Massive Saturation Effect

I’ve now played about five hours of Mass Effect 2. I’m decidedly enjoying it, particularly the chance to continue the career of my avatar from the previous game – there’s a definite pleasure in that. I’ve done a few missions to collect together a team to solve the problems of the universe, visited some planets, bought some guns. Shot some dudes. Shot a lot of dudes. A lot.

So now I’m reaching that point with the game that must inevitably arrive – I’ve kind of played it now. That is, there’s not likely to be a huge amount in the rest of the game that’s super interesting or different from what I’ve already experienced, other than the continuing twists and turns of the narrative. As such, I’ve reached a particular kind of saturation point – I know, more or less, what that is all about (hint: dude-shooting is crucial to the safety of the universe).

This “ludic saturation” is part of life as a player, and, as many have commented, the point of saturation sure as hell doesn’t match the length of the game. No, in general you play a (single player, mind) game for a handful of hours and get the picture, but the game itself will have many multiple hours left to run its course. There are, needless to say, many exceptions, and many ways to dredge up still more fun ways of exploring and playing the game, but I think this argument still basically holds. Even something as open as Minecraft has a baseline point at which you understand how the game works are are, from then on, mostly playing around with what you already know, rather than experiencing the “shock of the new” that is so powerful when starting a new (and original) game.

As someone who tries his best to think about games and to develop a form of game criticism that is about more than reviewing and opinions, I sometimes wonder about whether I “should” keep playing after saturation. I’m a completionist at heart, so my instinctive answer is “hell, no – you play until it’s done.” By and large I stick with that, but it does mean that my opportunities for commentary die down from about the five hour mark with most games I play. After that the game is serving a more straightforward purpose: it’s entertaining. I’ll keep playing and will finish Mass Effect 2 not because it’s interesting (it’s not that interesting a game), but because it’s entertaining much in the same way that a sci-fi movie is entertaining. Not changing my life, but killing time in a pleasurable way.

In all of this, games essentially “suffer” from their basic need to be longer experiences – they’re not that interesting for all that long. Even Portal, a pleasingly short game, had exhausted its basic stock of originality and surprise pretty early on (though the finale was a beautiful thing, yes, yes). Movies and even television shows can be more directly interesting because they don’t have to sustain the same weight of undying attention paid by committed gamers who are likely to sit and play a game for five hours in a sitting. Five straight hours of The Matrix, say, would be dire. And of course games are a different animal – it’s not like they have to be interesting, they offer other things like the pleasant feelings of mastery and progression that other media can’t really do for us.

Still, all in all, the most wonderful game experiences I tend to have are usually early, when I don’t know what’s going on. First encounters with the wasteland of Fallout 3 or the seemingly infinite potential of the virtual city in Skate. Not knowing is a beautiful thing.

29 October 2010
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