The Unfinished Game is its Own Reward

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The Unfinished Game is its Own Reward

By | 2017-09-08T21:31:36+00:00 August 26th, 2011|Categories: Meta, Video Games|5 Comments

I just had an epiphany. I don’t need to finish games.

Which sounds incredibly stupid when you realize that I’ve been leaving games unfinished ever since I started gaming, as every gamer without OCD is wont to do. But it’s finally, really hit me. Let me explain.

I just finished playing Yakuza, a cult PS2 game that struck my fancy mostly because it was the closest thing to a Shenmue successor. It was not what I hoped; it has much to recommend it, but is also saddled with an awful script and an egregious amount of random battles. Only the Japanese would take the brawler sub-genre and say “I know what this needs to revitalize it for a new age of gamers – RANDOM BATTLES!” But I digress.

I figured out it had these flaws fairly early on, but pushed through to the end; not just because I had the time and the game was still moderately fun, but because I felt I had to to gain the experience of having played it. I’ve long justified my gaming hobby as not just a time-killer, but an active act of continuing education. This is my chosen area of expertise, and every new game I play adds to my understanding of the medium and broadens my horizons. Of course, some games are more educational than others. Generally speaking, one will learn a fair bit from truly unique games and very little from the more derivative works. Which is why I seek out games like Yakuza.

Yet I’d somehow become trapped in the reviewer’s mindset; I cannot learn from a game without evaluating it, and I can’t fairly evaluate it if I haven’t finished playing it. The sad fact of the matter is that it’s the rare game that improves in the final act, but I had to account for the possibility.

So today, after finishing Yakuza and reading Eurogamer’s review of its sequel, I ended up browsing a nice little list of cult classics the site did back in 2008. One of these was Yoot Saito’s Odama, the Gamecube’s strange pinball-meets-wargame creation that left most reviewers disappointed. Reading Eurogamer’s review, I was struck by the concluding paragraph:

Anyway, I’m usually loath to advise rentals, but in this case I’ll make an exception – not because I’m copping out, but because I want you to fail. Failure’s rarely been as interesting as it is during your first hour here, and if you care about games rather than simply caring about which games are good, you’ll want to play it for at least that long.

Somehow, this was the push I needed.

Those of us who read reviews are trained to avoid games that aren’t worth finishing. Gaming is expensive, and there’s no use plunking down $50 (now $60!) bucks on a game that will only entertain for a couple of hours. But it’s an antiquated philosophy. The marketplace has changed, and between the constant Steam sales and the fact that 80% of last-gen games can be had on Amazon for less than $5, there’s no need for conservatism.  If education is my goal (and it really is – this isn’t just something I tell people to justify my “time-wasting”) then I really might as well play Odama, or Way of the Samurai, or any of a number of other cult games that are flawed but wholly distinctive. Plus, in my experience, the first hours of a game are usually the best, when I’m still learning the systems and haven’t sunk into the auto-pilot of mastery.

There is so much to gain, and so little to lose.



  1. Chris August 26, 2011 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    The sad fact of the matter is that it’s the rare game that improves in the final act, but I had to account for the possibility.

    Fascinating, though I hadn’t considered this before. Are there any games that switch things up in the last act? Surely there are games that may be narrative focused that have a surprised twist or some such, but when it comes to game mechanics, I can’t think of those that will have a third act with regards to the controls.

    Many games have a first and second act via the beginning (wherein we are taught controls) and the middle (wherein we are left to our own devices), but are there any games that switch it up and have a ludoligist third act?

    • Dylan August 26, 2011 at 8:30 pm - Reply

      The answer is: there probably are, somewhere, but off the top of my head I can’t think of any. At best there is a satisfying climax, though even then there are few games that are best in their final throes (Metal Gear Solid 3 and Shadow of the Colossus are the two games I can think of that meet the requirement).

      Oh, wait, I just did think of one that changes gamplay: Conker’s Bad Fur Day. I never actually got that far, but it actually becomes an entirely different genre (goes from Nintendo-like platformer to a pastiche of a WWII third-person shooter). But it does that in the guise of comedy, and it seems like that sort of disruptive switching would work best for comedy (or a “postmodern” game, though this would be almost by definition an indie game). The fact that there are so few comedy games may be part of the problem.

  2. Chris August 26, 2011 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    Boooo… No preview option. Now I’m staring down the barrel of all those grammatical errors I just made.

  3. Johnny August 27, 2011 at 5:45 am - Reply

    I’ve gotten to the point to where I look at and like or dislike games for more the educational value more than anything else.

    lots of these tend to be commercial failures and games people generally hate. But “bad games” are much easier to analyze. Seeing flaws and where improvements could have been is much easier to notice than when things are going as smooth as they could.

    Besides, from dev perspective, I think theirs more value in learning what NOT to do, than in learning what you should do.

    • Dylan August 27, 2011 at 7:44 am - Reply

      Definitely. And I’d recommend playing Deus Ex for those reasons too! (Though it gets very controversial as to which design decisions were good and bad – in that sense it’s not at all easy).

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