Completionism is a term that can be defined in a multitude of ways when used in connection with video games as a medium. Some people hear the word and think of the 750 of 900 shiny Korok Seeds in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that they still need to retrieve, still waiting to be found across the Hylian overworld. Some people hear the word and glance at the nagging percentage score attached to their save file of Batman: Arkham Knight, pondering how many Riddler trophies stand in the way of them and the game’s infamous Knightmare ending. Others think about completionism and immediately jump to thoughts of trophies or achievements waiting to be collected, somewhere in the backlog of games that they haven’t yet even come close to touching. Completionism is a loaded term, and one with which I’m all-too familiar.
After I graduated high school a few years ago, I took a gap year in order to pursue my dream of becoming a writer while also working as a tech consultant for senior citizens in the D.C. Metro area. Despite these two tasks often taking up the majority of my week, in the absence of school, I was still left with more free time than I had been privy to in years. Naturally, I chose to spend said time on the medium that I love with a burning passion: video games. At the time, the industry as a whole was jumping head-on into the newest console generation, and so I plunged into the burgeoning library of the Xbox One with a mindset that was, unbeknownst to me at the time, phenomenally unhealthy:
I was going to 100% every game I played.
Now, allow me to clarify, as I did open this article by explaining that completionism was a multi-faceted concept: When I say that I was going to 100% every game I played, I mean that I was going to do so by the metric by which the game measures such completionism. I have no interest in achievement hunting – however, if I’m playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and see a 33% synchronization rate taunting me every time I check my progress, I’m going to work my hardest to excel in order to reach 100%. If I check the collectibles/perks screen of Wolfenstein: The New Order and see items that are clearly grayed-out, waiting to be uncovered, I’m going to move heaven and earth in order to unlock them. If I’m speed-running Halo: The Master Chief Collection? Rest assured, I’m hunting every skull.
This was a drive that persisted through the entirety of my gap year and onward into my college years. I was fixated on playing a game to its fullest extent, but doing so in the quickest, most masochistic fashion humanly possible – because, after all, I had to complete my games fast enough to move on to whatever I was excited for next. It consumed my weekends, my nights; and I was trying to partake in this lifestyle while balancing a social life, homework, family obligations, and regularly scheduled television every night. Surprisingly, I was able to keep up with it for quite a long time.
This is the story of how it all came crashing down in flames.
As with all stories of a hero’s downfall, this one must too begin with a nemesis: in my case, the death of my completionist tendencies was heralded by the arrival of an unholy trinity: three of what would one day become four “Horsemen of Death,” if you will.
The first “Horseman” was a game that, when mentioned in industry circles attached to the word “completionism”, immediately elicits laughter due to the sheer supposed impossibility of such a task: the “Complete Edition” of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which I had attained for a relatively cheap price while on an afternoon excursion to GameStop with a friend. I had played Assassins of Kings during my gap year (and, yes, I completed every quest available to me), but I hadn’t really developed an attachment to the franchise, which I attribute to the fact that, since I’m not a PC gamer and the original Witcher never released for consoles, it felt like I was jumping into the middle of an ongoing story with no reference point for what had come previously. Therefore, I had possessed no desire to play Wild Hunt when it was released, but after witnessing the degree to which it was hailed as “game of the generation” when it came out, I decided to give it a chance.
The second game that would vex me released about a week after said excursion, and was a beast of a nature that I was far more acquainted with from childhood: Pokémon Sun. Now, Pokémon is a franchise for which completionism can mean a number of different things, so let me lay out my criteria right now: my completionist drive when it comes to a Pokémon game has nothing to do with catching all 802 Pokémon currently known to man. In the words of sages wiser than I:
“Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That.”
No, when it comes to Pokémon, my criteria for completion are probably the least strict of any franchise that I play in that I consider my time with a Pokémon game complete once I’ve finished the main storyline and any relevant post-game content that emerges afterwards. (I also must have obtained every Legendary Pokémon that exists within my version of the game.)
The final of the first three “Horsemen of Death” was a game that released towards the tail end of 2016, a game that I had been anxiously awaiting since its release date had been formally announced earlier that year. It is a game that, due to the strain of my academic duties, as well as my completionist drive, took me seven months to finish. It is also, ironically, definitively my game of the year for 2016: I speak of none other than Final Fantasy XV, for which my completion criterion was that I would complete every side quest in addition to the main storyline.
All three of these games have a trait in common, which is that all of them are massively sprawling RPGs that are inherently designed as time-sinks – and I was tackling them all against the backdrop of a busy semester, family illness, and participation in my university’s production of Twelve Angry Jurors (a story for another time). So, naturally, while I poured a few hours into them here and there during the final weeks of my semester, my plan was to wait for winter break and then dispatch each game successively during my vacation.
Given that I was only moderately excited about Wild Hunt and Pokémon Sun, my quest began with Final Fantasy XV, a game which is supposed to be about a prince struggling to take back his kingdom from the empire that’s conquered it. However, if you were watching my playthrough, it was about four members of a Japanese boy band who ignore the needs of their people in favor of driving around collecting ingredients for the owner of a local diner for hours on end.
Now, it’s funny: in retrospect, having finished Final Fantasy XV, I feel as though I could have easily completed every quest in this game in two weeks had I not succumbed to another one of my neuroses, which is that, if I leave a game for too long and come back later, I need to restart it from the beginning in order to have the same connection to my playthrough that I had when I left. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve restarted Final Fantasy XV, pushed that car to Hammerhead, then begun a 20-hour playthrough that then needed to be restarted again because of another untimely forced abdication of my journey with Noctis and the boys. Many of these abdications came as a result of obligations that arose upon my return to school for our Spring semester, but the one that started them all came at Christmas, when I was blessed with the gifts of Dishonored 2 and Titanfall 2 for Christmas. I took a break from my grand RPG quest to play my way through those campaigns (in the case of Dishonored 2, I did it twice, once as each character), then went back to Final Fantasy a week later to discover that I no longer had any attachment to my current playthrough. So I deleted my file and started over.
I know: words cannot express the magnitude of my folly.
I chipped away at Final Fantasy sporadically over the course of the next two or so months, each time ending up forced to pause for prolonged periods due to academic requirements, then returning later to start a new file and make another 20 hours’ worth of progress running through the same side quests that I had completed in a previous life. Then, in March, my Nintendo Switch arrived, and with it came the fourth horseman of my downfall. Yes, you know what’s coming:
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
I maintain that the only reason I ever beat Breath of the Wild to begin with was because of the Switch’s portability. The fact that I could take Hyrule’s massive landscape with me everywhere I went made it much easier for me to play without any irrational need for a restart or do-over. Zelda, mercifully, hadn’t come out of the box with a completion percentage, so I set fairly reasonable goals for myself: I would complete the main storyline, every side quest, hunt down all 120 shrines, and locate all 900 Korok Seeds.
I didn’t necessarily feel the need to complete these tasks in a specific order, so I ended up completing the shrine hunt and side quests simultaneously, followed by the main storyline. (I’ll probably dedicate a separate article to my thoughts on Breath of the Wild at some point, but suffice it to say, I loved it!) Upon Ganon’s defeat, though, I saw it: plain as day, in the lower-left hand corner of the map screen.
The completion percentage.
It had arrived in the wake of my first triumph over Ganon, along with counters displaying how many shrine and side quests I had completed. (Those didn’t perturb me.) However, it seemed as though I had hardly made a dent in Breath of the Wild’s total amount of content. I don’t remember what the exact percentage was, but it had to be somewhere between 20 and 30% - which seemed ludicrous to me given the amount of time that I had invested in the game thus far.
What made it even more complicated was that no one in the gaming community at the time seemed entirely clear on what, exactly, it was that comprised the completion percentage. In the months since, the general consensus has become that the percentage increases depending on main quest completion, side quest completion, shrine completion, Korok seed retrieval, and discovery of all of the game’s many locations. Daunted by my task with the limited knowledge I had available to me at the time, however, I chose to dedicate my attention to the Korok seeds, beginning my journey to find all 900 from the Great Plateau, planning to work my way throughout the map in a clockwise fashion.
I made it to the Desert Wasteland, 150 seeds into my journey, and finally gave up.
I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put myself through the same tasks, expending resources multiple times in order to find an ocean’s worth of seeds that would cause a woodland creature to shake his maracas to increase my inventory only to finally be rewarded with… well…
It had been strenuous enough to undertake that task 150 times – I had no patience to stick around and do the remaining 750. Yet, surprisingly, I found that I wasn’t as disappointed in myself as I expected to be – this would be the first Zelda game that I had owned where I hadn’t completely and utterly picked apart every facet of the game. Yet, I had done the things that mattered to me: I had conquered every shrine, helped every citizen who needed it. Maybe, I reasoned, that was enough. I was satisfied. I was happy.
As the school year was ending, I thought about my backlog, and how Final Fantasy, The Witcher 3, and Pokémon remained untouched. I knew that I was going to restart Final Fantasy again. It was unavoidable. And so, I asked myself: what if I don’t have to do all of those fetch quests again? Is that what I really care about? Aren’t I playing this game because I’m invested in the characters and their personal narratives, and not because Sania Yeager needs another heaping helping of frogs to dissect?
And so it was that I returned home, this time for summer break, and immediately set out to conquer Final Fantasy’s main storyline, shoving aside several side quests in order to learn the final fate of Noctis and his friends. This final playthrough took me about a week, and when I was done, I didn’t feel ashamed of myself for not spending hours upon hours driving around a massive overworld, listening to nostalgic tunes while looking for another dog tag. When Final Fantasy XV ended, I was considering the emotional weight of the game’s final moments and the culmination of seven months that I had spent with these characters. And again, I felt satisfied.
Next came Wild Hunt, another game where I endeavored to make it through the main storyline, which was, in my opinion, far more compelling than Assassins of Kings while also being about ten hours too long. I never strayed from my goal unless there was a side quest that naturally branched off of the main storyline, never faltering in my marathon sprint to the end of the game. (I never even touched Gwent, which many tell me is blasphemy, but I’ve never been one for card games.) And once more, when I finished, I was satisfied.
That was a couple of weeks ago now. Three of the “horsemen” have fallen – Pokémon is still a work in progress, but I’ve just arrived at the third island and I’m proceeding at a good pace. I have a team I’m relatively proud of, and I’m confident I’ll beat the game before the end of the summer – I’m not in a rush.
Certain genres define a console generation. Nowadays, with advancements in technology, the defining genre of this generation has become the open-world game – and for every revelation in the genre (The Witcher 3, Breath of the Wild), there’s a game that displays its worst excesses, overpopulating the world with meaningless tasks that contribute nothing to the game’s overall narrative or general conceit as a whole (looking at you, Watch_Dogs and Assassin’s Creed).
And the problem with this newfound oversaturation of open-world games is that the majority of gamers will never see everything significant that such a game has to offer. I used to think this was a tragedy. Maybe it’s not. Maybe, in coming to terms with the formerly-stressful nature of my backlog, I came to an epiphany:
When your desire to experience everything threatens to overwhelm you, or overrides your enjoyment of a game, stop. There are too many games and too little time to be spending hours on filler that does nothing for you – a completion rate can be exciting and challenging, but it means nothing if you’re not having fun with the game you’re attempting to complete.
Sometimes, you have to decide when a game is over.
Sometimes, that’s enough.