But I'm Still Attached

When Do Video Games Really End?

As I noted in an article earlier this month, I've been playing back through Stardew Valley and enjoying the pleasures of the game. Really, I've been playing through it in three different instances -- a single player game, a co-op game with my wife, and a larger co-op game with some friends -- and I had a realization as I came to the end of year two (the nominal end of the game) for my single-player run: I didn't really want to abandon the town.

In fairness, I don't have to. As much as Stardew has an end, it's not a "roll credits, you're done" kind of ending (unlike it's spiritual ancestor, the original Harvest Moon, which ended as soon as your two years were up, win or lose). The year may be over but the girl I married in the game, Penny, is already talking about how the next year is going to be magical. Plus, I still have the Skull Mine in the desert to finish, and then there's the whole island that's opened up that I need to go to sooner or later and start collecting the missions on there. Yeah, this game doesn't have a real ending.

Naturally, I could set the game down at any time (and I probably will lose my desire to revisit over time) as I finished my main job and made the spirit of my grandfather happy. But there's also nothing forcing me to leave and, honestly, with Penny talking about wanting to see how another year goes, I feel a little bit of desire to see it through for her. That's weird because she's just pixels and automated responses but playing through "two years" and seeing how my actions with this character changed her and made her happier I feel like I have to keep going, at least a little while longer.

This realization got me thinking about the endings of games and when, specifically, a game has to end. Some games, of course, do have endings: you beat the game, kicked the end boss to the curb, and the credit roll; if you do anything else it's on a fresh play-through. Once we got into the later NES era, and further systems from there, save files became more commonplace which allowed us to go back to right before the end boss and try our luck again, but there's only so far you can go beyond that when a game has a set ending, hard line in the sand.

Naturally, some games have found ways around that. The original Super Mario Bros. granted you the ability to select any world and start a new game from there to play through parts of your adventure again. Donkey Kong Country taunted you if you didn't get a perfect 101% (the cruelty of Rareware) and sent you back to the overworld to "do better" in any stages where you missed a secret. And of course the most famous game extension is probably the "Second Quest" of The Legend of Zelda with a whole new version of the world, and the dungeons, to explore.

Extending games really found a new level when "New Game +" modes were added. The best example here I have is Chrono Trigger; where most Square-EnixFormed from the unification of Squaresoft (home studio of Final Fantasy) and Enix (creators of Dragon Quest) this combined company is the largest game studios in the world. From action to adventure titles and, of course, JRPGs, Square Enix has become one of the biggest names in gaming. RPGs ended once the credits rolled, Chrono Trigger let you start a "New Game +" that dropped you at the beginning of the adventure but let you keep all your levels, items, and equipment so you could play the game again as a super-powered god. Better, still, you could visit the end boss at any time (via a special portal) and unlock new endings during your new run through the game. I spent so many hours in that game finding all the secrets and max-leveling my party (the only game where I've done that) and it was great fun.

Chrono Trigger is a game where it doesn't feel like the game ends when the game ends as there's so much to do there and you can just keep going, on a loop, over and over. Other games have adapted the "New Game +" idea, while still others have found ways to leave the game open-ended so you can keep playing after you've finished the "main" storyline. Spiritual successor Octopath Traveler has eight "main stories" and then an ultimate boss you can fight after for even bigger glory, if you so choose. The idea is to keep people engaged long after they've seen the credits roll, and I can appreciate that.

And then there's the BorderlandsConceptually, Borderlands is Mad Max but set on an alien planet, with magic. The game play might be action-shooter-RPG fare, with a bit of Diablo thrown in, but the aesthetic is pure, Australian post-apocalyptic exploitation. games, where not only did they give you expansion packs to play for the main game, and "New Game +" style harder difficulties (True Vault Hunter and Ultimate Vault Hunter), but the games themselves remained open-ended just in their basic construction. If you wanted to stick around in a zone and keep fighting monsters and leveling up, collecting the best gear of the ultimate final boss, you could (and I did, on a loop, for a long time in the original game). That one had the right feedback loop to keep me engaged long after the game "ended" (and then ended four more times for each of the expansions).

Not that a game even has to have an ending. You look at Minecraft which, yes, does have a boss you can hunt down and a credit scroll you can activate, but was the point of Minecraft really to fight the final boss? I bet there are plenty of players out there that have never even gotten close to the final boss, or cared. Most people are more interesting in building, creating their ultimate creations (whatever they may be) than dealing with monsters and mayhem. Hell there's an entire "creative mode" that takes the mining out of the equation so you can just focus on building. That game doesn't care.

So, then, what really is the end of a game. Is a video game better when it has a set, fixed, linear end to it? Certainly movies have to have linear ends as they're meant to be viewed from start to finish, but while video games have "start" points, their experiences are vastly more interactive than a book or a show or a movie. The point of them, from the simplest version of Pong all the way up to recent releases like Cyberpunk 2077 and Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, is to be immersive, and part of that is the fact that you can play a game for as long as you like without having to deal with an "ending". The earliest games didn't even have endings, really (not until you got to a kill screen and the game crashed, at least) because the point was to present the experience, not the ending.

For now I'll continue to hang out with Penny over in Stardew Valley. I have chores to do, two kids to keep an eye on, and a digital wife who seems very happy to have me around. Plus there are parrots on that new island that have quests for me. I might tire of the post-credits game for Stardew Valley at some point, but for now the experience keeps me hooked as I get the good feedback loop going. There are joys to be hand in the game beyond the goal of "the end", and that's okay. Better to live in the moment than to force yourself to find something else to play instead.