The Backlog (9): I Hate Finishing Games, or the Benefits of Procrastination
75 hours or more, according to my Switch. That’s how long it took me to beat Breath of the Wild, and honestly, I thought I didn’t like it that much.
I hate finishing games, which is something I think I’ve mentioned, and if I haven’t hammered it home by now, here it is:
I. Hate. Finishing. Games.
Now, I think game endings can be beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant, wonderful things, and that endings in general are a vital part of understanding the arc of life. Your time in relationships, school, work, or just in your house will all come to an end, providing a real-world point of no return that will in some ways divide your life into the before and after period. It might be a small thing, but when something comes to an end, it’s over, and you can’t quite ever capture that feeling again.
Which is why I finished Breath of the Wild a few weeks ago, after getting it with my Switch in the year of our Lord Miyamoto 2017.
I sat on that game for four goddamn years and all it took was a pandemic and a personal crisis to finally propel me into finishing it. I’ve been humming and hawing about buying the DLC packs for the game since they were announced, and I was finally at the point where I’d watched enough YouTube retrospectives to go “I should really see if I still enjoy this game.” The thing is though, I’d basically forgotten how to play it. And as wonderfully elegant the game mechanics are, I kind of didn’t want to leap back into my ever-frustrating quest to find the final Leviathan skeleton (which I eventually looked up the location of, and turned out to be LITERALLY IN THE NEXT PLACE I WAS GOING TO LOOK FOR IT) for the eleventh time. BOTW, however, only let’s you have one save slot (unless you buy the DLC, of course).
So I made a “Guest” profile on my Switch, gave it a bright green Luigi icon, and started a new game. Nervously, I launched into BOTW again, dreading the slow-paced climbing, the terrifyingly strong Lynels and the endlessly murderous Guardians. Everything that grated me about the game — the distances, the breaking items, the lack of story — bubbled ominously in the back of my mind. I was fully ready to enter this game, one that had never quite felt like a Zelda game to me, and not enjoy it. I’ve been anxious about starting open-world games due to how massive a time suck they are and how little time I always seem to have, and BOTW embodied the free-roaming endlessness of open world design better than almost anything I’ve ever played.
But holy shit I forgot how fun it is.
I hit the Great Plateau, slightly miffed at my lack of paraglider and lack of equipment generally, and did my best to follow the path I took the first time — following the story beats straight to Kakariko, then onto the lab with the girl-but-actually-a-senior, and then… wait… actually I’ve never been to this stable before…
I can’t remember if it was when I discovered a new shrine, stable, or treasure chest that I realized why I’d sunk over 70 hours into this game. Though it feels very un-Zelda like in some ways, the gameplay loop of “see thing, run towards it, don’t die” is one of the most addictive in the series, and in my time away I developed a new appreciation for its cooking mechanics and breakable weapons. I also finally got a couple early quests done that I hadn’t managed to — for instance, showing that kid in Hateno the Traveller’s sword.
Fine it was just that quest but it was bothering me, okay?
The thing is, I remembered that quest. I also remembered the best way to get to the shrine in the middle of the bay that goes out to the no-equipment-challenge-island whose name I’ve forgotten too. I remembered how to spot Koroks, and am better at it than I ever have been. Combat took a couple early deaths to really click, but I remembered it quick enough, though I still need to improve my dodges. It’s scary how much of this game that I was expecting to really dislike came flooding back to me, and is a testament both to how much I’ve played it and how much I enjoyed it. It’s strange how fixated I’d become on its worst qualities. I think, maybe, I was just finding reasons not to return. Little failures to justify avoiding it. Not that I don’t have criticisms — I really wish there were slightly better quest hints, more enemy variety, more clarity on what are unique weapons and what can be found again, a better recipe log… wait is that a shooting star? Sorry, be right back.
I played for a good few hours as Guest, running around and trying to find thing I’d missed the first time, before daring to switch (haha) back to my original profile. In that playthrough, I had tamed every Divine Beast, had relived every memory, could wield the Master Sword, and was honestly pretty well decked out with sword, shields, and fun outfits. Yet I dropped in and still ran around, exploring the world, beating shrines, and even taming a new horse as I searched vainly for the final Leviathan skeleton. Eventually, I surrendered and looked it up, as I said. At this point, however, the only thing left I was really interested in was the DLC, which I’d purchased once I remembered how much I loved being in this Hyrule.
Well, almost the only thing left I was interested in.
I still hadn’t defeated Calamity Ganon. I still hadn’t reached that final boss, felt the swell of victory and reunited with Zelda. And then I remembered why I had whiled away so many hours searching for the Levianthans. (Apart from the fact that they’re cool as all hell. Giant whale bones!)
I didn’t want it to end. Being in Hyrule felt too good, too free, too unexplored to be over. As much as I love running around and blowing things up (see: Just Cause 3) and exploring and bonding with characters (see: Final Fantasy XV), when the story of a game ends it feels over to me. There is a finality of narrative endings that makes it hard for me to revisit — even my replays of Just Cause 3 are slightly underwhelming, buoyed by the joy of its gameplay. I was worried, and rightly so, that if I beat Zelda, it would, in some, way, be over. I knew, of course, that I had much of Hyrule still to explore, and that I had the fresh DLC to play through, which would extend my time in the game and let me revisit the narrative that I had so long ago almost completely wrapped up.
So I went and faced Ganon.
Now I’ve talked about how in the past I’ve played FFXV so much and become so overpowered that I eclipsed the final boss difficulty, and I mentioned that the combat and cooking in BOTW had come back to me strongly. And that I’d beaten all the Divine Beasts.
So yeah, Ganon was a relatively easy fight. I played it in handheld mode on a couch in the living room, because it’s summer here and my room is the hottest in the house. I almost regret it, because the monster design for Ganon and the sound design of the fight seem like they’d be way better on a real TV, but there was a certain poetic resonance to finishing it handheld. You see, the reason I had 75+ hours in the game at this point was because I’d spent months playing it watching TV with my family, whiling away British sitcoms and house hunting shows with joyous exploration and intense Guardian battles. I’d done the same in years past with my Wii U, barrelling through Xenoblade Chronicles X on its terrible little screen with its terrible little stylus. (Everybody who complains about the Switch’s technical limitations has forgotten the Wii U, and though this might generally improve their lives, it means they forgot why Nintendo made the Switch the way it is.) With the announcement of the new OLED Switch, gamers across the world complained it wasn’t a real upgrade, or that they didn’t use their Switch in handheld mode. But to me, they miss the point of handheld mode.
The point of handheld mode is that teenagers and young adults who live at home can play video games as their family watches TV so they don’t seem super antisocial. Come on.
I do have more slightly deeper thoughts on handheld mode, but that’s another essay. Reaching the ending still felt powerful, still felt as meaningful as I’d hoped. I did, however, watch the final cutscenes with the Switch docked, because there was no way I was letting the final narrative beats play out on the tiny screen. I’m not completely enamored with handheld mode.
Now, I’m not going to spoil the end of BOTW. But as I watched those final cutscenes, I realized that I had one major advantage over everybody else who had played the game in a reasonable amount of time when it first came out.
I knew what the sequel was going to look like.
Now, I have a procrastination problem, but dear god was I way more satisfied with BOTW’s ending knowing that BOTW 2 was coming and that it looked cool as all heck. That knowledge helped me finish the game too: it was part of the reason I felt motivated to go try it again, knowing that it wasn’t really going to be over. With the sequel approaching (well, as much as any Zelda project is ever actually approaching), I knew I wanted to have beaten the first. And with an actual slightly substantial trailer in the world, I also knew that finishing BOTW wasn’t really the end of my time with it. I would be back as that Link, in that Hyrule, sooner rather than later, with a fresh story and a new adventure to inspire me to go sink another 75+ hours into exploring it. Because, I’ll be honest, when I said it thought it wasn’t going to be the same after I’d beaten it, I was right. Opening up my last save, with its little “I’ve beaten the game!” star, felt strange. I had to turn around and flee Hyrule Castle, undoing the hour of work it had taken me to climb to the Sanctum in the first place. Calamity Ganon wasn’t a mystery anymore, and neither was how this story was going to go — it was just the inevitable end point.
Now, I’m good at postponing inevitable ends in games, but they’re still tricky. Part of the reason I think Skyrim in particular works so well is that its major side quests (the Companions, the College of Winterhold, the Dark Brotherhood, etc.) feel like stories in and unto themselves. You have that postgame after beating the main quest, those adventures that means the story never really stops. Admittedly, I am avoiding finishing the Dawnguard DLC, because I’ll be almost completely out of major story at that point. I’ve played Skyrim almost three times as much as BOTW, however, so in some senses I got tired of it more than I didn’t want to finish it.
That’s BOTW’s disadvantage, really, and the same applies to every Zelda game I’ve ever played. Once you finish the story, the game is over. You can’t go run around and explore the world again post-Ganon. Mario and Pokémon have post-game content, for the love of Miyamoto, but Zelda is over when Link wins. That makes it that much harder to go back and explore the things I haven’t gotten to yet, because it feels… false. It feels like I’m undercutting the journey, in some way. The stories in Zelda games are good, and running around pretending they never ended doesn’t sit right with my emotional-narrative sense or whatever. I’ve started replays of Twilight Princess four times, if you include the HD remake, and each time feels like a wave of excitement, though of course I’m twisted and really enjoy the ambling around in Ordon Village. When I restart a game, I get to see the things I missed the first few times around, to relive things I’d forgotten. I think that’s why I enjoyed restarting BOTW more than when I tried to leap back into my finished save — it felt like a new start, a new beginning, rather than trying to desperately extend the story past its breaking point.
I still hate finishing games — my BOTW experience has reinforced my fear of experiences not being repeatable. Restarting it, however, reminded me that there is a magic to revisiting an old book, or TV show, a different kind than the fresh start. It comes with the feeling of visiting an old friend, or your old neighbourhood, or your high school. It lets you see something you loved — or didn’t — in a new light, or to be reminded of why you loved it — or didn’t — in the first place. So next time I get close to finishing a game — I’m look at you Dragon Age: Inquisition — I’m going to try and remember that. It might not fix my fear of finishing games, but it’s a start. So thanks, BOTW, for both reminding me why I hate finishing games and also why I love restarting them. That’s not contradictory at all.
Almost like a Zelda game without item-gated quest design BOOM ROASTED.
I contend that wiggling around a Wii remote as your sword is way more fun than pressing B and always will be.