In January, on my quest to finish more games in 2018, I played through Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS and I Am Setsuna on the Nintendo Switch. While they are both throwbacks to the 1990s, the games are not similar. Metroid: Samus Returns is a side-scrolling action-platformer with deep puzzling and exploration. It is technically a re-imagining of the Game Boy’s Metroid II: Return of Samus, but it’s really more of a spiritual successor to the SNES classic, Super Metroid. I Am Setsuna is a top-down turn-based RPG, reminiscent of Square’s SNES era games, with a heavy nod to Chrono Trigger. Despite their incompatible play-styles, in my determination to play them both to the end, I found a deeper understanding of the roadblocks and challenges that games in general are designed to offer. At their best, games force us to struggle, maybe learn, and then reward us with a feeling of accomplishment when we overcome a tough obstacle. At their worst, they provide a sense of frustration that gives way to boredom, ultimately leading to giving up, or simply forgetting to continue. What follows is an examination of why I finish so few games. And I suspect it might not just be me.
I’m going to highlight three characteristics that help us see a game through to its end. First, a game has to give us a sense of progress, whether that’s through a narrative story arc or a series of challenging levels, it’s all the same. We have to be working toward something. Second, a game has to maintain a sense of novelty. I think the downfall of many modern, sprawling open-world games is that we drown in repetitive tasks. At some point, those icons on the word map, whether it’s in Assassins’ Creed, Horizon, or Far Cry, they start to look like chores and do not inspire me to continue playing. It’s a tightrope that developers have to walk, balancing a perceived demand for bigger, longer experiences against the finite list of ‘things to do’ in any given game. And third, a game has to keep a balanced level of challenge. A drastic change in difficulty, whether it’s a punishing difficulty spike or an over-powered character making everything a walk in the park, they both detract from the experience and make me start thinking of other games I’d rather be playing. Continue reading “Until the Credits Roll…”