Games

When Games Don’t End

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As I write this in the final week of December 2012, I’ve been playing Borderlands 2 for about two months. I haven’t played every day — I even took a week’s vacation to New Mexico during that time — but I have spent a considerable amount of time with the game. I’ve played through the entire “main” game twice: the first time in the game’s standard mode and the second in what it calls “True Vault Hunter Mode,” in which the narrative is the same but the enemies are tougher and the rewards are more lucrative. I’ve also completed the first section of downloadable content (DLC, one of which is pictured above), which adds more missions, and I’m more than halfway through the second DLC. The third will be available for download in January, with a fourth coming sometime around summer. And if that weren’t enough, it looks likely that the game will eventually receive another round of DLC areas with even more missions and stories.

Where does it stop?

I should clarify that I’ve had — that I continue to have — a great time with Borderlands 2. It’s a sprawling, challenging game, and it’s got a sense of humor that’s a welcome break from the legions of overly serious military shooters and strategy titles that flood the market. It also allows for a huge variance in experience from one player to another: every time you play through an area, you’ll find new gear (weapons, helpful items, etc.) in new places. It’s never the same game twice, which means you have to keep your eyes open and use your environment to survive. That reliance on player initiative, combined with an ability to craft character traits based on your style of playing, makes the game feel truly rewarding.

Yet I find myself wondering about the latest shift in gaming and game communities, and what it might mean. When I was a boy, games were mostly dull tests of reflexes as evidenced in your ability to get a character to jump from one platform to another. (Early ones didn’t even let you save your progress.) The advanced platforms of the past few years, though, have allowed for graphical and narrative shifts that produced some amazing games. We went from classical “game” to more proper forms of “story.”

Borderlands 2, though, with all its peripherals, is a little like a theme park: the goal isn’t story so much as endless experience. For instance, when you go to Disney World, you can see the heroes and villains from animated movies walking around, acting in stage shows, and doing other things to vaguely re-create the narrative you remember from the film. Even though the movie is over — the hero’s learned a lesson, the bad guy’s been defeated — the artifacts from the movie are held in a kind of suspended state that lets you interact with them forever. In Borderlands 2, you can fight certain bosses over and over again to try and earn better rewards, you can play through the entire single-player storyline twice, and you can keep adding to your experience with add-ons and downloads that give you more to do and explore. As a result, it’s possible to watch the game’s supporting characters come unstuck from the narrative and fulfill seemingly conflicting roles based on how much you’re willing to play. For example: you can switch between the game’s main story and the DLC areas at any time, meaning you can find some of the same characters in two different places, telling you two different things about two different missions. Or there’s the fact that, after you complete the second playthrough, you’re deposited right back in the game, with all remaining side quests (missions not essential to the completion of the game) and DLC areas scaled up to the maximum skill level. So you can defeat the final villain, then go back to your home base and listen to the other characters talk about how much they’re looking forward to you defeating the final villain. It becomes a deconstruction of what we think of as a gaming narrative and becomes a new kind of hybrid, one that emphasizes story and scope even as it recalls the early days of games as pure reflex-building escapism.

On one level, I appreciate and enjoy the size of titles like Borderlands 2. On another, though, there’s something to be said for game as finished narrative. The Mass Effect series is one of the best franchises and most engaging experiences in modern gaming, and I believe a big part of that is because the three games work as a trilogy to tell one long, complex story about interstellar war and peace. The final game’s downloadable content offered more arenas for those who wanted to team up for battle simulations online, but they didn’t affect the story. (The only one related to the main narrative simply expanded some dialogue and scenes at the end of the final game.) When I finished Mass Effect 3, I felt the same bittersweet blend of satisfaction and regret that always comes at the close of a good story. It’s not that I don’t want to return to that world, but that, after what I’ve played through, it wouldn’t make sense.

Borderlands 2, though, has no end, at least not that I can see. I’m still playing the game to collect some new weapons and experiences, though my character is currently at the maximum allowable skill level. It looks likely that upcoming DLC releases will increase the cap on character levels, but with another batch of DLC releases apparently in the works, who’s to say the cap won’t increase again? Borderlands 2 isn’t the only game to function like this, either. Off the top of my head, the Assassin’s Creed series (at least the titles I’ve played in it) drops you right back into the game’s open world after you wrap the main storyline. You can finish side quests or just run around for the hell of it.

I’m not sure this is bad, but it is weird, when you think about it. Even old games that were light on real story still had a termination point. When you take away that finish line — when the phrase “I beat the game” doesn’t even apply anymore — you do something to the fundamental nature of gameplay. It’s a little like the way modern Marvel movies are strung together to create a seemingly endless story. If you can never finish it, what do you call it? At a certain point, doesn’t it stop being a game and become something else?

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