The Never-Ending Story
It is the game that never ends! Yes it goes on and on, my friends!
Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?
Andy: I was talking to a friend recently about trends in gaming. We were talking about a couple titles that we both enjoyed and I expressed some mild disappointment with some games that I otherwise enjoyed. We went back and forth talking and then it dawned on me. I’m not disappointed really in the games themselves. My disappointment really boiled down to a major trend in gaming that I didn’t know frustrated me as much as it does until this conversation. So, I thought I would bring it up to you and see what you think.
The trend I am referring to is… there is no end anymore. What I mean is we pour hours into these games, make tough decisions and get invested in these stories only for the game to end (or not to end really) with a cliff-hanger or other form of a cop-out. I legitimately miss the days of reaching the end of a game and it being the actual end of the game. Now the end of a game means we just wait for the next DLC to release. Once we run through all the DLC and reach the end of it, it means we just wait a little longer for the next game to come out. As it stands now the degree of satisfaction I get from finishing a game is much less than it used to be. I just want a story to be over.
Before I jump up to high on this here soap box I wanted to get your initial opinion on this. Is it something that you have ever noticed? Maybe this is me just being picky but it really does irritate me that games can’t just end anymore. What’s your take on it?
Nicholas: If I’m honest, it’s not really something that I’ve considered before, but now that you’ve mentioned it I can see where you’re coming from. I guess it ultimately depends on the kind of game you’re playing, and also how do you view the stories themselves. What I mean is this. Perhaps in the early days of Mario or Donkey Kong as an example, the game would finish and that would be it. You achieved your goal and you’d move on to the next game. Storylines were simple and you didn’t need to think too much about starting a new story off the back of whatever has happened in the past. In the Mario universe it doesn’t matter that he’s defeated Bowser when he squares up against him in the next game. There’s no real link between the games other than the characters all exist in the same world.
As games have developed over the years though, much like how graphics and gameplay have gotten better, so has the ways stories have been told, and it’s here that the issue to your problem begins to show itself. Let’s take Mass Effect for example. After 20+ hours with Commander Sheppard he’s more than just an iconic character on the box of your game. You’ve followed him (or her) through the galaxy and you start to see yourself in that character through the decisions and relationships he has made. When it comes to the end of that game, as much as you want closure to the story, you don’t want it to end either. This is where the ‘problem’ of sequels and cliff-hangers comes into play. Gamers typically want more and developers need to think of how to deliver that to them.
As I said though, this isn’t really something I’ve come across as an issue, but before I go further into that, what do you think of the topic? Furthermore, why do you think this issue has started to happen over time? Am I on the money?
Andy: I think you indirectly stated why we are seeing more and more of these unending series. A little part of it may be fan demand, but I’d argue if the story was written correctly with a definitive ending fans wouldn’t need to clamour for the “next” one. Here’s a great example, one of the best games I have played in the last 10 years was Red Dead Redemption. Partly because it was a fun title, but a lot has to do with how amazing the ending of that game was. It was honestly one of those punch you in the gut moments. I remember just sitting there holding my controller and not doing a thing. I didn’t need to buy DLC, or wait for the sequel. It was a self-contained amazing story.
I think the bigger reason we are seeing this is the very last word of your reply; money. When a developer/publisher creates a good game and it gets good reception among gamers it’s pretty much a given that we’ll see another one because those same fans will buy it. Not only that, those gamers will talk about how awesome the first one was and get new people to play it, and then possibly buy the previous one(s). On the flip-side of that making games is a business, and creating a new world, new characters, new plot points, etc. all require time and more money. It’s much simpler (and I don’t mean to make light of the work developers put into a game) to piggyback off of existing work and keep churning things out. I think that’s the biggest reason we are seeing so many. Developers are banking on a “known” established franchise versus an “unknown” gamble on a new game.
So that’s my thought on a large scale but I want to dial it way down here into a perfect example of one of my biggest complaints with these multi-game franchises. Before I do I want to name some franchises and then tell you what they have in common. Batman, Tomb Raider, Mass Effect, and Deus Ex. On first glance they don’t have much in common, but my complaint is this. You play the same character in multiple games, but each new game you have to go through the process of unlocking/acquiring all the skills/abilities all over again. Things you unlock in one game don’t matter, you have to unlock them again in the next one. That irritates me, it further discredits everything you did in the previous game(s) but the developer wants you to believe it’s a continuation of the story.
Maybe I’m being too simple here but if the game is part of a series, and I play the same character across all the games, I want some continuity to the story and character. I don’t want it to be a paint by numbers “Oh new game you have to do all this stuff over again.” What I abhor though is finishing a game, playing the sequel two or three years later and finding out the super-bad-guy boss I killed in the previous game is miraculously alive and well and stronger than ever in the new game. Now that I have had time to think about it, maybe it’s more a combination of little things like this that add up and irritate me. Now that I’ve got you thinking about it though how can this not bug other people? I can’t be the only one that has noticed this and is perturbed by it… can I?
Nicholas: I can’t say I completely share your frustrations, but I will say that I’m with you 100% on understanding the pain of jumping to a sequel and having to start again with basic skills and abilities. The biggest offender when I think about it is Assassin’s Creed and how you always need to unlock the second hidden blade or just the standard assassination techniques that you spent 20+ hours perfecting in the last game. I can understand from a storyline progression or for newcomers that you might want to introduce these mechanics slowly, but for established players which, dare I say would be the majority, my god it’s a hassle going through it all again.
It’s very interesting that you make this point though because I’m feeling this exact frustration playing through WRC6. For the past few games the career mode starts the same – you start in the rookie championship with a rookie car and you need to work your way through the season, hitting objectives until you can score a contract with a team in a better division. This is all well and good the first time you play the game, but when it becomes an annual franchise it means you need to rinse and repeat this process each time – and words can’t describe what a load of crap that is. Contrast that to F1 2016 and you can pick any team to race with from the start. No starting in a Toyota Yaris for five hours, it’s Red Bull or Ferrari from the get-go. Smart!
You mentioned the idea of ‘dead’ bosses returning and it being a point of contention with you. Why is this the case? Is it because of how they are written back into the story, or is it just a poor story mechanic, like ending a movie with, “and then he woke up?” As frustrating as the whole ‘starting again’ at the beginning of a new sequel is, do you understand why it’s done? Do you think starting with all your skills from the get-go would rush the progression the developers might be aiming for?
Andy: I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of rushing progression, instead I think it’s a matter of wanting to keep the player playing as long as possible. It’s much the same with how almost all games include completely worthless collectibles just for the sake of extending play because they know many gamers will try to find them all. I miss the days when a game was solely about the story. Now a game is a little bit about the story, unlocking things you have unlocked before in previous games, looking through every little area to see if there’s a collectible, and then killing a boss who has a good chance of being back in the next game anyway.
In regards to the boss issue, I think it’s just poor writing and the idea that they want a shock value component to really tie the story together. Here’s the thing about that though. It’s been done to death (pun intended). It seems like every game has the same couple of twists. Either the guy you killed comes back somehow or the bad guy is really a NPC that’s been making it seem like they were on your side. Pardon me if I don’t get excited about that stuff anymore. Once you have done it and seen it 100 times it gets old after a while.
One of the things we have talked about before in this space was that we want new games and innovative experiences. I think this topic ties perfectly in with that. Just look at some of the games coming out this holiday season; Gears of War 4 (but it’s really the 5th one), Call of Duty (how many are there now?), Battlefield 1 (but it’s not the first one, mind blown right) and a host of others with numbers after their names Mafia 3, Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2 and Watch_Dogs 2. The sequels that I don’t mind are the ones that have new protagonists from their previous games, and preferably a new setting or location. So Watch_Dogs and Mafia fit the bill, but some of the others… it’s like the developer just doesn’t have any new ideas and churn out game after game with slight gameplay tweaks, and an updated skin and call it good. We can’t have innovation and new things if we keep circling back to places and characters we’ve been before can we?
Nicholas: It comes down to what people want I suppose. I remember a number of years back I was speaking to a forum moderator on the Need For Speed site and we were talking about how much I wanted a sequel to Most Wanted, but from what he saw the demand wasn’t that high. I sometimes wonder whether what we think the community want is actually what the majority is after. In the case of innovation vs. sequels, sometimes I think that the community isn’t really after something new, but rather a continuation of an established franchise that works?
On that note, do you think the same question can be applied to the idea of games sometimes not ‘finishing’ entirely or ending on a cliff-hanger for either a sequel or DLC? We’ve spoken about the idea of “speaking with our wallets” but games like Battlefield and Call of Duty continue to sell like hotcakes. Is what you’re speaking about actually a trend, or do you think this might be the natural progression of games and storytelling going forward?
Andy: I think it can be both. I think there are certainly times where it’s a natural part of the story for sure. Mass Effect is a good example of that, there was a natural progression of the story that needed three games to tell the full arch. I can appreciate that. Yet, there are other games that are sequels that don’t really tie anything together and bounce back and forth between a prequel, not a prequel, to a reboot, to a prequel of the reboot etc. Those are the ones that I just throw my hands up and sigh. Those are the ones that make it obvious in one of two things. Either the developer doesn’t have any new ideas, or they don’t have faith in their new ideas so they have to keep going back to the well.
I understand the speak with your wallet approach, but that’s hard to do when we are talking about being disappointed with a games ending. In order to know the ending is one of the cliff-hanger/bad guy still alive type you’d have to finish the game or read a spoiler somewhere. So it’s a Catch 22. Don’t play the game until you know how the ending is and have the ending ruined for you, or buy the game and hope for the best. I’m not sure there is a perfect answer to the issue if those are the only two options we have.
To wrap things up this week I wanted to offer up a two part question. What was the last game you played that had a definitive ending? Second, have we just reached a point in gaming where there will never truly be an end to a game anymore? One of the buzzwords we hear a lot now is replayability and open world. For it to be a true open world it can’t really end right? Maybe that’s just my old age talking because I remember a time when games did end. Lord knows it wasn’t the Zelda games though. Someone needs to lock that damn princess up for her own safety.
Nicholas: That’s actually a really interesting question to ask. As I think about it, GTA V to me that had a definitive answer. Once you selected the one of three endings and once it played out, the story was done. Does it mean that the developers could write something new? No, but at the same time it also meant that there was no cliff-hanger making you wait for DLC or a sequel to answer any questions you might have had. That kind of ties in well with your second question then too – just because a game is open-world doesn’t mean that the story never ends. Sure, there will always be side-missions to complete and havoc to wreak, but the storyline itself finishes and there’s closure in it.
In the end, I think it really comes down to the genius of the writers that differentiates between a good game and an average (or bad one). I remember finishing Quantum Break and there were still a hundred questions in my mind that I needed answered. Part of me hated that, but another part of me really appreciated the journey I took with the game. Same can be said with Mass Effect – the ending plays out and you still have questions, but just because you don’t get 100% closure doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a brilliant game.
Cliff-hangers work because they keep us wanting more. They provide the promise of that next game, that next fix in the story. We see it in books and movies all the time, and gaming is no exception. The only difference is, a good cliff-hanger won’t leave you disappointed when you have to wait for the next episode. At the end of the day though, when it comes down to it, well, I guess you’ll need to wait until next week to find out …