Lead imagery from 'Xenoblade Chronicles'
Two weeks ago, my climax was stolen.
Now, I'm not talking about a parent's hand on the doorknob, or the image of a naked grandparent wandering through an otherwise intricately woven fantasy. I mean that a moment of triumph was taken from me. I'd come to the end of a grand adventure, and although I had faced down the final boss and restored peace, I wasn't happy. In fact, I was kind of gutted. It's a feeling I'd had before, but this time I was more aware of it, and I felt the new gap in my life a little more keenly.
Xenoblade Chronicles was a game I'd played a little bit of before, enjoying the combat and the exploration, but up until recently it had sat mostly unloved and unplayed in my 3DS. Then I took a trip down to Manchester, from my home in Glasgow, and the car journey quickly became full of high drama and shocking voice acting. Over the course of the next two weeks I funnelled all my spare time into the game and, after 60 hours, which is pretty conservative for Xenoblade, I had seen the last cutscene and made my final save.
Usually I would go onto the next game, so I should have been trying to finish The Witcher 3; but I was listless, unable to play CD Projekt RED's game for any length of time, sometimes failing to find the enthusiasm to even turn it on. I missed Xenoblade. I missed the characters, the world, the music and even the English dub. For the first time, in a long time, I was pining for a game; I'd saved the world, but in doing so I was also severing my link to it, and it was a bitter feeling.
This has made me think more about how we deal with reaching the end of a game, and the sense of loss that we either have to embrace and deal with, or the lengths we might go to so that we don't have to say goodbye. (I'm quite deliberately stalling with The Witcher 3, so as to not have it end too soon – Ed.) With this in mind, I reached out to some writers that I knew invested a lot of time into individual games, with the view to finding out how they have experienced both the intimate bond games can have and the lasting impression they can leave.
In the world of games, RPGs are like the great big thick books you see people struggling to lift on the train and usually require you to invest a lot of your time in to really get the most out of. When I posed the question of missing a game when it was over, Holly Nielsen (The Guardian, Sky News) came back with an amazing look at her first playthrough of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which clocked in at over 500 hours.
"I used to self impose things I could or couldn't do in an effort to make the game last longer," she tells me. "Like not using fast travel, collecting every item of clothing, doing long journeys and visiting every town."
This idea fascinated me: that the world of the game had become so important, such a part of Holly's life that she wouldn't leave until she had seen and done absolutely everything it could offer. There's something lovely about the idea of ignoring some of the features, like fast travel, to explore the game more organically and really be part of the place, its people and the surrounding fiction. Finding ways to extend the game for her wasn't just about completing it or getting her money's worth; it was because she had formed a bond with her character and the world that she had to save, and instead of leaving it all behind, she took the time to almost be a tourist and savour it before moving on.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I learned about the time Chris Schilling (Edge, VICE) had to complete and review The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword to meet an extremely tight deadline – he got only three hours' sleep over the course of two days.
"It's such an elegiac game, with one of the most moving soundtracks of the series, especially 'Fi's Lament'," he tells me. "At the end, you have a number of goodbyes, and that heightens that feeling of an imminent parting. When the credits roll on a Zelda game, it feels like a farewell. Another Zelda game is another generation; the player's character another Hero of Time. So you won't see these folk again, just different versions of them."
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This is an extreme example of when, either through choice or deadline, we put too much time into a game and spend more hours within it than than we do the real world. Over the course of two days, Chris spent more time flying the skies of Hyrule than he did sleeping, or doing pretty much anything else. In many ways, playing a game in such an intense manner makes it even harder to let go because you've concentrated so hard on doing only one thing over all that time.
At university, a flatmate did this exact same thing with Kingdom Hearts 2. After waiting three years for the sequel to one of his favourite games, it was bought and completed over the course of a single weekend, and afterwards he very much felt its absence. He was going through a form of withdrawal from the focus he'd had on a single objective. Instead of a sense of accomplishment, he'd been rewarded with something closer to regret than a final victory.
Sometimes we don't want a game to end for more personal reasons. The response I receive from Jim Trinca (VideoGamer) about his time playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim shows that trying to avoid finishing a game can have a wider impact on your personal life.
"When Skyrim was done, that was really hard, because I then had to face reality. I don't think I've ever felt more devastated about finishing a game. Now, I can't really play it. I bought the PC version recently and planned to fall in love with it all over again, but it just reminded me of the worst time in my life, and also made me realise that I might have been able to solve some issues back then had I not spent 300 hours playing a stupid video game about dragons and horses."
I'll be honest, what Jim's talking about here is something that hadn't even occurred to me when I planned this article. I'm sure at some point we've all thought that the time we're putting into a game could be better spent elsewhere, and here that is being strongly felt – but living within the world of Skyrim means that the negative stuff going on around you in the real world can at least be blinkered, if not completely ignored, and for some people that's an essential relief from their everyday. Ending a relationship with a game isn't easy, but maybe it is important to know when to say goodbye, if it risks entirely mucking up what really matters once the credits roll.
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Life is full of saying goodbye, and although it's easy to dismiss a game as just another distraction from the world around us, it's never as simple as that. Ria Jenkins (The Guardian, Indie Haven) put it well in an email to me when she talked about finishing Dragon Age: Origins for the first time: "Knowing that as soon as I stopped playing, the cast of characters who had convinced me of their life would cease to exist, filled me with a thick melancholy."
The time we invest in playing games is real, hours and days that we'll never get back, and the profound sense of loss we can feel once they've ended is real, too. Just like finishing a book that you wish had a dozen more chapters, or a TV series that wraps up way too soon, the feelings they evoke within us and the bonds they create are tangible.
This doesn't all mean that we should avoid playing games that involve such a grand investment of time. Indeed, I think we should seek out these games, ones that are worthy of taking up what little spare time any of us have in our adult lives. This is how we can honour the hard work and dedication that goes into creating these expansive and beautiful worlds. And if that means we feel restless or almost incomplete when the game is over, maybe that's a sign that video games can transcend being just another diversion from reality. As for me, I guess it's time I went and visited an old friend I left back in Novigrad. Maybe I'll spend a few weeks there, before moving on again.
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