Completion & The Value of Your Time

(Originally written on October 6th of 2014.)

At the end of my last piece, about Drakengard 3, I mentioned that I didn’t know when I’d get to play Nier, the pseudo-standalone sidegame in the Drakengard lineage, and thanks to the kindness of my dad, it arrived as a late birthday present about a week and a half ago. A week of playing it later, I found myself at a choice that makes the game notable for many.
Nier

Ending D of the game, hidden behind a minimum of three playthroughs of the second act, will completely erase the player’s profile on the game, and even prevent you from using the erased file’s name ever again. And I followed through with it. I watched the game wipe my sentient-floating-book party member, Grimoire Weiss, page by page. Sixty-eight hours of my life , many of those spent frustrated at getting rare enemies to drop rarer items to upgrade my weapons, slowly faded to digital blank paper.

I loved this game. It was a week-long journey and I enjoyed it during the first cycle, but even more so during the NG+ with extra scenes that gave meaning to a lot of details I had started to pick up by the end of the first cycle. The first mote of player control is also the last, in both the first and final ending. And yet, all I had to show in the end for the week of my life, for the near 70 hours of time, that this game had taken to complete… was a white flower, a Lunar Tear, adorning the title screen, and a congratulatory trophy on PSN.

Time is, generally, viewed as valuable relative to its scarcity in the schedule of the person considering the value. The less free time you have, the more precious it is to you, to be short about it, but when you’re as… unhindered by obligations as I am, the value of time depreciates rather quickly. That’s why I have so few problems with throwing dozens or hundreds of hours of my life away into games. For that reason, I didn’t mind surrendering to the resolution of Nier, but it made me think about completion and its value in the wake of being forced to acknowledge the net value of my time in the simulated 34th century.


Contained Single-player Time-sinks

I’m going to come out up front and say I’m extremely biased when it comes to single-player games. I love JRPGs, I’m numb to most grinding, and I have put at least 300 hours into the Disgaea series so far, to lay the framework for where I’m coming from. This year alone, I’ve played Tales of Symphonia, Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, Graces f, Xillia, and Xillia 2 to narrative completion, and Graces f and Xillia to Platinum-Trophy completion, racking up at least 300 hours in all of those, too. I have a lot of time and I’m not afraid to toss this time at long video games.

But I absolutely understand why people can’t do that. I’m outlier when it comes to free time, and people value their free time differently; so much so that I always hesitate to tell people that a game gets good however many hours in, because even investing that many hours might be too much for some folks’ schedules.

Games can be, and often are, in the case of RPGs, a long-form medium, but they’re a medium that always requires you to be engaged with them in order to proceed. You can find quite a few videos on YouTube of popular LPers joking around with their co-commentators instead of listening to the game and then being completely stumped because they ignored what the game said they should do. You are required to be there for the gameplay, and perhaps that is the fact that drives peoples’ fondness of things like Half-Life 2’s cutscenes, where Valve just didn’t turn off the player’s controls as what is functionally a cutscene plays. You have to be engaged, and you have to constantly fulfill the game’s requirements to see progress.

That’s quite a bit different from reading a book, watching a TV show/movie, or listening to music, where you can multitask to a degree and have the media in question as auxiliary consumption. Games have to be largely front and center due to their interactive nature. For that reason alone, criticism of a game is always going to come from people who care enough about games to devote a not-insignificant amount of time to playing them, and it, and taking in what of it they can for the purposes of forming an opinion. I know a guy (Austin Howe) who, from what I can tell, just does not like what Dark Souls is all about, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting in dozens of hours over the course of two playthroughs to home in on what exactly rubs him the wrong way about the game’s workings and lore.

However, some people would demand completion as the criticism goalpost’s final bastion when they realize people who don’t necessarily agree with them aren’t completely uninformed. “You haven’t seen enough” or “it gets better” are phrases I’ve heard said and said myself many times, and occasionally that turns out to be true, but more often it’s resulted in disappointment with the product or simply quitting later down the line. Your time is valuable and throwing potentially good time after bad isn’t worth it. There’s a term for that, and it’s called an escalation of commitment, perhaps more known to you as the sunk cost fallacy.

All of that, though, is still working on the assumption that there is a clear line to be drawn for completion, which is more and more often not the case in games. Many games that use the term roguelike as part of their genre descriptor are exercises in endless games that will last as long as the player does. Minecraft has a “win state” but it is just as much a game about exploration, construction, and creation as it is about defeating the Ender Dragon, if not more so. Nier’s final ending deletes all of your data, and so I have a hard time saying ignoring that option in the interest of playing the game through again in New Game + isn’t truly completing it when many people wouldn’t want to annihilate their efforts so carelessly.

Disgaea games have a narrative conclusion, after which they cycle to a new game, but they are also legendary for their postgame, which are stuffed with huge numbers and even bigger bosses. This is where I had the most fun with Disgaea 3, spending something like 90 hours preparing to take on the superboss Baal, and what I think most players of Disgaea are playing for. We like to polish our army to a mirror sheen and hone our equipment until it cuts through the thickest foe like a hot knife through butter.

Etna

This screenshot is taken from a video I recently watched of Disgaea D2, the latest iteration of the Disgaea series, in which the player was showing off the preparation needed for a successful attempt at the superboss Baal with every single possible difficulty boost. Said superboss must be killed six times, has billions of HP before any boosts, and has two painful abilities: one makes him immune to further uses of any special abilities used on him, and one hits any unit entering the battle to take a normal attack, meaning you have to be incredibly prepared even without all the multipliers to his stats that you can give him. On top of that, upon starting his final life, he destroys the panel that lets you deploy units to battle. I watched this hyper-prepared player take on this cruel monstrosity at its strongest and come out on top after 10 minutes of in-battle preparation and a full hour of actually fighting him.

That’s the draw for some Disgaea players; pushing the limits of the immense challenges given to them. When I was less fortunate than I am now in terms of games I had at my disposal, I played the hell out of them. I learned bits of Resident Evil 4 inside and out, aiming to do a rifle-only playthrough after my successful handgun-only run, and still, I really don’t feel like I’ve explored the breadth of the challenges I could inflict on myself in that game. I would say I’ve beaten it, but I haven’t completed it. Meanwhile, I’ve only ever watched LPs of Metal Gear Solid, but I feel that my understanding of that series is more complete from viewing it with the guidance of Chip and Ironicus than I could possibly have pieced together from playing it myself and getting frustrated at my poor stealth abilities.

Achievements/trophies have exacerbated the problem a bit, and while they make things like Nier’s erasure ending feasible by giving the player a digital memento to prove their feat, they also do things like add obnoxious and arbitrary goals like Little Rocket Man of HL2E2 fame/infamy. The balance of achievements sticking to strictly within the scope of the game and offering relevant but challenging tasks is something that needs to be sorted out on a case-by-case basis, but they sometimes go a little overboard and get kinda out there. That’s an issue to discuss another time, though.

Suffice it to say, what any one person can take away from a piece of media varies wildly, even when the medium isn’t interactive, and some folks don’t need a game to infringe even more heavily on their limited time to know they don’t want to continue with it.


MMOs (and Not-MMOs)

Bungie’s Destiny launched about a month ago after a huge amount of hype to… middling reviews and a lot of criticism because the game lacks a lot of content. Like, a week past release and people, not even just super hardcore players, were hitting the endgame gear grind. They also didn’t give a whole lot of early press copies for review, to my understanding. That gives me the impression they were aware of the game’s shortcomings and wanted to kinda prevent preorders from dropping off. Though I don’t think it would’ve made a difference, with how smashing a pre-ordered success it was thanks to the hype train that is Bungie and their fanboys.

Point being, when you’re considering MMOs, and things that the developers don’t want to call an MMO despite it being a massively multiplayer online game with a lot of the genre’s precedents, completion is generally this giant carrot on the horizon you chase with your friends in your free time for no other reason than to kill time with friends. MMOs are transparent social timesinks and seeing the end of one in such a short time is a massive negative in considering the game.

I’ve put my fair share of time into MMOs. MapleStory and RuneScape, which are two that are thought of as lesser to the titans of WoW and FFXIV, but are still rather fun games in their own right.

RSTime

I don’t have a specific listing of my time played in MapleStory, but it probably rivals the time at left, which comes from my RuneScape account’s Adventurer’s Log. That totals up to two months and eighteen days, a little over eleven weeks, or 1875 hours of my life. I’m not against MMOs in principle, I would just rather use those hours for a vast multitude of single-player games instead of one game that will, largely, not influence my thought process or widen my horizons. In those 1875 hours, I could have cleared 12.5 Disgaea games at 150 hours each, read hundreds of books, or a great number of other things in different configurations, all while keeping touch with people via social media. Completion in MMOs is an afterthought to the socialization which is the focus of the acronym, let alone the archetype of the game itself, and personally, that has meant my disinterest in most MMOs, with the two exceptions noted above.

Thing is, MMOs are weird things to review and/or critique in my eyes, because they are, in my experience, generally only as good as the group of people you’re socializing with, whether that means the friends you joined up with or the people you meet through the game or discussing the game on social media. It’s the social side of the hobby, and it’s often a massive timesink otherwise, but hey, whatever floats your boat, I suppose. What annoys me is the uncommon occasion when people who put hundreds of hours into MMOs (not necessarily RPGs, stuff like TF2/CoD/BF as well) complain about excessive length of single-player games. I‘ve seen it only a couple of times, but it’s rather hypocritical, to say the least.


“Most people think time is like a river that flows swift and sure in one direction. But I have seen the face of time, and I can tell you: they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm.”

Time’s flow is uncertain, but its nature is obviously fluid, as is its value to every person. To request or demand someone else expend more of their time before you will accept or even consider their criticism is rarely justified and moving the goalpost like that is, at best, an attempt to hold out for a turning point. The turning point could manifest as the game hitting a critical mass of itself and proving its worth or cementing its worthlessness, or it could end up being the old “you’ve put so much time into it, you have to like something about it” argument finally unlocking in the brain of the person asking for more chances for the game to prove itself.

Really, as someone with way too much time, my time has basically no value, so I’m constantly taking up time with video games and writing about them. I’m rather acutely aware of just how much time I have, and I try to not set arbitrary “you must have played n amount of game <x> to comment on it” barriers to discussions I’m in about games. Not all games have to appeal to all potential players, either, and that’s fine.

The grand point of this mess is: your time is valuable. You know how valuable it is. Don’t feel pressured into wasting it on games that you don’t value your time with, either as a focal point for a discussion you wish to have or an entertaining time in and of itself.

And to those who request critics be thoroughly overknowledgeable on the subject of their criticism… please don’t do so with no reason. Accept that people might be able to intuit their problems with the game without exhaustive research and knowledge of it, and that your favorite game is not without its flaws. Flaws that someone else might pick up on immediately despite you not caring about them, because we all have different experiences and will experience the same game many different ways.

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