White Flag of Freedom – Why not give up on a game?

There is something almost therapeutic about finishing a game. Another accomplishment, another disc to put back on the shelf (metaphorically if you are not obsessed with collecting slowly decaying physical media), and the freedom to move on to another game without the slightest twinge of guilt, regret, or sense of failure.

Completing games has been enshrined in the culture by sites like Backloggery and How Long to Beat. I have a 6 year old spreadsheet I use to track what I finish and know other people who do the same. Gaming forums have threads on backlogs frequently; many of us feel the weight of our unfinished games.

Why do we want to finish games, and should we? You’re right, those are good questions. Let’s dive into the why first. I have heard our drive to complete games described as internalized capitalism, oddly enough from self-professed once-libertarian Heather Anne Campbell (shout out to my Elysium comrade Nick Weiger). I am a sucker for any explanation that blames capitalism for a problem (guess why this website isn’t bigger than Google) but I am not entirely won over this time.

Sure, we are idiots who want to feel productive because our value is intrinsically tied to our productivity in this society, which can make gaming seem like a job of sorts, and even communists are fixated on labor and output (as opposed to the psychology of human happiness), but I would argue at least some of the desire to finish things stems from our mortality and the psychology that arises from being conscious of our impending demise. Completing things feels good likely because we evolved to get a sense of accomplishment when we finish stuff. Psychologically, it fills our empty void for a nanosecond. And these ideas are interwoven with the fact we will one day die. 

I should attempt to defend my shotgun blast of assertions further, but luckily for me this is a gaming blog or something so my meager reader-base (damn you, capitalism) will have to assume I know more than I do. Or don’t, the point is something drives us to want to finish things, and maybe it’s the same compulsive part of us that drives us to label, catalog, and classify. We make order of the world by conquering infinitesimal slivers of it one at a time. It’s what has allowed us to invent both symphonies and variable interest rates. Or it’s death; what am I, a doctor?

Bad news – you’re going to die. Good news – I am also going to die.

So should we try to finish games? It’s hard to speak for everyone (just this once). I’ve been thinking about this, hence the thing you are reading, and have come to the conclusion that I should drop games sooner than I do. The often endorsed “if you aren’t having fun stop playing,” still feels too hedonistic (and dismissive of the form – not everything should be fun, like reading this) as some things take time to really grab you, but I have moved closer to that idea than my old philosophy of “finish almost everything you start.”

The philosophical and scientific stuff I made up aside, there are practical reasons to put games down. Unfortunately, almost all of them show you their ideas in the first few hours. They may iterate, adjust, numbers may go higher, enemies may get bigger, but generally speaking a title plays its cards quickly in order to capture your attention. A more useful site than How Long To Beat would be How Long Till The Last Innovation. Games that do not add new ideas in the back half or have a gripping plot, and few games do, probably don’t deserve enough of my time to finish them.

This is an introductory statement to what I hope will be a long, illustrious series of posts detailing specific games I have dropped and why. We heard the feedback that this site is too positive and upbeat about games so this is an attempt to create balance by giving me an ongoing, formalized outlet to complain. Here is a short list of stuff I may write about: SaGa: Scarlet Graces, Monster Train, Monster Boy, Moonlighter, Loop Hero, and The Lion’s Song. Watch this space for more. Well, not this space, this post will still be here.

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2 years ago

This is a good topic.

The best rule I’ve ever come across for determining whether or not to stop playing a game is something like this:

“If I find my mind wandering, or that I’m getting distracted while playing a game, it’s probably not a good sign.

I think the Sunk Cost Fallacy is another factor. Or was one. With so many game being Free to Play, or constantly on sale, I’m not sure how much sway this has over anyone anymore. Are people still insistent on squeezing dozens of hours out of a game they got on sale for 75% off?

I think you’re on point with the idea that finishing a game can make one feel accomplished. That ties in with my own remarks about Games as Work.

Lastly, I think part of it traces back to a poisonous platitude that’s popular online – namely, when people argue that someone can’t critique or assess a game unless they’ve played the whole thing. I would not be surprised if there are folks out there who toiled through a bad game for dozens of hours just so that they could talk about it online (only to have their now fully informed opinions dismissed anyway ….)

I certainly know that I’ve tried to push through games just to write about them here. But if I’m being honest, I think it would be more informative to talk about a game I didn’t finish, and why that was the case.

2 years ago

This is something I’ve struggled with in the past as I’ve gotten entangled into grand strategy games, which have an incredibly boring end state and super abstract progression tracking. Arguably, the more successful your game is, the more boring it gets as management becomes tedious and rivals fail to hold a candle to you.

As my addiction to Europa Universalis IV continued, I found myself excited to start playing. I realized after some time that what I was feeling was an addiction to the flow-state of managing all the numbers, closer to a puzzle game with no predefined start or end. Hundreds of variables to manage, many of them axes along which I could improve or leverage to my advantage. Getting “into” the mindset of the game was incredibly easy, and honestly “dropping” the mindset was surprisingly easy too. But when I stopped, I consistently felt dissatisfied since I was playing a game where I really couldn’t track any kind of progress aside from how much of the map was blue and what year it was – and it was a game I had already played for hundreds of hours, to boot.

Recently I got back into RPGs (…obviously, based on my writing output) and was relieved to find that plot, levels, and other mechanics gave crunchy checkpointy pieces to tell me I had gotten somewhere. Even when I was replaying a game I had already played, it felt like I was making “progress” again, and I felt a warm glow inside as I could put Shin Megami Tensei 5 back onto the digital shelf (something I didn’t accomplish with Dragon Quest XI – yet) having fully experienced its story and mechanics – the first RPG I had fully beaten since Persona 5, years ago.

I’m trying to get more “easy come, easy go” with either games I’ve already played or games where I realistically can’t reach the end state. For example, I played Heroes of Might & Magic 3 for the first time a few weeks ago. I finished the initial human campaign, which took several hours, and I’ve already shelved it in my mind. There’s no way I’m finishing all the campaigns. The game is interesting, but I feel like I’ve already gotten what I needed/wanted out of it.

I agree that there’s definitely some psychological need for us to “check off” things (which reminds me of loss aversion, in a FOMO-sense – we want to have completed things, more than we want to keep the possibility of completing them in the future).

Not directly related to the topic, but if anyone’s interested in reading on how we make poor decisions (based in instinct, pattern matching, and desire to internally keep these decisions “simple” among others), Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a fascinating read – but I’m far from well read on the topic.

2 years ago

i am not sure i ever consciously decide to stop playing a game, but i occasionally drop one i just think it happens more naturally than consciously. one way of thinking about it is how i fill a spare half hour i have: do i grab a book? turn on a console? waste time on my phone? if its the latter it probably means i am not finding the game i am currently playing very interesting. on the other hand, if i fill gaps in my day with the game, stay up late to play it, and think about how to carve out time for it, thats a compelling experience. i also try to be selective about what i start since for me the sunk cost fallacy has more to do with time than money.

that said, i also maintain a list, and have since 2009. on the margin i do think it pushes me to finish games, but its gravity isnt very strong so a game would have to be a border case before the spreadsheet makes a difference.


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