Saying you’ve “beaten a game” now is far more obscure than “beating/finishing/completing” the video games of yesteryear. Video games made in today’s market rarely have a distinct ending wherein the game play comes to an end; this is especially present in AAA, high-budget games. So is this the best way to make a game? Is this done to leave the ending ambiguous and up to the player, or is this a well concocted formula to get players normalized to canonical content being presented as DLC? Looking at how games are presented, begin and end will give us insight on how games’ stories work as a whole, and how the rhetoric should and shouldn’t be presented.
In the 80’s, back in the days of musky arcades, Atari 2600, ColecoVision and Commodore 64–games rarely had a distinct ending. You played the game until you died or exploded and bragged about your high score until someone beat it and the process starts over again.
Flash forward a few years. Nintendo releases Famicon(J) and NES (Nintendo Entertainment System(USA)) respectively. Games like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Shinobi and Mega Man change that formula with compelling storytelling, dynamic game play that pulled players in, and music that surpassed expectations. These games had endings. When you jump on the axe and Bowser falls in the lava at the end of World 8, the game ends. Ask any speedrunner.
This type of game presentation was used by Nintendo’s competitor, Sega. Games like Sonic, Vectorman, Phantasy Star (and. . . you know. . . all those games) typically had definite endings and this was highly unlikely done solely to be like their competitor that was pumping out tons of IPs. They also realized the aforementioned elements were vital to the video game experience. Games had evolved out of the primordial soup of Pac-Man, Galaga, and Centipede and emerged with 8 bit and 16 bit legs.
This stayed the same for a while–until online play became a normal or expected thing to extend the life of the game (see: Call of Duty Franchise, Quake series, Everquest.) This was where the common formula for games was changing and, if you’re paying attention to the franchise owners, it’s starting to make a lot of sense.
We can lump today’s games’ endings into two categories: New Game+ (NG+), wherein the game game be restarted from the beginning, but the player gets various perks for playing through the story again; and endless, side quest filled open world (Endless) which is fairly self explanatory.
Big games that we saw use NG+ recently include Final Fantasy XV, Disgaea 5, Dark Souls, Mass Effect, and Dead Space. These are all great games–there’s no doubt that, and I think NG+ was the best way to go with these games. It encourages players to go through the game at their own pace, rather than rush to the end game so you have access to everything and you can “finally experience the real game.”
This leaves the rest of today’s games. Games like Death Stranding, God of War, Red Dead: Redemption 2 (RDR2,) Grand Theft Auto 5, Metal Gear Solid V, all the massively multiplayer games and all the shooters. Almost all of these games have an end objective, or a final task to complete the story of the game, but game play (or sometimes “the real game play”) continues. For most of these games the free-roam game play seems to be done so the player can enjoy the other parts of the game, side quest, or lowered stakes because the main antagonist isn’t looming anymore, more or less.
Excluding online-only games, this leaves the DLC continued games in the Endless category. Games like Dead Space 3, Alien Isolation, Starcraft 2, Shovel Knight, (soon to be, hopefully) Cuphead and the list goes on. When I look at this rash list I made from the games I’ve played in the past years, I notice they have varying audience reception for reasons usually related to the DLC. The reviews on the DLC on some of these games are hyper critical mainly because the content appears to be “base game content” or canonical content, and not just a fun expansion. This content doesn’t expand the story, it completes it. I wholeheartedly believe you shouldn’t have to pay extra down the road to complete a game’s story. I can find the justification in critical reviews if the game isn’t truly complete-able on day one.
Obviously there are some exceptions. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Everquest rely on periodic expansions that retail for the price similar to that of a video game. These games get a pass in this analysis because the new content essentially adds another game, or another main story line.
Games today seem to be lacking scrutiny in what is included in the base game and how the game should end. I surmise this is a mixture of what video game companies feel that they can get away with to make an extra buck (EA,) developers being stretched thin in their work load and failing to make a deadline (Nintendo,) or possibly even bad enterprise collaboration between departments like HR, marketing, and localization (Sony.) It depends on the publisher. I’m looking at you in particular, Konami.
I assert that a game is only truly completed, or can’t provide anything more, when you’ve lost interest in the game. You can continue to deliver tons of packages repetitively in Death Stranding after the last stranding event, you can tend the farm and family life in RDR2’s epilogue, and you can play Dark Souls until it’s NG+x8 and you hate yourself–as long as you’re enjoying the game, it doesn’t have to end. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite pastimes is driving around in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, causing mayhem and getting chased by the cops at super-high speeds while listening to 80’s pop; it has stood the test of time.