Missing Mastery

[Although my time is rather limited of late, I have been exclusively playing just one game: Torchlight on XBLA. It is from my recent experiences playing that game that I write this.]

There is a common statement made of those that have finished or otherwise managed to defeat some final encounter in a game. After the final boss has been toppled, the last puzzle solved and the final race run, people say that they have “beaten” the game. I was thinking about that word recently as I have been playing Torchlight on XBLA, seven hours after I had decreed that I had “beaten” the game.

It was not long ago in my own personal history that I would spent hours and hours on the game trying to perfect some maneuver. I would play The Legend of Zelda, for example, for hours plotting out every dungeon and path. Even after finally defeating Ganon on my first playthrough, I went about trying to figure out the optimal dungeon order, the best paths. There is a best path for earning rupees, getting each ring and even when to get each sword. I devoted much time and conversation in trying to figure this all out. Most of this was done after I “beat” it. In my playing of Torchlight, I was remembering this previous time. Yet, my goal was very different from that earlier time. I was trying to get the last achievement.

On all modern game platforms, there is some sort of achievement system. Be it PSN trophies, XBOX achievements or Steam achievements, there is a new emphasis on in-game actions. More is needed than just “beating” a game, you must also Master a game. You must go beyond just getting through the narrative of the game, you must have a nearly complete understanding of the mechanics of a game world and how to both optimize them. Yet, this is made even easier. In the same way that I was spending hours and hours looking in every corner and crevice, developers now just blatantly tell you where the secrets are and, in many occasions, how much they are worth.

So, what does it even mean to “beat” a game then?

Have I “beaten” a game on finishing the last boss or obstacle? Or is it when I have all the achievements? What if, in the case of a multiplayer game, that the achievements can only be unlocked during the immediate period that the game comes out? After all, many multiplayer games have their player-base dry up after a few months and definitely after years. I think my view of this has changed. It has been doused with relativism.

Instead of viewing a game “beaten” on defeating the last boss or just getting all the achievements, I must make a choice. In the view of how much time it will take me to complete a goal, I must choose. If it will only take me a few hours to get more achievements, I might try it. If I can get most of the achievements without “beating” a game, might do that too. Playing a game has become, in some cases, a calculated action based on the variable of time. How many hours will this goal take?

All these thoughts have gone through my head as I played Torchlight. I have gotten past the boss of the game and unlocked most of the achievements. All but one. It is this one that I have spent over six hours playing the game aiming for this one last goal. In clear opposition to the mental calculus mentioned in the last paragraph, I have been spending extra time on this game for this one aim. All in pursuit of something I feel is missing, mastery of a game.