Thursday, May 08, 2008
When is a game finished?
Today's brain food comes from Stephen Totilo at MTV Multiplayer, who wrote a post called "A New Theory: Maybe Game Reviewers Don't Need to Finish Games." Frankly, I didn't realize they did need to. Even Gamespot's own review policy says they don't necessarily finish everything they play.
I wrote a fairly long comment on the Multiplayer post, if you click through, but I want to focus on another point that I addressed only obliquely: Just when is a player "finished" with a game, anyway? Sometimes, the answer is pretty obvious. Take BioShock, for example. Although that game gave you several ways to make it to the finish line, everybody who played had to follow the same basic path through the story. There were no other gameplay modes besides the single-player campaign. I think most people would agree that playing through the story to the end credits would count as finishing BioShock.
What about Grand Theft Auto IV? You can play the main missions and still miss a hefty chunk of what the game has to offer. I would argue that ignoring the missions altogether is no way to play, but lots of people do just that. They set up explosive interactions in the game world like kids with a chemistry set. They don't care about structure or narrative, and they wouldn't have it any other way. Some people will never be finished with this game in a definite sense. That's part of the design.
Finally, take it all the way to the extreme: When is World of Warcraft finished? When is Tetris finished? When is The Sims finished? These are games that don't actually end. Or, more accurately, they end when the player decides they do. The ending isn't built into the game; it comes from the player.
This brings up, again, one of the inherent pitfalls in reviewing games. We don't all approach games with the same set of expectations. One of the things that actually sucks about reviewing something like Grand Theft Auto is the temptation to charge through the story in order to finish the game. That's missing the forest for the trees. It wouldn't feel fair, either, to ignore the game's numerous scripted events and missions, and just see how many different ways you can murder bystanders. But there's always going to be a huge group of players whose interests don't align with the reviewer's, because of all the different reasons we play.
A key task for any reviewer is to identify what a game is trying to do, and judge it accordingly. Sometimes a story is perfunctory. Sometimes a multiplayer mode is tacked on. That doesn't necessarily mean that the game's core strengths are lessened. The best games do find a way to succeed on several levels, but it's simply not a requirement for your garden-variety good game to excel in several different areas. Doing well in one is usually enough.
I would argue that storytelling is but one of a few crucial elements, without which GTA would be a different game. So while it's important to get a good sense of the story (and it is very involving), completing the storyline at the expense of exploring the city, building relationships with the characters, and trying some multiplayer would certainly not be the same as finishing the game. Frankly, I'm not sure what would.
What do you think? With so many games designed to be played and replayed endlessly, when can we say we're finished with it?