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.
The question for this installment of Q&A comes courtesy of reader HobbesMkII:
There have been a couple of Q&As about desiring to spend more time with a game, or playing a game over again, which I (and I suspect most people) can certainly relate to. However, I’m also a serial uncompletionist. I never finished Dragon Age or its sequel. Started Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim, but still haven’t completed the main quests. Arkham City still could stand some saving by Batman. It’s not that I don’t enjoy these games—I’ve put in an embarrassing amount of time into each—but I don’t feel particularly compelled to reach the ending of the game. Have you ever experienced something like this? Why do you think you walked away?
I picked up Super Hexagon around Christmas, and for a couple of weeks, I played it on every subway ride. In the game, you’re at the center of an collapsing vortex, trying to avoid the torturous spiral of deadly walls that perpetually threaten to crush you. There are six difficulty levels, and the easiest one is called “Hard,” so that gives you an idea of how things are going to go down. Even on the first level, it feels like you’re trying to make sense of a hallucination that’s on fast-forward. The object is to last one minute in the vortex without being crushed, and after countless attempts, I managed to pull it off on “Hard,” and then on “Harder.” I like a challenge, and I usually hate to be beaten. After a couple days hacking away at the frenzied “Hardest” level, though—still the third-easiest of the game’s six modes—I put Super Hexagon away and don’t plan to return to it. It’s not that I think the game becomes “unfair.” (In fact, as I’ve written before, I’m cool with unfair games.) Super Hexagon is beautiful and clever, and I love that it doesn’t condescend. I simply recognized that I could be happy with the challenges I had overcome and leave the harder, more obsessive fare to others.
If there were such a thing as bespoke video games, where the game maker analyzes your preferences and tendencies and makes a custom-fit game accordingly, I’m pretty sure mine would come out looking something like Fallout 3. Just everything about it—the atmosphere, music, the recognizable but decimated open world, the super-mutants—it all fits my style perfectly. And I do like the game very much. For whatever reason, though—and I’ve tried playing through twice now—I’ve quit soon after finding the post-apocalyptic super DJ, Three Dog. I don’t really have an explanation. I think fondly of the section I’ve played, and I sometimes miss hanging out with the hardy folks of Megaton. But I just get to a certain point and walk away. Maybe it’s too depressing? I used to live in D.C. (the game takes place in the remnants of the capital), and after the initial thrill of seeing the bombed-out husks surrounding the National Mall wears off, I just start to get bummed out. Maybe I’ll try New Vegas. That place seems like it sucks.
I just had this experience with Dark Souls. I had a rocky start, but the game quickly went from being a frustrating struggle to a labor of love. And then just as I was seriously getting into it, ready to join the cult of Dark Souls, I unexpectedly fell into a pit and got cursed. Oh, so now I have to play with my stamina permanently cut in half, or get some item I never heard of from a merchant I haven’t visited, only I can’t build up the souls to purchase it because my stamina is permanently cut in half? And even if I do lift the curse, I know I’m going to get immediately re-cursed as soon as I get anywhere near that same area again? Nope. Not gonna do it. I felt like I was being punished for making the effort to learn the game’s lessons. I’m glad I played it to see what it was all about, and I’ll probably even pick up the sequel, but I have no urge to go back to it at all.
I’ve tried a number of times to finish Uncharted, because I wanted to play Uncharted 2, widely considered by many to be, quote, “a good game.” But I found that Uncharted had smoothed out the edges of Indiana Jones, presenting a hero that always said the right thing at the right time not because he’s an interesting person, but because it was preordained that he would. So, I gave up and jumped right to the sequel, hoping to find something different—perhaps a chance to leave my mark on this world and become intertwined in a deeper mystery. Nope. Same old shooting of guys until more of the same guys show up. Same wimpy selection of weapons. Same reduction of a boring movie to a series of rote tasks because, hey, this is a video game so we might as well make a guy move from one spot to the next. But I don’t think I gave up on the game merely because I thought it was boring. That’s too simple an explanation. I was frustrated that the game never felt like it was trying very hard to earn my admiration. All the rough edges were sanded off, and the game had an air of self-satisfaction—it assumed I would like it. In other words, Uncharted and its sequel didn’t allow me the luxury of my own opinion. It had one at the ready.
Saints Row: The Third doesn’t have a story as much as a series of increasingly ridiculous vignettes all working to outdo the last with over-the-top violence, potty humor, and use of the word “fuck.” The game seems to care less about how the Saints gang was going to reach the pinnacle of media fame in Steelport and more about finding new and creative ways to kill people. (See: purple dildos, clown cars.) That’s why—even though I had more fun than I’d like to admit leveling up my zombie-voiced gang leader for a while—there was a time I felt comfortable putting my controller down before I reached the final mission. A “good” ending would likely have resulted in my character facing the death sentence or life in prison. That was probably not going to happen in this moral-compass-free game. Plus, is there really anywhere to go after you’ve driven in a gimp-drawn chariot race?
Shadows Of The Damned was one of my favorite games of 2011. It was funny, it was dark and twisted, and it had a world I liked to hang out in—namely, hell, if hell were a weird circus town. Main character Garcia Fucking Hotspur was there to rescue his girlfriend Paula, who had been kidnapped by Fleming the demon. Frankly, Paula and Garcia’s relationship weirded me out with how codependent, masochistic, and addiction-soaked it was, but who am I to judge? The game was satisfying to play—until I got to the final boss fight. I’d fought my way through a million demons to get to Fleming, but for whatever reason, I could not beat him. I would accidentally shoot Paula (which ends the game), or choke to death in the darkness, or not shoot the correct piece of Fleming floating above my head. I tried about a dozen times and realized I was getting really angry, and that’s when I made the decision to stop playing. I loved the game, and I didn’t want my memory of Shadows Of The Damned to be tainted by this massively hard boss fight. So, unlike Paula and Garcia, I walked away from this self-destructive relationship before it consumed me. And I feel totally fine about it.
Growing up, Lands Of Lore: The Thrones Of Chaos, a cheesy fantasy RPG from the early nineties, was one of the games that my sister and I would watch our dad play. We’d help out by shaking him and screaming, “KILL THE ORC!” until he had killed the orc. Recently, I found an intact version online and started replaying it, armed with a plethora of vaguely European-sounding Let’s Play videos. Upon reaching Castle Cimmeria, the game’s massive final level, I entered a room full of pits and recognized it as the point where your magical atlas self-immolates, your compass goes bonkers, and almost any step in any direction whirls you around in place. I had fond memories of my dad heroically brandishing a sheet of graph paper and painstakingly making his own map through trial-and-error. I took one idealistic step forward and immediately fell through a pit with no idea where I was. There was no part of me that wanted to blindly putz back to that room and waste away trying to beat this thing. In talking with my dad about this, it turns out he never actually finished the game either, similarly throwing his hands up in disgust at one of Castle Cimmeria’s idiosyncrasies.
Anthony John Agnello
I’ve always stayed away from strategy games. Not immediately accessible, chunky tactical games like Final Fantasy Tactics or XCOM that absorb you for days by gripping you with moment-to-moment action. I’m talking about investments in forward thinking and planning, like Civilization. My fear was that I’d become woefully addicted, much the same fear that’s kept me away from games like StarCraft. About six years ago, though, I decided to throw caution to the wind and sat down with a friend to play a match of Civilization IV, a sort of friendly competition and crash course. We started at 11 a.m. on a Saturday. When I looked at the clock again, it was noon—on Sunday. Never. Ever. Again.
I came to the game years late, but I loved the original Metal Gear Solid to the point that I took a sick day from work to finish about half of it in one marathon session. Naturally, I was pretty excited to play Metal Gear Solid 2. For the first hour or so, I was enjoying the hell out of it. Then the game bogged down in long, incoherent cutscene after long, incoherent cutscene. Eventually, I wasn’t playing at all—I was just watching the damn thing and getting more and more annoyed. Just as bad, what I was watching was the worst combination of silly, stupid, and pretentious imaginable. About three hours later (at least 100 minutes of which had to have been spent watching cutscenes) I was done. I shut it off halfway through one of the short films and never turned it back on again, nor did I ever play another Metal Gear Solid game. The non-cutscene parts of the game were just as much fun as the original, but if I’m going to watch a movie that stupid between the occasional gaming segment, I’m going to need the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew to get me through it.
I am a completionist, so I end up finishing even things I hate, but Divinity II did me in. I have a weakness for Larian Studios—I loved the first Divinity game, and I really enjoyed playing the second, bugs and all. I even settled in to play it for a second time when the expansion came out and my near-complete saved games from the base version were incompatible. Then I got to the final mission of the whole expanded game. It’s an escort mission—a flying dragon-form escort mission—and after failing it eight or nine times I made a very rude final pronouncement to my screen and uninstalled the game. It just wasn’t worth my time anymore.
In my earliest memory of purposefully walking away from a game, I turned my back to 1991’s Lemmings. It’s a brilliantly simple game in which you take a group of lemmings and find them a safe path through a dangerous world. But saving all of them is nearly impossible, and there are frequent situations where you will be tempted to ask a lemming to kill itself so that the others might live, which would let you continue the journey. I couldn’t do it. This wasn’t some war game where the cause is just and every grunt knows what they signed up for. These were lemmings, and all they wanted was to live, and they trusted me. And in return, I ask some of them to become suicide bombers for the greater good? The game asked me to do something, but doing it perfectly was beyond my ability, and the resulting blood was on my hands. I’m not strong enough, Lemmings.
I had finally ponied up for a PlayStation 2 and was working my way through Final Fantasy X. I loved the game—the music, the characters, the spectacle. After around 40 hours, I hit something of a minor roadblock in the third fight against some blue-haired dude named Seymour, so I put the game down for a couple of days. Meanwhile, some of the more boisterous members of my family came up from Florida for a visit. Word had spread that I had some crazy new game machine. “Remember Mario?” someone surely asked. “It’s incredible how far these things have come!” And so I was tasked with showing off the prowess of the PlayStation 2. “What better first impression than the opening scenes of Final Fantasy X?” I thought. And so I obliged the out-of-towners. A family of three—one a hyperactive toddler—packed my tiny bedroom, yelling to the rest of the family across the house about something totally unrelated to Blitzball. Needless to say, I was pretty peeved. Once the bombast of the introductory movie and the family-reunion diversion was over, I took control of Tidus and saved my new game—right over my nearly complete adventure. Forty hours gone in one absent-minded second. I never played the game again.
I recently experienced this phenomenon with Hitman: Absolution. I’m a big fan of the series, so I was really looking forward to the latest blood-soaked outing from Agent 47. Halfway through, however, I’d had my fill and turned it off in disgust. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever quit playing a video game simply because of a terrible story. The story never seemed to know quite what it wanted to be: a serious neo-noir morality tale or a tongue-in-cheek polemic full of scantily clad killer nuns. Its tone also left a bad taste in my mouth. The real world has been depressing and violent enough as of late; mowing down a small army of cops and innocent civilians felt a little too sadistic—even by the gore-spattered standards of most third-person shooters. Excessive violence I can stomach, but the painfully bad writing in Hitman: Absolution left me feeling queasy enough to quit.
There is a level early in the original Trauma Center—after you’ve performed enough surgeries to know the ropes but before made-up sci-fi viruses get involved—where you’re removing a series of aneurysms from a patient’s intestine. You’ve already done this a couple of times by that point, so you should be pretty comfortable with it. After treating the first two, though, another five or so pop up all around, and because of the famously bad controls of the game, you spend more time zooming in and out of different parts of the patient’s guts as he bleeds out than actually treating him. My poor guy died from ruptures six or seven times while I just figured out how to use the magnifying glass. Finally, I got my timing down. I had a procedure. Vitals were steady; everything was going great. I zoomed in to the final aneurysm and…my arm tensed up. My actual, real-life arm just seized up and shook. The hand holding the stylus started slamming into the DS, stabbing the patient repeatedly. The nurse shouted “Doctor!” through the DS’ tiny speakers. I was actively killing this virtual patient! My heart racing, I felt the blood drain out of my face. The steady tone of a flatline pierced the air, and I shut the DS, slid it away, and passed out. Somehow, this game had given me a panic attack. I didn’t play video games for a week, and I never played Trauma Center again.