Noted philosopher NBC’s The Good Place argued that the ephemerality of existence is what gives life meaning. (Yes, this is a comedy article about video games; bear with me.) In the sitcom – spoiler! – the titular Good Place is presented not as paradise but as an existential punishment. Monkey go-karting is great and all, it argues, but everything gets old eventually.
The literal endlessness of infinity weighs down over the dearly departed, ruining what should have been their eternal reward. The solution? An exit door. Infinity’s given an optional end, and suddenly the afterlife can be enjoyed again. The jury’s out on whether or not this is the correct approach to, y’know, existence, but I think it’s an exceptional argument for video games. After all, what are games, if not tiny, digital paradises – an escape and respite from the real world, a reward for a hard day of watching Bigfoot documentaries for “research” purposes.
Most games have some kind of narrative, even if it’s just a story you have to play through to get to the multiplayer. Let’s, for the sake of this metaphor, call that your life. Big, final Game Over screens can sometimes feel anticlimactic, or, if poorly done, even ruin the preceding hours – *cough* Mass Effect 3 *cough* – because there’s no real reward for what you just did.
A lot more games are taking the open-ended route, either throwing you back into an earlier save to keep achieving achievements or going full-on looter-shooter. After a while, though, all that shooting and looting starts to feel hollow and aimless. Even if you do have the good sense to add Draculas to your monkey go-karting, doing the same thing over and over again indefinitely gets ... boring. Like, as a rule.
So what’s the answer? Well, quitting. But that rarely feels good. I propose a middle ground: give the player a “soft” ending, an exit door they can choose to use whenever they want.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla wasn’t a perfect game, but it understood this. I got my big, convoluted narrative ending, and then, sure enough, I was back in Ravensthorpe. There were more zealots to hunt, more monasteries to destroy, a secret ending with King Alfred to un-secret. I tried for a while, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. Lopping off someone’s head with my enchanted golden ax that also set them on fire just stopped being fun.
So I parked my boat one last time, fully prepared to just give up. But then! Gunnar triggered a side quest; he was getting married. The mission was short and simple: a wedding, and then Eivor had a quiet moment with Randvi. That was it.
The game kept going, but I felt done – and I gained more appreciation for Valhalla in the process. Playing had occasionally bordered on being a chore, but I was able to find my own satisfaction in the end, a strange sense of peace, of completion, despite there being plenty more of England to go a-Viking through. It was a feeling not entirely dissimilar to Jason Mendoza’s moment of finality in The Good Place, his brought on by a perfect season of Madden.
And that’s to say nothing about games designed to be endless. What I wouldn’t give for a way to leave my Animal Crossing island and not feel shitty about it. Just a chance to say goodbye to everyone and finally be free from that Sisyphean purgatory once and for all.
Open-ended games are great, but there needs to be a door, an exit, that feels like a choice rather than just giving up on the game.
Eirik Gumeny is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and assorted B-movie monsters, and he recently added werewolves and assassins to The Great Gatsby. He’s also on Twitter a bunch.
Top Image: NBCUniversal