Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
When we talk about a game "ending," we're usually talking about getting to the end of a story. We see Solid Snake through the trials and tribulations that his brother Liquid has set up for him, and we know that our hero will live to see another day because we've broken through the wall of interactive content.
The cutscene plays, Snake is on the snowmobile with his best friend forever Otacon, and the game has ended. Or, alternately, our Dungeon Crawl character has the eternal doohicky of magic whatever and hops out of the dungeon's front door. Interaction is over, the game has ended, and now we can brag about it on the internet.
I've been playing Overwatch on my PS4 since sometime around launch, and I think I've reached the end of the game. And that's weird, right? Overwatch isn't a game with a traditional narrative ending or a point where interaction with it ends. It's an online multiplayer shooter. You can play it until your bones crunch apart and your eyes flop out of your head like a Cronenberg flick. It cannot be "completed" in that traditional video game way.
Why does it feel like I'm at the end? I've plateaued in my ability to play. For every game I win, I lose another. Overwatch's internal system for rating my skill and then matching me with other players of similar skill seems so efficient and correct that the I am dialed in perfectly to play against people who will beat and lose to me at equal intervals. I'm forever a silver-goldish-level, middle-tier player.
I've never experienced this before. While I wouldn't ever call myself a "competitive gamer," I've always had good luck at increasing my skill at a game over play time. In Starcraft II, I slowly ground up through bronze and silver league, not great, but also not the worst. The same goes for various Call of Duty, Battlefield, and MOBAs like Smite or Heroes of the Storm. In all of these games, I could always see that my skill level was (sometimes very) slowly increasing, and through my playtime, I could track a slow and steady march up through the ranks. I never stopped getting better, even if it was only a little at a time.
In Overwatch, I've slammed into a brick wall so hard that it's thrown me into an existential quandary over whether I should even be bothering anymore. If the end of interaction is a key marker of the end of a video game, then I have certainly passed that point. For the most part, I'm just treading water, neither helping nor hurting my team with my Mei (my Mei with a gold weapon!). Without being able to move my way up the ladder, I effectively feel like I'm not playing at all.
There are strategies to fix this. I could discipline my body with aiming drills pulled down from YouTube channels devoted to "training" Overwatch players by working on fundamentals. I could pay very close attention to the metagame and make sure that I am doing my part to have the best team comp possible. I could only play with a group of people on team chat. I could devote many more hours a day to this game.
I fear, though, that that's a different game. That isn't Overwatch as a cool and interesting thing to play after dinner. That is Overwatch as a lifestyle choice, like exercising or learning to play the banjo. It's taking my play and transforming it into a commitment that I'm just not ready to accept or adapt to.
It's common to talk about games in relation to power fantasies. You're pretending to be a very cool soldier with a giant sword who saves the world, or you're the brain behind the gun of a special operative who, you guessed it, saves the world. Or, alternately, we talk about games' rhetorical ability to disempower players and to generate empathy toward those who are oppressed by the powers that be in a game like Cart Life. The success of each of these modes of power are, of course, hotly debated by people with a vested interest in either position being true.
I don't think we have good language for talking about the experience of playing a game that feels like being stuck on a treadmill. We have terms like "ELO hell" to talk about the indeterminate spaces between "good" and "good enough," but it's hard to find discussion or even language about the deep feeling of despair at knowing that all the time you've sunk into a competitive game like Overwatch has led you to an arbitrary ending.
It certainly feels like hell, but not the fiery one that we like to evoke so much. Instead, it's like something out of Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright who wrote all of those bleak-ass pieces where the settings are places like "a whole lot of urns in a grey landscape" or "landscape with scraggly tree." It's a hell where investment, both of the emotional kind and the time kind, cannot ever be returned because there is nothing the game can give back to you. You can either crunch and crush your way to a higher level by investing more of yourself into an arbitrary skill goal that will recede off into the distance or you can choose not to. And each of those feels terrible in its own way.
Some games end with an explosion. If we're really unlucky, they end with a hook for a sequel that will never come. Some just congratulate you for rescuing the President. But my encounter with my ending of Overwatch doesn't have that gravity. It doesn't have any weight. It just floats there, out of reach and still right here, taunting me into staying here or pushing through until I find the next grey void from which I cannot proceed. It's sad that skill plateauing feels this way. It's somehow worse that I contemplate moving forward.