Post Game Completion Depression

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Do you ever finish a game and instead of feeling that overwhelming sense of joy and accomplishment, you feel sad and just a little empty instead? This is something that I’ve been experiencing a bit more often lately and I think it says a lot about the gaming industry and the new heights that have been achieved in the art form.

There are plenty of games where seeing those final credits roll is the ultimate goal and the all poor pixelated souls that stand between you and that victory are just cannon fodder to be destroyed. In games like this, achieving that victory is all that matters and seeing it come to its ultimate conclusion is pure joy (looking at you Sekiro).

But then there are the other games - the kind of games we’ve just been seeing more of lately, the world building games that thrust you into a place and force you to feel things, often both about the world that surrounds you virtually and ultimately about yourself. In these games, when that last boss falls to the floor and you stand triumphant, it often falls flat. But why? The gameplay was so good, the world so compelling, the storytelling so immersive...shouldn’t this moment be all blue skies and not the blues?

This has hit me a couple of times and it took some searching around to figure out what it is that was bugging me so much. I believe that in their ultimate success of creating an immersive and enthralling world, they end up highlighting the largest limitation of the software medium - at some point, there is no more and you can no longer stay in this place that you have grown so attached to, the fourth wall is broken and you’re being evicted.

Most of the time, you don’t care and probably don’t even notice it - I’ve been playing video games for years and never experienced this before. By the time most games are through, even the most extensive RPGs, you’re ready to put the controller down and move on to something else - no love lost, no problem.

But then there’s the one that really gets to you - the masterpiece, the game is so immersive, so touching, so real to you that you literally just want to keep living in that world. For me, that experience came with God of War. Crazy right? Who would have thought that the one dimensional, murder-obsessed, demi-god Kratos would leave me wanting more? But the new 2018 installment turned the series on its head and focused no longer on a god that was seeking ultimate revenge and destruction, but on a man who had to come to terms with a life of regrets and learn how to be a better role model and father. To say that this struck a chord with me would be an understatement and the result was me earning my first PS platinum trophy. Every side quest, every hidden treasure and collectible, every secret room - I completed them all. Not because I’m a completionist (I find collectibles to be one of the most vapid design choices that a game designer can make), but because I wanted to stay immersed in that world as long as possible and I was willing to do the most meaningless activity just to stay there a bit longer.

In the end, I took down the last optional challenge, the platinum trophy popped, and instead of accomplishment, I felt a little numb. For the next couple weeks, I tried moving on to new games - I’d play a couple of minutes, get bored, try another, rinse and repeat, nothing stuck. I ended up shrugging it off after a couple of weeks and jumped back into something else - all was right in the gaming world again. But in 2019, it happened again - this time with Red Dead Redemption 2.

After my second go-round with this phenomenon, it was hard to ignore. I needed to know why I was hitting these slumps after beating video games and why my ultimate victories were being so undermined. What I came to realize is that video games are not what they used to be. When I was a kid, they were simple. You jumped over pits, you punched the bad guy three times, and then you saved the princess from the castle dungeon - super fun and entirely one dimensional.

Now, however,  the state of gaming is something entirely different. Sure, you still have games like Fortnite whose only contribution is selling loot crates to minors and teaching every nine-year-old in America how to do stupid dances, but there are some out there (and increasingly more every year) that have transcended from an entertainment platform to an art medium.  

There are games now that deal with mental illness, loss of a child, dealing with a terminal disease, and more. Video games are uniquely positioned to help people understand these situations more than traditional art forms such as books and movies because rather than watching it happen to some character, you are given the chance to briefly live a miniature world where it is happening to “you” - not only can you see it, you can interact with it, and ultimately, you more vividly feel its impact.

When something forces us to feel an emotion, positive or negative, and causes us to introspectively look at ourselves and decide how we truly feel about that idea or experience, we innately grow attached to it. When we are thrust into these virtual worlds and end up finding a piece of ourselves because of something we encountered there, we leave a piece of ourselves behind in there as well - in that moment, in that experience.

Even the best games touch those moments of self just briefly and the attachment is fleeting, but a select few tug at those strings with such intensity that when you are forced to finally walk away from them, it feels more like an abrupt eviction than a voluntary parting. I believe this is what I experienced with God of War and Red Dead. These games forced me to come to terms with concepts like: “what does it mean to be a good man?”, “is it too late to change the course of my life?”, “will I be a good father?”, and “what defines me as a person?”. These are not surface level concepts and compelling me to look that deep created a strong bond to the experiences that made me feel and explore them.

Ultimately, when they were over, I can say that leaving that place behind left me feeling empty and a bit depressed. At first, I saw this as a negative thing, who wouldn’t? The more I thought about it though, the emptiness I felt just served as a means to highlight to the personal impact the experience had had on me. I’m excited to see how the medium continues to mature, both technically to a point where they can build such immersive and believable worlds, and emotionally to a point where they use those worlds to make us search deep and learn something new about ourselves.

I’ll always love helping Mario save his princess, but I’m happy to say that video games are now so much more than that. If that means suffering the occasional bout of Post Game Completion Depression, so be it - and I dare the game development community to make me feel it again.

Joshua GaleckiComment