High scores are all very well, but can a singleplayer game ever really be beaten or finished?

Singleplayer column

My experience tells me that there are two kinds of singleplayer gamer: there are those who declare they have finished a game when they’re done with it, and those who declare that they have beaten it. I believe this confusing dichotomy between ‘finishers’ and ‘beaters’ illuminates a weakness in our ability to formally discuss singleplayer games in a way that adequately describes the feelings they provide to audiences of entertainment and culture.

The singleplayer game is often a linear series of challenges. Sometimes there are linear levels through which the player is forced to progress, as in a typical platformer, such as Super Mario Bros, or an action-adventure game, such as one of the Uncharted trilogy. At other times, the player is cut loose in a fully open world where progression through spaces and challenges serves as a mutable context to a linear progression through the levels, ranks and skill trees of a character who grows over time, as in the games in the Elder Scrolls saga. Either way, it’s the linear nature of the singleplayer game – this notion that they have a beginning, middle and end – that I believe gives rise to the finishing/beating vocabulary.

I believe that both kinds of gamer are using incorrect vocabulary. Finishers are borrowing from a narrative-centric vocabulary. We finish Great Expectations, but we don’t finish Gears Of War. We may come to the end of the story of Gears Of War, but even once ‘finished’, so much remains. This is to say nothing of uncollected COG Tags, or going left through the streets when you could have gone right through the sewers. Generally, the singleplayer game runs out of linear narrative content before it runs out of systemic depth. You may have reached the final cutscene, but have you mastered all the weapons, strategies and tactics? Have you exhausted the possibility space of skills, equipment, weapons and enemies? The problem with the vocabulary of finishing is that it condemns the singleplayer game experience to live in the basement alongside its disenfranchised sibling, the story. It implies, slightly tragically, that once the end of the story is reached, the further development of skill and ability that may lead to mastery is somewhat irrelevant.

Conversely, gamers who use the terminology of beating a game are also borrowing their vocabulary, but this time from singleplayer’s other brother, the much older multiple-player game. But much like a preteen wearing his teenage sibling’s running shoes, the vocabulary doesn’t quite fit. In multiplayer games, we may beat our opponent, but we don’t beat the game. No one ever beat chess or tennis. While most of us have beaten tic-tac-toe, this is a rare exception of a multiplayer game that has truly been beaten. Modern games, even singleplayer ones, cannot be beaten in the same way. The possibility space is many, many orders of magnitude larger. Players who say they have beaten a singleplayer game are viewing the game itself, and in most cases its designers, like an opponent. This is an obviously limiting perspective if you consider for a moment that if the goal of the singleplayer game designer was to beat players, then they would never lose. If you believe that you have beaten a singleplayer game, I would suggest you are confused about who or what your opponent is. If it’s the game, then you have not beaten it; if it’s the designer, then they let you win.

I suspect the real problem with this seemingly lacking terminology of beating or finishing is that we are missing an established vocabulary for expressing the experience of reaching the end of a singleplayer game. Because of this, we borrow from the two things that singleplayer games are most like: multiplayer games and stories. But as someone who has spent most of the last decade working on and thinking about singleplayer games, I think that despite their relative newness, they are both unique and significant enough to deserve their own vocabulary.

So if we’re neither finishing nor beating, what should we call it when a singleplayer game experience ends? When we stop playing a singleplayer game, I believe we do so for one reason: the value of the intrinsic rewards for playing the game has fallen below the cost of the effort required to continue. First, let’s consider the rewards of a singleplayer game to be the sum of the value of exposure to new content, and the value of an increasing understanding and mastery of game skills. Next, let us consider that the cost of the effort to continue is always increasing. In a good game, the cost is keeping up with increasing richness, complexity and challenge. In a bad game, the cost is overcoming increasing boredom with trivial or degenerate mechanics.

With this equation in mind, we can view a singleplayer game as having two curves that – should they cross – define the end of the game. If we wanted to name this state, we could say we ‘inverted’ a game, but I think that sounds lousy and using the already adopted finished or beat is good enough providing that we understand the limitations of these terms and the true nature of the player experience when they stop playing.