Gameplay Motivation: The EndBy Miodrag Kovačević | December 13, 2011 | Editorials | No comments | Share
After saving up money for a long time, I finally managed to buy my very own PC. It was a goal I set myself quite a long time ago, because after getting my last one, my father told me, “The next PC you buy will be from your own money.” Giddiness took hold of me as I set up the new machine in my flat. When I was done installing all the components, applications, bookmarks and the typical Day 1 routine that goes with a fresh PC, there was one question I couldn’t get out of my head: “What now?”
It’s the human reaction. When you invest a good deal of yourself to achieve something and finally reach that goal, it’s easy to find yourself underwhelmed. “It’s not the goal, it’s the journey that counts” and all that jazz. Of course, not everything should or does end on such a bittersweet note; otherwise life would be quite the bother. But often enough, games can have an underwhelming ending, a conclusion that doesn’t feel like something you deserve. The endgame of an MMO will be boring. Getting all the gear won’t reap any real reward. Getting all the achievements for a new 100% achievement feels as meaningless as every single one of them. And why would you even bother playing a game again with new clothes?
Back in ye olden days, we almost always relied on a narrative conclusion, regardless of the game. Did it matter that the point of the title was to go bash in the skulls of evil ninjas? That we were popping balloons in Pang? Or shooting evil aliens in our awesome space ship? We didn’t care what kind of game we were playing; we wanted some kind of narrative conclusion or pixel art with a “Great job!” message. Even finally finding the right castle with the Princess was perfectly acceptable twenty years ago.
The standard we demanded changed as games evolved. I beat the first Shinobi for the Master System a long time after I had beaten newer games for the Mega Drive and the SNES. What I received was only a blank “Game Over” and was promptly thrown back to the title screen. Maybe, when the game was new in 1987, I would have appreciated just having played such a quality title, but the ‘90s were already in full swing. There was a standard as to how you went about concluding a game. We had long since overcome the low blow of cutting off the player after an uncontainable rush of excitement.
At what point are we at now, though? We’re trying very hard to extend the life of a game for various reasons. The longer you can spend playing a game, the less you’ll be inclined to sell it to a used games shop. On the other hand, some titles, like Nier, actually have a narrative that demands multiple endings, integrating them into the actual game rather than just slapping them on. The decision on how to handle endings can be a business one as much as a compositional one.
Another good example of multiple endings is the difficulty-based one. Old school games would often deny you both content and ending if you played on easy or sometimes even normal difficulty. It obviously created a brick wall for less skillful players, denying them not only certain levels, but a satisfactory conclusion, as though their effort shouldn’t be respected as much as the effort of the “pro gamers”. What made this kind of approach so infuriating was that the game itself could not offer a proper justification as to why it needed to be harder to give you any sort of conclusion. It just was.
Of course, as we’ve slowly started abandoning archaic gameplay elements and design decisions, refining them into something more thought-out, difficulty-based endings have also proven they could actually be used for the forces of good. Max Payne 2 offered two conclusions, both bittersweet and ending with Max making peace with himself, but one was still better than the other. It was a minor detail in length, a major detail in impact and it was only reserved for finishing the game on the hardest difficulty setting. Yet, it felt appropriate, because you felt rewarded in both instances.
YouTube houses the ending for almost every game, as well as a full playthrough for most of them. Anything that is deemed a “visual” reward can have its impact lessened by this.
The current generation of games has more or less gotten the narrative conclusion right in magnitude, or at least right now it seems to be appropriate. Sure, awful endings still exist, but we know in which direction to aim. Whether today’s methods will be outdated in 10 years’ time is impossible to determine. However, since we know what we need to do to make the actual story satisfying (or at least know what we should be doing) and since the times have changed, the incentive to finish a game needs to be different.
Many problems that games face are on a meta level now. The first two problems are YouTube and GameFAQs. YouTube houses the ending for almost every game, as well as a full playthrough for most of them. Anything that is deemed a “visual” reward can have its impact lessened by this. It also helps prove the point of how badly video game endings were handled back in the day. I, for one, have simply watched “let’s plays” of old games I haven’t played, rather than just playing them. Or, if I remember an old game I never finished, I just watched the ending on Youtube to see what the conclusion was. If there were multiple endings, I’d likely just watch every single one online after finishing the game once. I did this for two endings of Silent Hill 2 because, regardless of how amazing that game was, I didn’t find myself inclined to play it four times only to see the final few scenes that were different.
GameFAQs, while not invalidating visual rewards, does change the way games should allocate their information. If your prize for slaying 10 000 slimes would be a hint as to where the location for a certain magic item was, you could have just as easily looked it up on the Internet. Now, if slaying 10 000 slimes would give you a key instead, that would already change things drastically (and it would also make an awful game). To put it simply, the design of today requires that you keep the world around you in mind, or else you end up with something like Mortal Kombat making fatalities hidden in the command list, but not locked out from being executed.
Achievements are obviously the thing at the moment, some people even refusing to play games that don’t have them. They are also another design approach that needs some time to be refined. A poor game will have the grindy achievements, the ones which you need to go out of your way to accomplish and often detract from gameplay itself. Or even worse, achievements that pat you on the back for actually finishing a level (although these can be used to keep track of how many people actually played games they’ve bought). A good example of how achievements can be handled is Portal 2, which integrates them in its narrative quite successfully (and has the single most impactful achievement in any game, ever).
And obviously, the standard affair for finishing games under downright insane conditions is often a new set of clothes. You play the same game with a different look, which often would make little sense. If your end reward is something you can only enjoy while playing the game again, what is the point? It’s the same way MMO gear works. You play the game to get better gear, so you could play the game to get even better gear, so you could get the best gear, which makes you more effective at the game. While MMOs are a different beast, and can actually have that sort of approach work because of frequent updates, it seems utterly unnecessary in single-player games. If you get a “tool”, so to speak, but never have any reason to use it, how is that contraption a reward? You know how some old people have a couch they still keep wrapped in plastic in order to keep it from gathering dust or getting stained? That’s how it feels.
There was a thread on a forum I visit which asked people to list games with no replay value that they keep coming back to. There was one valid point in that thread which, to paraphrase, said that a game which has good enough gameplay to make you come back inherently has some sort of replay value. It’s a good claim. Many creative works have a clear beginning and end: songs, movies, books. While the interactivity portion will absolutely always make games incomparable to other creative outlets, having each game have as many options as possible is not always good. There is no need for multiplayer, achievements, unlockables or even alternative endings if you don’t intend to integrate them into the very fabric of the game. There are two counter-points to this claim, though. First, you can always compare games to sports, not just creative works. That means that there doesn’t need to be a definite “endgame”. The other one is from a business standpoint and that games aren’t financially viable if everyone resells them or lends them to their friends for one evening so they can see everything the game has to offer.
In the end, we have seen what a leap in technology can bring, what ten years mean to the medium. It’s not just graphics and engine capabilities that change, but design also sees evolution. It’s why releasing the exact same game from 20 years ago and only updating the visuals will almost never work for today’s standards. Most of us are currently content with what most games offer with their conclusion, or at least the method in which they do it. But what will it be like in ten years? Will we demand more, because we realized what we have just isn’t enough? Surely achievements, alternative costumes and endings as they are now cannot be the peak of video game resolution?