The ’80s. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. What a great time to grow into a life of gaming! The predominant mainstays of home videogame entertainment were the NES and Genesis, unless you were willing to travel to the local arcade to trade saved-up allowance dollars for change to feed the ever-hungry coin-operated game machines (or, in my case, the local laundromat and 7-11 of the dusty Texas town I lived in). I know many fellow gamers share my fondness of the 8-bit days of gaming, but everyone for their own reasons. For some it’s the nostalgia factor that tints their memories favorably, for others it’s the accessibility of those games, created in a time when games were inevitably simpler because of the technological constraints of the systems they ran on. Whether you consider yourself hardcore and the difficulty often found during that era appeals to you, or you’re a purist and by definition gravitate toward the “classics”, I submit to you one more reason to love the good ol’ days.
Despite many fond memories, home gaming wasn’t all roses in those early years. Games were simpler in the ’80s, for example in terms of graphics and gameplay. 3D cutscenes and rendered backgrounds were unheard of, and it wasn’t uncommon to play a game in which a character’s moveset was limited to the point that even a simple jump command was sometimes unavailable, where falling into any kind of standing water equated instant death in most titles. Sonic, for all his ability to move, was in dire need of some swimming lessons, and Link, though he could burn down trees, move rocks and defeat fearsome baddies, lacked even the slightest proverbial “ups” (not that he needed them; The Legend of Zelda was, thankfully, designed without the necessity for Link to jump). Mario was really the only one who could do it all: he swam and dove without any apparent need to catch his breath in Super Mario Bros., and when he got vertical, he was able to take to the skies high and far. In fact, the “Plumber’s crack from up above” is Mario’s primary method of dispatching his enemies throughout much of that game. (I’m starting to see the delicious irony of the mascot wars; that a chunky plumber from Brooklyn out-heroed his speed-blazing, sword-wielding, whip-cracking, arm-cannon-blasting counterparts!)
But I digress. I, like many, have happy memories of times spent with the games of this era. But why? Despite their technical shortcomings and the fact that, in today’s market, many of the games of the time wouldn’t stand muster, they had that elusive fun-factor that it’s hard to put my finger on. I’m gonna come at you from a completely different angle here. While videogames of the bygone era often lacked in technical terms or were insufficient in the gameplay department, developers also hadn’t discovered one other key aspect: player choice. What choices were gamers able to exercise over their game experiences? Super Mario Bros. allowed you to choose whether to play as Mario or Luigi in two-player mode, and players in the know were able to select warp zones to advance the game early on (is there anyone who is still not in the know about these warp zones?). In Mega Man, players were allowed to choose the order in which they’d tackle the eight initial stages of the game, although a certain preferred order was eventually dictated by the weapons that needed to be obtained from stage bosses. Even RPGs, which traditionally offer a bit more player choice, put up artificial walls that kept players to a certain in-game track. The Legend of Zelda gives Link a bit of freedom in the order he completes the different dungeons, but he requires certain items or abilities to gain entry into some. The Battle of Olympus, an action-RPG, also put obstacles in the player’s path, by requiring a specific item or ability to pass them, and occasionally sent the player back-tracking to a previously visited area to access a new section in order to advance. In this way, even some of the more “open-ended” games still hemmed player choice and dictated a fairly linear path through the game.
I know some readers will cry foul, that Final Fantasy provided more choice. To this I say that games like FF were the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, players were paired up with a game character to play, and given an objective that had to be completed in one set manner, by defeating levels, stages, quests or bosses in a certain order.
The fact is, I’m thirty years old. During the last few years, I’ve come more and more to the realization that I’m a bit of a completionist. I feel compelled to go to absurd lengths with games, reach unreasonable goals and attain insane achievements, just so I don’t miss out on a bit of gameplay, just so I have the fullest experience possible. This urge has robbed me of countless hours that could have been spent enjoying other games I’ve purchased that still sit unplayed on my shelf. While my friends and colleagues are gearing up for massive upcoming games like L.A. Noire and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I’m still dutifully biding my time, determined to find every last light seed in Prince of Persia or defeat each treasure hunter and survivalist challenge in Red Dead Redemption. You can see that this is more than just a habit; with today’s games, this is more akin to debilitating perfectionism.
For those of you who suffer – and I use that term very loosely; after all, we love what we do! – from this affliction like I do, I believe that we’ve probably always had that penchant for not just finishing a game, but truly beating everything it has to offer. It’s just that past generations of gaming provided much less opportunity for this trend to take shape. As I said, the 8-bit days provided little in terms of player choice. The first game I can truly think of that pushed me to pursue unnecessary gameplay was Super Mario World for the SNES. Long after eliminating Bowser in the final level and restoring peace to Dinosaur Land, I spent time surmounting the challenges posed by the optional, and extremely difficult, “Star” levels. Things took another turn for the worse in Final Fantasy VI (released for the SNES as Final Fantasy III), where I spent hours upon hours grinding magic points in the Veldt, gearing up for the concluding battles of the game. I finally achieved my goal: to have every single character learn every single magic spell from every single esper in the game. As a result, I had an easy time with the final bosses, of course, but oh the time spent!
The list of optional content in games has grown from generation to generation. Final Fantasy VII gave us chocobo racing and the infamous (but unbelievably awesome and totally worth it!) Knights of the Round summon. Metroid Prime 1 & 2 challenged me to collect all data entries from the environment through Samus’s visor-scanning ability. Bioshock let me experience more of the backstory of Rapture through audio logs hidden in all nooks and crannies in the game, not to mention combat tonics, plasmids and researching the individual enemies in the game.
So far, the hidden content that I’ve mentioned has been fairly innocuous, giving the game some legs to stand on beyond the main quest. Nothing wrong with that. But with the current-gen advent of Xbox 360’s achievements and PlayStation 3’s trophies, we completionists are in danger of going mental! Far from only needing to do a bit more thorough exploration, some content requires quite preposterous, near god-like feats of gaming greatness! For example, my characters in Blue Dragon are around level 65 – that’s after finishing the game and clocking in at almost 56 hours of play time! I can’t even wrap my brain around how much grinding would be required for me to attain the achievement for leveling every character to level 99! Or how about the “Redeemed” achievement for Red Dead Redemption, where 100% game completion is required? It could take years! The list goes on and on: how many people have found every feather in Assassin’s Creed II? Or earned five stars on all songs in Expert mode in a Guitar Hero or Rock Band game? Not many, I’m sure.
Finally, there’s a relatively new breed of game, the motherlode, where any completionist worth his salt could seemingly spend half a lifetime trying to find all possible content. I’m talking about the insanely detailed open-world games, of which there seem to be more and more coming our way. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas came with so much content – not including expansions – that they provide a virtually unlimited amount of player choice and variety. Both Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, already epic games in and of themselves, require multiple playthroughs to reach all of their content (Bioware, I love you for the torture you inflict upon me!). Worst of all, I own the Game of the Year editions for both The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and have not played more than an hour or two of either one! Quite honestly, I’m simply too intimidated to let myself fall into these bottomless pits of content to give them much of a chance. Not that I’d hate playing them; what a rich indulgence to give myself up to! But after starting up a game of Morrowind and immediately spending hours reading the books in the wharfmaster’s shack, I knew that I might have to wait ’til retirement to have enough free time on my hands to invest into the game.
A hypothetical finger could be pointed at RPGs for propagating this growing trend of player choice. Case in point: the forty-five possible party members you could find and recruit in Chrono Cross. Or the hours I’ve spent in World of Warcraft‘s auction house. But just about every other genre of games has picked up on this and included lots of player choice across the board. I’ve had a blast attempting to beat the timed levels in Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus and Tomb Raider: Legend. And Alan Wake provided lots of extra content to experience in the form of a developer’s commentary for the entire game in the Collector’s Edition! The list goes on and on…
I don’t want to sound too whiny, and I know I’ve used some slight exaggeration in my descriptions, but the truth remains: with the arrival of so much player choice in gaming, we completionists will likely never feel the sweet gratification of having experienced a game to its fullest extent. Yes, we enjoy, love and savor our games as much as anybody. It’s just harder for us to move on and keep up with the continual flood of new releases, yet still feel satisfied with our hard work put into each game. Multiple endings, repeated play-throughs, optional characters, unlockables, collectables, expansion packs…the list of content grows exponentially. Not that I’m complaining; personally, if it means more time spent on epic gaming, then it’s a cross I bear gladly!