, sprawling video game experiences is ever-diminishing as we grow older and the obligations of life encroach. Which means if I'm spending 60, 80, 100 hours or more on a game like Dragon Quest IX, then I have less time to devote to the barrage of new titles I want and need to play for the year's end.
This makes me anxious, even guilty. And yet when I reach an endgame, when I sit down to try to wrap up the long, long journey for good, inevitably I find myself dithering around, grinding even when I know I'm strong enough, searching for extra dungeons I don't even particularly feel like doing. I feel like an addict. What the hell's wrong with me?
It's not just RPGs, either. Even action titles seem to plague players with an inability to finish – you know the end is coming and you just stop. Maybe you're been defeated by the last boss just once and you don't want to try again, even though you battled with focus against earlier challengers. Maybe you never even get there. Some games are worth heaps of hours of our time – shouldn't it feel good to cross that final threshold?
Blame The Boss?
Darius Kazemi, a developer at Massachusetts-based independent games studio Blue Fang Games, says sometimes the problem is with boss design. Players spend all their time learning certain skill sets, and then the boss battle doesn't require them – it demands a feat of brute strength rather than acquired skills. Or it's just too easy, as an over-leveled, over-powered, did-everything-already player knows it's going to be unsatisfying, a matter of ritual rather than value.
"Old school boss design is supposed to liven up repetitive gameplay," Kazemi told me. "The problem is that it often feels like the game is training me on a particular skillset for 10-40 hours and then the big ‘payoff' is that I don't have to use those skills to beat the boss. Which totally sucks."
That's why Portal is a game you rarely hear anyone complain about wandering off on; its progression lets the player feel stronger slowly, and the end fight requires a spectacular final showcase of everything that's been learned along the way.
Other players seem to feel like most games haven't got that pacing down. You know the final boss is coming simply because you've finished most other evident tasks, so you're given two choices: take one last cruise ‘round to make sure you haven't missed anything, find the ultimate this-and-that, and go challenge your final rival. It's in that endgame content that many games seem to lose their urgency. The boss is waiting in his zone, and he'll be waiting there for as long as you need him to wait while you run around and do a few more sidequests. There's no more story.
Responding to me on Twitter, reader Matthew Marko wrote me an email that laid out this principle well: "Right before the final boss, you're often kicked out into the world and left to your own devices," he notes. "You're supposed to grind, tackle optional bosses, explore the final dungeon, etc. Fatigue at all of this single-mechanic gaming sets in, with little to break it up.
"There's the carrot on the stick of the final cutscene, but so rarely does that actually provide a satisfying ending, and I think we as gamers know this," he adds. "What end can there be to our 20-80 hours of work that can reasonably cap the experience without leaving us wanting more?"
In that regard, the game is simply failing to top itself; no story ending can be that good as to reward hours stretched into weeks and months of immersive "work", so why see it through and be disappointed? Better to just fiddle with the late-game content until you can get properly bored of it and then move onto another game?
And then what of all that immersive work?
Not Wanting To Say Goodbye
I'm one of those adults you read about complaining she has less and less time for long, deep experiences. An entire market has surfaced around folks who want brief sessions of bite-sized but satisfying play, and the interesting thing about modern RPGs is that they tend to allow for that. This year I've pulled out my PSP on the train to do 15 to 20 minutes of grinding at a time on Persona 3; I've taken half an hour to do an optional dungeon grotto in Dragon Quest IX while I wait for friends to come over so we can go see some bands together.
This means those games have been my "friends" in quiet moments for months and months. What will I do with my spare time when I finish them? We turn to games in those moments in life when we need a little engagement, a little escape from the world. And then we have to say goodbye?
Writer Ryan Taljonick thinks of all the games he hasn't finished: "Looking back, I don't think it had to do with loss of interest," he says. "I think it had more to do with me not wanting to kill off those virtual people I had grown to care so deeply about. Once the game's over, they all disappear."
"While beating an RPG had always resulted in a huge sense of accomplishment, it was often coupled with a feeling of loss and disappointment."
We can spend all the time we want in imaginary worlds, triumphing over invisible accomplishments, but eventually it does have to end, and maybe we can't help but resent the game for that. When the end approaches, we realise it's just a game we've been playing, and that it's going to be over soon, and that the ending will not be emotionally valuable enough to give us closure, to give us a good reason to let go.
When I don't beat a game – when I burn out on the endless end-gaming that I can't seem to see through and I put it aside – it stays forever incomplete. That disc or cartridge is sitting in my collection with a little bit left on it to enjoy. I'll probably never go back to it, but maybe it's enough to know that I can. And when I do, I can return to the gameworld exactly how I left it; a world still oppressed by evil, that still has a place and a use for me and my character, that still needs me to save it. A story that never ends, because I've never let it.
Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.