My friends keep venting to me about the ending of Shadow of Mordor, the new video game set in the Lord of the Rings universe. I can't relate. I never finished it. In fact, I rarely finish any game.
Shadow of Mordor, for all its flaws, is an excellent adventure, one of the better video games I've played this year. Its open-ended mission structure, that lets the player decide the order of who gets killed and when, is a dark, but refreshing departure from the "guide you from room to room" adventures that compose the majority of AAA gaming's catalogue.
But after a couple dozen hours of hunting, killing and ultimately enslaving the Uruks, I had had enough. The game's story, while passable, wasn't enough to pull me to the finish line. This seems to have become — or perhaps, always been — the purpose of story in games: to get you from one tutorial and unlock to the next, and finally, the credit screen.
I rarely finish any game
You could feel this narrative tug in Shadow of Mordor. Like in so many video games, the scenes are "here's whys," as in "Here's why you're killing Uruks," "Here's why the boss wants to fight," and "Here's why a witch has granted you the power to enslave your enemies then make their heads pop." Great storytellers show rather than tell, but the obligation of a video game's story is to tell. Story, whether it be cutscenes or the grunts enemies make, is meant to communicate the player's progress and impact in the game space — something other narrative forms don't have to worry about.
I generally find a game's story to be an obligation, more instruction manual than novel. So, when the game runs out of new things to do, or I just become exhausted, the story is typically not enough to egg me on.
This is a criticism of the story-writing process, not the stories themselves. For decades, the traditional approach to game story-writing has been for a team of designers to create a game, and for a writer to thread that game together. In film, the screenplay is a blueprint. In games, the screenplay is a glue stick.
I generally find a game's story to be an obligation
The exceptions, the games with the best traditional storytelling, are exactly the games I bemoaned at the top of the piece: the strict, narrative heavy games that don't have to worry about coddling the player because what the player can do is so limited and mandatory. Games like The Last of Us, the Uncharted franchise, and Portal — all praised for their storytelling — are all made up of series of rooms that must be completed in a predetermined order. And the studios who make those game also put an unusually high weight on storytelling, incorporating writers at the earliest stage of development. The designers have a script to work from, which is great for the story, but does encourage a certain rigidity to the game's flow.
Both these narratively predetermined games and games with only a fleck of story, like say Forza Horizon 2, share an additional problem: pacing. Developers have been artificially expanding the length of video games since the arcade days, when sharp difficulty spikes forced players to restart. Now, video games include lengthy missions in which the player must fetch a certain number of dragon eyeballs or whatever the hell object fits the fiction, and they must do it time and time again.
Games are too damn long
Most mediums employ editors, people who improve the pacing, the flow, of a creative work. But game studios seem to employ the opposite of editors, people whose entire jobs are to devise extra things to do. These things aren't pleasurable or purposeful, but they exist. In the words of a cynical marketing team, "they add value."
A few studios have tried to solve the problem of inflated game length. TellTale's The Walking Dead, broken into episodes a couple hours long and released throughout the year, attracted plenty of attention to the episodic model, which the publisher already had been peddling for years. And role-playing games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and adventure games like Sunset Overdrive have comparably brief campaigns for their genres, letting the player continue at their own pace after the stories conclusion. But they're imperfect solutions, and even then, rare alternatives to the status quo.
While most AAA games continue to take half measures on solving the story problem, games like Minecraft, Day Z, and Rust are finding success by including a malleable world and the barest framework of story. Players don't trace a pre-written narrative outline; instead, their experiences create the game's story. As they build worlds and adventure with friends, they become the storytellers, setting their own pace. These tales are then documented on YouTube and in forums, and often have more ups-and-downs than the games above their weight class. And they have conclusions, real conclusions, because their players adventures come to their own natural end.
That's why I don't finish most games. I play them until I've had my fill, until I've reached my own conclusion, and then I stop. And you know, I think that's a great way to enjoy video games, and to enjoy life in general. There's no sense forcing yourself to finish a game when you've had enough. The quest for completion or achievements is make believe, a form of pressure devised to keep you engaged, and to prevent you from trading in your game for something new.
I just wish there was an option to trim the fat. Just as I can switch gore on or off in some shooters, I'd like the ability to turn off the filler missions or the story written by a talented writer who was given no time to tie everything together. I wish games better respected my time. Or even better, I wish more studios spent the time and money to develop more interesting methods of storytelling, to include their talented writers at the beginning of the development process. If my caring about a game's story is vital to its enjoyment, then a developer should show the same care in its creation.
Until then, I have to manage my time on my own. I may never see the conclusion of Shadow of Mordor. And for that reason, it seems I like the game even more than my friends.