When is a game over?

I think the bloom of achievements and trophies, on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 respectively, have ruined my ability to really enjoy games. There was a time not too long ago when I was able to finish a game, to “beat” it, and I was able to move onto the next game. Now, I constantly know where I have missed something, where I neglected to explore some region. There are descriptions of awards for taking some action that tell me, in a couple of sentences, that I have failed in some way. I can’t help but ask: when did this start?

Before I had Internet access, the source of video game news was the school. My friends and I would talk about video games and compare what games we were playing, where we were in each game and what was cool. In fact, more than any other talking point, the degree of coolness was what was discussed more than anything. What explosions, what violence, how much action; that is what we discussed. One of the saving factors of the discussion, as I look back on it, was that we rarely played the same games at the same time. One of us might mention playing some older game (me), while others would talk about the latest game to come out. There was very little, to my memory, competition among us as to who had the high score in any one game, who had finished something the fastest. We all just talked about the games we were playing.

That was the point when finishing a game meant it was “beaten”. You had finished the last boss, completed some level in the least time. You had seen the ‘kill screen’. You were done. You might play it again, maybe try to do better in an older level but the game was over. There might be some knowledge gleamed from a magazine of some second cousin who heard it from a friend of his about some hidden place in a certain game accessed at a certain time, but the game was basically over for you. It was time to move on to the next game. You might go back to play it from time to time, keeping your skills sharp, but it was on to the next big challenge.

The Internet, they say, changed everything. Access to knowledge from various fields, various people, changed the way things were done. Anyone could post details about any topic. And they did. In the realm of video games, I remember that this meant that anyone who had a theory, some experience or just a stable connection could type up how to get every secret and take every path in a game. It was no longer just a matter of a connection to your friend knowing something and passing it on to you, it was going to some site, some world wide web location, and finding out that you can indeed get some weapon in a game, beat a boss in a new way or even finish a game in less time than you thought. After whatever threshold was passed, it was possible to go and find out nearly anything you might want to find out about a game. From that point on, there was always something you had not done in a game.

It might just be me (probably is), but I really dislike not having finished things. From books to movies, if I have stopped in the middle or toward the end, start but never continued, it will bother me. I can’t have things not done. I will go back to books and shows have read or watched and finish them. I might not have even liked the experience, but I will come to the end of it. I will read books I don’t like and watch shows I’m only partially into just because I left something undone. Any media experience that I have, assuming I did not finish it, will eventually be found and beaten. I will hunt done older things, search them out, and get to the end. For video games, more than any other medium, this becomes a problem.

You can’t rewind. If I was going to pick one thing that video games lack that most other mediums have, it would be that. For video, assuming you are not at a movie theater, you can go backwards in the viewing experience. You can go to an earlier point. In reading too, you can flip to an earlier page. You can go to a previous chapter or section. You can search a digital copy of a written work for that one phrase you remember. You can almost do that with video now. But not with games, you can’t go back, for the most part. Games are a linear experience. From wherever you pick up, be it a save point or the beginning of the game, you are now there and play precedes from there. In order to make different choices in the experience, you must replay it. You might go watch someone’s video of the act, but you cannot participate, play, without starting from a place the developers pre-determined.

This is something I have struggled with during the latest generation of consoles. While I might have said I was done, having played 40+ hours or more in a Final Fantasy 8, I still know that there are a handful of things left to do in Final Fantasy 13, the game tells me so. Never before this point in history have I wished that I did not know things about a game. I might have wished to play a game, having read about in a gaming magazine when I was younger, but now I almost wish I did not know things, that knowledge was not at my fingertips. One simple query in any search engine I know how to get through a sequence in a game. One look at GameFAQs or a similar site and I know all the secrets, the codes, the ways to cheat in a game. There is little way to erase such knowledge. Just looking at the achievement or trophy list might tell you more than you wanted to know, what challenges might exist for you in that game.

I’m not sure when a game is over anymore. I think I used to. I think it was in the Time of Ignorance, before the Internet, that I could beat some game and call it finished. I did not know that I could have taken some hidden path, found some ultra-powerful weapon. I could play for hours, explore all I wanted and not have to worry that I had missed something. If I found something, cool. If I did not, but did not know about it, then even better. Now that I know I have missed something, now that I know what the achievements and trophies are, I have to make a decision: do I go back? What is the cost of re-playing a game for a few more points? How much time is that? Instead of just declaring something “beaten”, I have to consider the economics of the now.

The price of knowledge is knowing the cost of a choice. There are few simple endings and some things just remain unfinished.