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The One True Path

I'm not the sort of person who plays individual games more than once, and not just because I don’t have time for my backlog as it is. I find sticking with a single playthrough is usually the most satisfying option, even if it means missing out on content.

(Insert obvious exception for rogue-likes, or other games where repeated play is inherently important).

There are several reasons to only play once, other than the obvious desire to try something new. There can be good reasons to seek out a more complete experience of a game too, don’t get me wrong, but I'm not sure everyone respects what this risks leaving behind.

Incompleteness and ambiguity

I stood firm about Dear Esther, while excited segments of my twitter feed raved about how everyone simply must play it at least twice, darling. To me Dear Esther is best experienced through its ambiguity. The “incomplete” snippets from my playthrough are the whole of Dear Esther for me. It gave me plenty of information and emotion to piece together, it’s enough. The ambiguity is teetering on the edge of being something more straightforward and coherent; the last thing I want is extra information to send it over the edge. If I leave things alone it’s perfect: ever wavering but never falling.

There’s beauty and excitement in things left partially unfulfilled. TV shows axed early that gain a more passionate cult following than they ever would have otherwise. Unresolved sexual tension that proves far more fascinating than any actual sex. Intriguing loose ends and dangling mysteries to ponder. Most games bend over backwards to please, leaving me over-satiated. I want more games to leave me unsatisfied.

Experiencing everything Dear Esther has to offer wouldn’t make it better. It would make it something different, which isn’t the way I personally want to think about it. I want it to be a journey through particular spaces and ideas. I don’t want to think about it as a machine making random selections behind the scenes. And I certainly don’t want to see how all the pieces fit together. I wouldn’t be exploring hurt and confusion any more; I’d be gaining understanding, or even mastery.

Making choices

I'm still playing through BioShock because I’m the world’s most behind-the-times critic, or something. So I know a lot about what to expect even though I haven’t played it before. Important revelations won't be quite the surprise they were to some people. I also know that even if the game tries to suggest rescuing little sisters instead of harvesting them is a sacrifice there actually isn’t much difference in reward. And so, it makes sense to rescue right up until the end with the option to keep a save file before the last little sister and try out both endings. And yet, I think harvesting feels like a more natural choice in such a strange, desperate place (apologies to anyone who actually has a parental bone in their body).

It’s easy to have these conflicts between the metagame and the roleplaying, so I usually try not to know how the systems work. I prefer to make choices based on whatever decision I think my character would make, and accept the consequences as my personal canon.

Dishonored might feel quite different in high or low chaos, but I made my choice. In my game only one of those pathways exists, or ever will exist. This is fine by me. There’s a common vibe I see around with games like Dishonored that it’s worth seeing both sides of the coin. For me, the existence of the other pathway is important, but actually seeing it would render my choices less meaningful. Would they still be “my choices”? What “actually” happened, if I have to weigh up multiple outcomes?

If I'm particularly curious about how alternative options play out I might look them up on YouTube, which is clearly in the realm of other people’s stories instead of my own and so avoids much of the confusion.

The romance problem

The most important thing about my roleplaying-based approach to choice is that it only works if I don’t already know the outcome. If I look up a guide I've lost the character-based story and started crafting a particular outcome. It’s less satisfying for the same reasons as a second playthrough. Extra information makes choices into something different. Optimisation is far less interesting to me than characters making organic choices in-the-moment. At least, for character-driven stories.

Still, I can’t claim I never look up guides and start optimising instead of roleplaying. The temptation is always there, and I sabotage myself like this far more often than I would like. It’s one of those difficult human nature things where I’m scared of the risk involved in not knowing the consequences, yet know that in the long run I’ll be more satisfied if I don’t spoil myself and just take the risk.

It’s probably a common thing to want to understand game systems, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time on criticism and analysis, but sometimes it’s a particularly bad idea to peek behind the curtain.

My biggest temptation of all is to look up romance guides and make sure I’m not doing anything to jeopardise my options. I probably don’t need to mention that I'm thinking mainly of BioWare games. I always, always do this and it’s really icky when I think about it. If I went in blind there would be at least some illusion of a relationship developing naturally. As soon as the mechanics are revealed it becomes a blatant transaction of gift X plus conversation option Y equals sexy times. Kim Moss was right, and now I feel like a total creep.

I don’t completely understand why I treat romance so differently to other aspects of roleplaying games, but it worries me slightly. In most contexts all outcomes seem valid (not always happy, but interesting), but if a relationship doesn't work out it feels like I'm missing something important. It would probably help if these games also put more effort into exploring intimate relationships based on things other than sex and romance. I would like that a lot, but would it make any difference, really? I might just be too well tuned to seeking particular romantic outcomes.

My pure organic playthrough remains a bit of a dream, then. Something to aspire to.