The Zen of Video Games – Endless Games

The release of Mists of Pandaria has gotten me to thinking about World of Warcraft. I could never get into it – even though practically all of my best friends were playing it for several hours a day, and I think some of them still do. I liked it, sure, it had a humongous world to explore, and leveling up and getting stronger gear is always addicting (damned Skinner box), but I never really saw the point of it all. The longest I ever managed to keep playing was to level 60 (max at the time was 80), and I bought my flying mount, and then I stopped playing. For good. Even though a bunch of people have told me that the game doesn’t even really START until you’ve hit the max level – which makes absolutely NO sense to me.

I think my problem was that the game could never be beaten. Most video games since the Nintendo Entertainment System have had a clearly definable end-goal, like “Defeat the evil Zuzywuvuz and save the galaxy!” You reach that goal, and the game’s ending plays, followed by the credits. Simple.

But Massively Multiplayer Online games pretty much rely on continuous play. They need players to keep coughing up that twenty bucks a month, and if the game could be beaten, I suspect most players would cancel their subscription once they did. Unless there was an extremely good reason to start all over and do it again, I certainly would.

So instead, World of Warcraft simply doesn’t end. There’s no final boss, no world-saving, you just keep playing, trying to get better and better gear for your character. I began to feel a lot like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a boulder up a mountain. And for what?

This is the same reason I don’t like the Nazi Zombies minigame from the Call of Duty games – there’s no win condition. Waves upon waves of zombies – or worse – will just keep coming at you until you’re dead. Knowing that you’re going to die – and there’s nothing you can do about it – reduces the game to a pointless exercise in fatalism as far as I’m concerned. My friends would probably say the point is to see how long you can last – I would reply that whether you’re dead in 7 minutes or dead in 30 seconds, you’re still zombie lunch.

I would much rather play Left 4 Dead or Killing Floor. Killing Floor actually works much the same way as Nazi Zombies, except that after a set number of waves of zombies, you fight an extremely hard-to-kill end-boss, and if you kill it, you survive. You win. There is no way to win at Nazi Zombies. You will always lose, it’s just a matter of when.

Early games were like this, too. Space Invaders, Asteroids, even Pac-Man were designed to play on forever, even though Pac-Man actually doesn’t (only has 255 stages, that’s all). And when I was younger, I had the same problem with them that I have Nazi Zombies today; if I’m just going to fail, why does it matter whether I fail now or ten minutes from now?

However, the fatalism to it all is intriguing from an artistic point of view, at least, though I highly doubt that was the inspiration for any of these games I’ve mentioned. I think it was far less “I want to explore the finality and inevitability of death,” and more “I WANT ALL THE MONIEZ.”

All this just makes me wonder, maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s the way I look at it. Maybe Nazi Zombies isn’t about winning or losing, maybe it’s about having fun with your friends, watching each other’s backs as you destroy hundreds of the undead. Maybe World of Warcraft isn’t about winning or losing, maybe it’s about being an unstoppable badass helping your friends take down mythic creatures in the hopes that one of them will get that one rare item drop.

But I can’t help it. There’s no sense of accomplishment in these games for me. There’s something about that moment when you land the final blow on a particularly difficult final boss, and they die or start to explode, and you know you’ve WON. When you cast Luminaire for the final time, and Lavos starts screaming and slowly disintegrating. When you fire the Stinger missile, and Metal Gear Rex staggers and starts to explode. When you, as Link, shove your sword into Ganon’s FACE. The sense of victory is palpable, and awe-inspiring.

Why do I need this? I’m not entirely sure. But I think that sense of genuine triumph is so rare in real, boring life that experiencing it in a game is just as good, if not better than the real deal. And I never got that sensation from WoW, no matter what beast I took down, probably because I knew they’d just respawn in a little while. Really took the sweetness out of those victories to know they’d be back within minutes, like nothing happened.

Does WoW need a win condition? Clearly not, they’re still doing well. And plenty of people LOVE the Nazi Zombies minigame. These games just aren’t for me, that’s all.

If you need me, I’ll be over here, saving the world.