Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. It’s extremely similar to The A.V. Club’s AVQ&A feature. You might even say it’s exactly the same. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
Our inaugural query comes from commenter The Asinus, who emailed this question in before Gameological Q&A even existed—thereby inspiring us to get off our duffs and do this thing. We salute your initiative, Asinus!
I think that we all have a pile of games that we don’t finish because, frankly, they suck. But—and I’m not sure if I’m unique in this—there are games that I don’t finish because I don’t want them to be over. I shelf them until I’ve forgotten exactly where I was or what was going on, and get to start over. I recently replayed Final Fantasy VII and was kind of bummed when I got to the crater at the end of the game even though I’d been there before. One that looms large in this category is Grandia II. I don’t know how close to the end I’ve come (though judging by the magnitude of things happening, pretty close), but I always put the game away and then, probably unconsciously, avoid it for a year or more before the urge to dust off the Dreamcast strikes. Are there any games that you have liked so much that you were actually bummed to see them come to a close instead of excited to see how they end? Have you ever stopped playing a game so that you didn’t have to end it? —The Asinus
A lot of role-playing games embody the old saw that the journey is more important than the destination. That’s why it took me years to get to the ending of one of my favorite games, Final Fantasy XII. I’d put it away for months until it felt fresh again, and then I’d revisit all of the different locales, looking for tiny secrets I hadn’t uncovered before. But Asinus’ question applies to other kinds of games, too. For instance, I did the don’t-wanna-finish thing with the beloved snowboarding game SSX 3, honing my skills on lesser slopes before I tried to Destroy The Ültimate Über-Mountain or whatever the hell it was. There are plenty of games that feel too long, but there a few that I wish were even longer, and sometimes you get to take that matter into your own hands.
I’ve made no secret on the e-pages of The Gameological Society of my love for Dark Souls. It was one of the most menacing, unforgiving games I’ve ever played, but it also made every action in that game extremely important—especially because at any moment, I could die and have to start a whole thing over. The more I let the feeling of that game sink in, the more I realize it just might be my favorite game of all time, not only for the medieval horror aesthetic, but for that very feeling that around any corner is something so terrifying I simply can’t look away. By the time I was really getting the hang of the game though, it was almost over (the last act is WAY simpler and more direct than everything before), and I found myself wanting that feeling to last. After all, ending the game meant an end to feeling like the mere playing of the game meant something.
A few favorite games fit here, but Knights Of The Old Republic has to be at the forefront. Like all Star Wars nerds, for years I would immediately consume any piece of trash with George Lucas’s imprimatur, but Knights was something totally different, this impossibly vast game that allowed you to run around doing all this great Jedi stuff—choosing powers, picking the color of your lightsaber, Force-choking your companions. The game compels you to make the choice that all Jedi must one day face. Light or dark. Good or evil. Purple lightning and galaxy-wide domination or exile on a swamp planet. When I got to the point in the game where I had to choose, I shut it off for the first time in what felt like a week straight, went to the bar I worked at in Washington D.C., and surveyed all of my regular bar patrons as to what they thought I should do. After playing so long, the thought of making the wrong choice totally paralyzed me. I think, though, I really just didn’t want the game to end.
The biggest thrill of the original Crackdown was your nameless government agent’s slow transformation from above-average asskicker to Incredible Hulk-like superhero. By the time the game asked you to hunt down the last of the three violent street gangs that had taken over Pacific City and assassinate the final kingpin, I was way too enamored of my newfound powers to care. I remember one sublime moment of city-dweller wish fulfillment when, in the heat of road rage, I chased down some smug punk who cut me off in traffic, picked up his flashy sports car over my head, and tossed it like a toy over the side of a bridge into the ocean. I later learned Crackdown had a twist ending that revealed that your agent had been a pawn in a fascist plot to create a “New World Order.” Here I was just wanting to blow lots of stuff up, but as it turns out, my lack of completion of the campaign was morally justified.
Anthony John Agnello
I’m something of an obsessive about finishing games, often plugging away on things I’ve put down years after starting them, intent on seeing the ending. As a result, I’m all too familiar with the end-of-camp melancholy that comes with the looming end of a new favorite. The most infamous in my personal history though is The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. The first time I wrenched the Master Sword from the Temple Of Time and was shunted seven years into the future, I had no clue I was still near the beginning of the game. I thought that was it, poof, the end of the world, no going back to take care of the tasks I had left undone in Link’s childhood. As a result, I spent hours with the game unsaved, trying to unlock all the masks in the Happy Mask Shop, thinking that somehow that was the secret to unlocking a happier future. Eventually I realized that two thirds of the game were waiting on the other side of that moment, but I’m still impressed with the emotional ferocity of the shift in that game, so strong that it kept me clinging to a measly sidequest.
I think it’s interesting that you hear about this inclination a lot more with games than with any other medium—I don’t think anybody who loves, say, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey has shut it down halfway through because they want Alex Winter to toy with Death forever, even though that would be amazing. It’s one of the great strengths of games that a player can build this kind of personal investment in a world and its characters through novel interactions spread across weeks or months. That said, I’ve never felt any desire to pull the plug on a great experience because I wanted more of it. But I understand the sentiment—leaving LucasArt’s late-’90s cult classic Grim Fandango was traumatizing, and I still sometimes feel the hole its ending left in me. That piece’s noir, workaday Purgatory was a place I could have really put down some roots.
My brother and I wasted a priceless, irreplaceable summer on River City Ransom. We stormed the main streets, viciously assaulted the town’s men with scavenged weapons, then spent the money we stole from them on milkshakes and comic books. Somewhere, behind the screaming jocks and the vomiting gang leaders, beyond the steam of the health club spa, past the pit of the abandoned warehouse, there may have been a girl awaiting rescue. Was she safe? What did she look like, and would she pick my brother over me? Would she be cold to us both? Neither of us cared enough about her, or whatever flimsy story there was. We’d mugged enough frat guys to buy cowboy boots. Our assault victims were powerless. The milkshakes never ran dry and there was a place where a cute waitress would give you a free, silly “smile” if you ordered it off the menu. My brother hated that, but I loved it.
For about two years now I’ve yet to finish the Wii version of A Boy And His Blob. While you kept discovering more exciting and powerful jellybeans as the game progressed, it also became impossible to get Blob to fully avoid enemies or getting stuck behind walls, and every time that smiling puff of goo turned red with frustration or black with fear, my heart just sank. I’d tap the dedicated hug button, squeeze that blob just as hard as I could, and go back to the first half of the game where we could frolic in peace. Maybe I was being selfish by not saving the world, but I just wanted to keep hanging out with my squishy magical best friend forever.
One of the big plot elements in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is the death clock, a number over every person’s head that ticks down to their demise and the destruction of demon-infested Tokyo. The lower that number got, the harder it got for me to keep playing. The game just did such a great job of building up a feeling of a dread that I feared whichever of the multiple endings I was heading toward. So I spent time grinding on fights that didn’t advance the clock, tweaking my demon army and, when things got really tense, putting down my DS for a while. A big part of it was the pressure of knowing that I had to make decisions that could get characters I’d become attached to killed. The fact that you only get one saved game made those choices feel far heavier. The multiple saves allowed in Devil Survivor 2 made it much easier for me to keep progressing.
I played Super Mario Sunshine at the height of my Nintendo fervor. And by that I mean that was the time in my life when I was most in love Nintendo’s way of doing things—especially the way that their games opt to teach you game rules by experience rather than tutorial. Despite most people not looking too fondly on that outing, I remember being swept up and really involved in exploring the island and squirting water all over the place. I especially loved those nail biting abstract levels—which feel like precursors to the great Super Mario Galaxy games. I collected stars obsessively, but when I got to the final boss fight, which pits you against Bowser in a big pool of toxic goo, I quit after my first death. I think my feelings around that moment fell somewhere between knowing where things were going and feeling too exhausted to play them out, and a kind of ambivalence about finishing something that gave me so much satisfaction.
While I’ve occasionally experienced genuine sadness when certain games have come to an end (The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past comes to mind), I don’t think I’ve ever consciously stopped playing a game because I didn’t want it to end. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, I honestly can’t wait for the goddamn things to be over. No kidding. The final third of practically every game ever made is almost always the least compelling part of the experience. Like a lot of people, I too have a formidable to-play pile, as well as a stack of half-finished games that I have every intention of one day returning to. What I’ve recently come to realize is that those games are in those two categories for a reason. If I’m going to be honest with myself, then I need to realize that I’m never going to play Sonic Colors.