Some video games are designed to deliver a complete, finite experience. Sometimes these games deliver story and character arcs, other times merely a series of levels with little to no narrative coherency. These can vary in length, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to many hours, but at the end of that play time, the game is over.
Other games are designed to be played eternally. Even their so-called endings are frail veneers of finality. There is always something more to do. Games like The Sims, World of Warcraft, and Peggle are frequently referred to as “addictive,” which is not a quality one normally seeks out in a product. Still, these games hold a powerful allure. They demand a great deal from the player. A truly addictive single player or multiplayer game can eclipse all other games.
The first item in Blizzard’s mission statement is “gameplay first,” and one of the results is a long track record of incredibly well-implemented mechanics. Blizzard releases are overwhelmingly popular and their addictive properties are a matter of public record. Their games don’t really end. Their single player campaigns are lengthy and substantial, and when those are done, a rich multiplayer experience waits behind.
Some Blizzard games, like Diablo 2, don’t even require a multiplayer component to continue on into eternity. Even with only one character, multiple playthroughs are possible in the search for better and better loot and ever-increasing levels. I’ve lost what seemed like years of my life to that formula. Other games have come close to that level of addictive properties, a recent example being Borderlands, but few have reached the level of polish that Blizzard achieves.
I began playing Torchlight yesterday, and I can already feel its claws digging their way into my flesh. My Vanquisher just got an amazing bow and a second melee weapon worthy of dual-wielding. I have deep stacks of town portal and identify scrolls, and piles of healing and mana potions. I’m close to gaining another level. If I grab a little more gold, I can afford a great gem. I have a long list of quests in my journal. I’m having flashbacks to past addictions.
In high school and college, a few video games dominated large portions of my life. At boarding school, Starcraft consumed my study hall hours as I reveled in the fact that all the computers on campus were networked together. In my first year of college, in Montreal, I spent many an evening hunched over by the window, my mouse clicks spelling death to demons everywhere in Diablo 2. The persistent world community in Neverwinter Nights consumed days of my life after I moved to Greensboro.
I wish those games were finite, in retrospect. I consider a great deal of the time I spent with them wasted. Our leisure activities should not generate regret. It made me consider swearing off video games entirely, though I later learned a stronger sense of moderation coupled with a desire to limit myself to certain types of game experiences. I am far more productive than I once was. I have a good job, I started this blog, and I have close friendships and exciting artistic projects. My time to actually play video games is severely curtailed, but my life is more fulfilling as a result.
Though I enjoy playing Torchlight, Plants vs. Zombies, and similarly obsession-fueled games, I get very little satisfaction out of my time with them. The parallels to addiction are darker than we let on: Some games really do help us to shirk responsibility, encourage us to keep playing for just one more level, or call to us when we’re working on unrelated projects. I know that, personally, some video games have had negative impacts on my personal relationships, study habits, and effective use of free time.
Obviously it is my responsibility to monitor my own time and actions, but why do we hold games that can completely distract us from our lives in such high regard? I’ve come to prefer a well-made single player experience with a beginning and ending to an eternal grind. I’m canceling my Starcraft 2 preorder but looking forward to Alan Wake. And I’m constantly at war within myself, even as I write this article, to focus on the task at hand and ignore my nagging desire to search the internet for Torchlight tips.
My free time is much more valuable to me now than it once was. I don’t have the mental space for an addiction. Maybe it’s time to put infinite games behind me, and focus on the finite. After all, I like a good ending.