Last month, the fine folks of A Most Agreeable Pastime posted a thoughtful article titled From The Armchair: Leaving Things Unfinished. As someone with a plentiful backlog of started-but-not-yet-completed games, which I made mention of in that article’s comment section, the post deeply resonated with me, especially considering my grand promise of 2014 to finally complete Metroid Prime. This post here will serve as both an update and admission concerning that game, as well as offer an exploration of the question:
What does it mean to “beat” a game?
I’ve been pondering this question ever since reading that Most Agreeable article and since reaching the finale of Metroid Prime. That’s right folks, I am almost, almost, almost done with Metroid Prime! Since my last update, I attained the beautiful and powerful Phazon Suit, had a stupendous battle with Meta-Ridley, explored the Impact Crater, and met up with the game’s namesake and final boss, the Metroid Prime. I say “met up” because so far, that’s all I’ve been doing, getting to the Metroid Prime…and then being summarily crushed. Though I don’t know how the game ends, my guess is that MP’s ending follows suit with other Metroid games – defeating the final boss brings about a self-destruct sequence and Samus barely escapes an exploding something or other. But some “thing” survives the blast and become Samus’s next archenemy.
Even if that’s not the ending, my issue now is that I’m not all that motivated to discover it. And it’s not only due to the fact that the Metroid Prime battle is a challenging one requiring energy that I simply don’t possess at the moment. It’s more that part of me really feels like I’ve already beaten the game. I’ve lived through Samus’s story, I defeated bosses that I didn’t think I could defeat, and now I’m pretty much at the end of things. The final battle doesn’t hold quite as much meaning as, say, the Meta-Ridley battle, and that’s because I consider Ridley as Samus’s ultra-nemesis. Facing off with Ridley defines the entire bounty hunter vs. bounty hunter scheme of the Metroid games. Okay, so there’s going to be one more boss after Ridley, but that battle, even the brilliant one with Mother Brain in Super Metroid, doesn’t feel quite as…well…personal. Dealing with the Metroid Prime feels more like a chore than a meaningful action because there’s nothing left to the game after that.
The problem with all of this is that this mindset has brought about a catch-22. I can’t yet bring myself to start Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, because I’ve haven’t seen the credits roll in Metroid Prime. Even justifying my sensibilities with that previous paragraph doesn’t allay that feeling of “I can’t start the sequel yet because I haven’t beaten the first game.” This might be one of the dumbest gaming predicaments I’ve ever placed upon myself, because I know that if I just put on my big girl pants and approached the Metroid Prime with focus and tact, I could totally beat it. And still…I don’t know if I care enough to see the game through.
So this brings me back to the question “what does it mean to beat a game?” In ye olden days when quarters ruled gaming, you didn’t beat games (as many were lengthy, finite loops that sped up as you progressed), you attempted to beat a game’s highest score. Enter a game like Super Mario Brothers into the mix, and there you were given a target – beat Bowser, save the Princess. This “defeat [x], save [x]” mindset took off in gaming. But then developers had to think about what would keep the players playing. Because in those linear games, once you defeated [x], you were done. You could get rid of the game and move onto another. The advancement of side quests, “new game plus” mechanics, achievements, trophies, sandbox and open world play, all lent to the notion of replayability. So games were not entities to be beaten as much as completed, and completed to varying degrees. I’ve completed the main stories in games like Skyrim, Bayonetta, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and dozens of others, but the games are by no means “complete.” With side quests and DLC I, and any of us, could be playing (and do play) our current games well into the future.
I guess the notion of achieving 100% complete in a game could render a game as unplayable from then on out and therefore “beaten,” but is that truly the case? (As a non-completionist, I’m not sure how to respond to that myself.) Personally, “beating” a video game is part of my (misplaced?) lexicon. I’ll readily say I “beat” a game when I really mean that I completed a game’s main story (leaving hours upon hours of sidequests behind), or I finished a season, or I got to a vague point that just felt “finished.” But I’ll also say that I’ve beat Super Metroid dozens of times, and I’ll probably beat it again someday. Or, I should specify that I’ve completed the game and beat the final boss dozens of times, and I’ll probably complete the game and beat the final boss again someday?
The issue of semantics aside, is “beat” still a valid word to use when it comes to describing the end of your time with a modern game? When you tell someone that you’ve beaten a game, what exactly do you mean?