Fellow blogger simpleek recently posted an interesting and insightful article concerning “infinite” versus finite games. Or, to put it another way, games driven by play, like Fortnight, that don’t have true endings, versus games driven by stories, like Dragon Age, that have definite endings, sequels notwithstanding. As someone who’s recently taken a liking to an “infinite” game (Neverwinter) and is having trouble completing story-heavy games (Red Dead Redemption II), simpleek’s article struck a chord, one that really got me thinking about the evolution of games.
In a sense, infinite games have been with us since the beginning. Early arcade titles like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Centipede are, in essence, infinite games. Sure, they may have fabled end points, but reaching them doesn’t really mean you’ve completed the games. What it does mean, however, is that you’ve become the best player. While these games often come with loose stories (aliens attack Earth; ghosts bad, power pellets good; blast bugs, because nobody likes insects), they are not the primary reasons to play. You play them to attain bragging rights, to win above and beyond everyone else, and to challenge and entertain your friends.
Sounds familiar, right?
The legacy of infinite games doesn’t stop with the age of Atari. The development of more complex fighting games, racing games, and sports game came with infinite play, as well. Story modes were embedded within them for the benefit of single players, but at their cores, games like Street Fighter, Ridge Racer, and Super Tecmo Bowl were all about two people challenging each other in, ideally, never-ending rounds of play. (Not to oversimplify things, but you get the idea.) Once we enter into the world of online play, new opportunities arise for players to connect from across the world in rounds of Call of Duty, PVP in Ultima Online, and strategy sessions in Age of Empires. Much like old arcade games seeking quarter after quarter, games like these aim to make players invest time and money, all in the name of having a good time.
And players are having very good times, as we see these days with the overwhelming popularity of battle royale games, PUBG, Fortnight, Overwatch, and so on. Is it a surprise that the genre’s newest contender, Apex Legends, released a mere seventeen days ago, has tens of millions of players already investing in it? Much like video game players of the days of yore who could eke out a ton of mileage on one quarter, today’s infinite games offer up so much excitement and action at little to no cost. The lack of a barrier to entry with these games is a major contributor to their popularity – the more people you can get playing immediately, the better! (Though, that’s rather glib, as there are often associated costs in the fine print that work as barriers, such as paying for speedy internet connections and service subscriptions.) So it’s absolutely no wonder that some folks in the gaming industry want to capitalize on the popularity of infinite games. They are internet-ready, easy to access, and as long as the new content keeps coming, seemingly always fresh.
In a way, the infinite games of today reflect the population in gaming and generally. As simpleek pointed out, attention spans are shorter, immediate gratification is more appealing than not, and not every player (counting myself here) has time to become embroiled in a story-heavy game, no matter how excellent it may be. For myself, right now, gaming is ruled by time. Going back to my arcade analogy, with every hour I have available to play (and sometimes it’s only an hour), I have to think of how best to spend my quarter. Am I better off spending it on completing a single mission in Red Dead Redemption II that might reveal a sliver of story, or, would I rather run through a generous handful of daily quests in Neverwinter that have tangible rewards? More often than not recently, Neverwinter wins, because the benefits of it outweigh the (emotional, mental) cost of RDRII.
Personal issues aside, there’s plenty of room in our gaming universe of today for explosive 100-player battles and quietly intense storytelling. The death of the single-player game has been greatly exaggerated, and they will likely only get better and better because, at heart, video games are about connections – those between ourselves and the games, games’ stories, games’ gameplay, and each other. The reinvention of the infinite game is but one step in the evolution of those connections.
Lede image © Electronic Arts, Inc., Respawn Entertainment (2018).