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Game Over?

In his essay on game mods in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Alexander Galloway draws parallels between the principles of Godard’s countercinema and what he calls aestheticized gaming or countergaming, but he doesn’t discuss what seems to me the most interesting and problematic question that game mods raise: namely, when is a game finished? I don’t mean from the creator’s point of view. The majority of films, books, artworks, and games are effectively “finished” when they’re “released” into the world—director’s cuts, remasters, reissues, sequels, and new editions notwithstanding. So-called “mods” reprise the work but I would argue are not part of it—the infamous Nude Raider, the string of posthumous Ludlum-branded Bourne novels, and movies such as Pimento, my friend Dave Fisher’s Memento-inspired reediting of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, form part of the cultural response to a work, not of the work itself.

What I’m interested in is the point at which a videogame finishes from a player’s perspective. For the most part, books are finished when every word has been read, movies when every frame has been seen, music when every note has been played. They may be revisited endlessly, resulting in new meanings and interpretations, but the content is unchanging. But much of a game’s content is generated as it is played. When is all that content exhausted? Is it when it’s beaten? Players continue playing even after they’ve “beaten” a game. We discussed speed runs and other “high-level” forms of play last week, players of vintage arcade games compete to get to the “kill screen” and play beyond it, and in his essay, Galloway talks about games that come bundled with level editors, inviting infinite extension. In that case, maybe “game over” signifies the end of a game as it signals the end of a player’s input. But this is problematic. “Game over,” as in the “game is finished” lends itself as easily to the imperative reading “play the game over.”

You’re thinking, “this is silly, a game for me is finished when I stop playing.” From a performative perspective, yes. But not formally. A movie turned off halfway is not finished, nor is a book that is abandoned two chapters in. Though I haven’t fully wrapped my head around all this, I keep on coming back to the theater and the difference between a written play and a particular performance. I have spent much of this semester in Plato’s dimly lit cave, staring at shadows on the wall. I keep hoping that once the outlines become clear, once I can confidently identify the beginning and end of a shape, I’ll finally know what the hell it is I’m looking at.

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