It takes a lot for a game to sustain my interest over long periods of time. In fact, I very rarely finish games. The appeal of those that keep me coming back isn’t in achievements or unlocks. Nor because I feel compelled to finish the story. More often than not, it’s games without a story, that keep me coming back for more.
This seems quite obvious. The static nature of stories told through the majority of books, movies and video games means that, once finished, they have became consumed and require no more attention. The result is that I inevitably spend more time playing games driven by dynamic gameplay than story.
This, in itself, does not concern me. Games have different purposes and it seems reasonable that a game I play once can be as good an experience, or better, than one I continually return to.
What worries me is the lack of conviction I have to finish most story-based games. (My definition of story-based may differ from your own, there are no doubt grey areas. Where you draw the line personally is inconsequential, as I expect most gamers have a similar apathy towards certain narrative-driven titles, regardless of which ones they decide fit that category.) Not only do I not care enough about the characters and story, but the gameplay of such titles is insufficient to keep me coming back either.
It is not the fundamental inclusion of story that stops me playing. I’ve never been turned off a brilliant game because a story exists (unless, of course, it becomes intrusive). More often than not, story-based games just don’t seem to contain the addictive formula that those without a story do.
I’m not saying I want to spend the hundreds of hours with a traditional single-player story (like I could with a narratively void multiplayer like Counter Strike), but I want to at least finish it. Big budget titles are continually becoming lengthier, with more quests, larger worlds, and additional unlocks, adding further hours of gameplay. As major studios are under increasing pressure to offer value for money, the ways of accomplishing this sometimes get misplaced, meaning even a great story can become a chore to endure.
The indie developer suffers considerably less pressure. If gamers are paying less they expect less. But the quality of some of these ‘weekend long’ titles (ones could take just one or two sittings) have been so good, that more expensive titles, by comparison, can seem bloated and unnecessary. Journey, Hotline Miami, Limbo, these games offered incredible experiences and I wonder whether my fondness of them was a result of their short length. This facet of those games, which I’m sure is a possible result of their creator’s limitations (more content costs time and money), has manifested itself as effective game design.
It wasn’t the story that has compelled me to finish those titles, rather, it seems they have ended before giving me the chance to become bored (although I recognize this is not always an appreciated solution, which I’ll discuss next paragraph). Story, then, seems unimportant (*gasps*), at least with regard to keeping me invested. I’m going to play a game the same amount no matter how I feel about the narrative. This is a reductive notion, but it may ring true for an alarming number of gamers out there. I’m sure equally many would argue, though, that a powerful story can elevate a good game to a great game. And, to get the most from it, a story must be finished.
The reason this all becomes so problematic is because I’d be feeling a little shortchanged had I paid $60 for a game I can fully complete in a couple of hours, regardless of its quality. It’s all well and good having a short indie freebie, but the big budget studios are now tasked with creating a twenty hour adventure that is equally consistent. Some can manage this; I’ve no doubt Bioshock Infinite, like the original, will be another to add to this list. But when they so often can’t, how does the big name developer offer a concise quest, one we’re all likely to see the end of, while having enough content for those who may still be thirsty for more?
One way is, of course, with bonuses that are unlocked upon completion (though these rarely offer a considerable incentive to replay as, frequently, the additional content is cosmetic). The inclusion of side-quests is another oft-used solution, which can add hours of gameplay for those most invested, but are avoidable for those who aren’t. One of the more interesting (but by no means pioneering) ways of adding replayability can be found in Dishonored. Without delving into spoilers, the way you play the game alters the experiences throughout, which not only encourages another play through but offers an organic way of increasing difficulty and adding variation. Dishonored, then, is a coherent quest with real reason to play again, not just for an alternate story but for alternative gameplay. It’s still far from perfect; it was not enticing enough for me to start over (not least because my first play through was almost kill-free anyway) but it is a marked improvement over “now beat the game on hard” type incentives. No matter what additional content finds its way into the game, be it side-quests, achievements or any number of video game extending tropes, none can make up for inadequate gameplay.
Regardless of initial reactions to an exciting new game, which, for me, are almost always positive, if it can’t hold my interest over the course of its narrative, then the gameplay is failing. When The Binding of Isaac, an independent title costing under $5, can keep me playing for over 60 hours with a story that barely covers the intro movie, the big budget franchises have something to answer for.
Whether games feature a reason to replay or not, for many of us, the main game will still remain incomplete. Is finishing a game important? Is the game you play more the “better” game? These are questions without a universal answer. Everybody desires something different. What I think nobody wants, though, is a story which isn’t worth finishing.