The only point I have is the "full experience" of playing a video game that so many gamers seek does not exist. Put another way, you can never get the full experience of playing a video game. This limitation seems to apply to all forms of art, but it's especially true for video games.
It's obvious after making A Defense of Gameplay, presenting The Verdict on Video Games, and producing Critical-Casts episode 3: Trigon, that many gamers who are very concerned about getting a "full experience" out of their games wrestle with value issues that stem from the games-as-business point of view. When games are primarily a service to our desires, then it's natural to consider if we're getting "everything" we paid for. The problem is the more we worry about experiencing our entertainment the less we focus on working to understand and embrace it. Such an attitude results in demands and complaints about content quantity and not about its quality.
So I've been thinking about what kind of experience I want out of the video games I play. I wondered what I'm trying to walk away with from gaming. What I'm trying to preserve. What I'm trying to discover. Why I care. And how hard I'm willing to work for it. Viewing games as art defines what I value in games and therefore what I consider to be part of the "full experience." If I'm looking to get all the "art" and meaning from a game, how do I do this? The following are my thoughts supporting why the full experience doesn't exist.
Maybe these will help me get the full experience.
Maybe the full experience starts with playing a game as a developer intends. Or perhaps "intends" is the wrong word. What I mean is playing a game using maximum settings. If it's an HD game, playing it in HD. If it has surround sound, force feedback, or whatever else, it's important to play with all of these features. I've played so many HD games on my old SD TV. I've played nearly all of my console games with limited sound. Feedback wise, visuals and sound are essential in conveying key information to players. Having suffered through shooting blurs instead of baddies and squinting my way through illegibly small text, it's obvious that not having the right hardware detracts from the gaming experience.
Still, many developers design their games to be played for a wide range of settings. Doesn't having an option to turn off features complicate how a game is designed to be played? Yes, it does. That's one reason why I really like handheld gaming. Without needing special audio and video equipment aside from a decent pair of headphones, I can get the full presentational experience out of my handheld games. When I play Super Mario 3D Land, I know I'm experience the presentation at its best. But then there are the hardware upgrades; DS, DS Lite, DSi, 3DS. I've own them all. And each changes the way that games are presented. The colors are different, the brightness is different, the aspect ratio is different. Unless there is one scheme out there, it's going to be hard to consider any one option as a full experience.
How do I get the full experience out of playing games? Because games test a range of skills in a variety of ways, it seems obvious that mastering a game is the best way to get the full experience out of its gameplay. But what does this mean? Playing every mode including the easy or super easy modes? Exploring the design space options like alternate characters in fighting games or alternate weapons in shoots? Experiencing every emergent gameplay possibility? Certainly, not. I don't think mastery has ever included the idea of experiencing everything. It's a good thing too, for most games have too many emergent combinations for anyone to experience them all.
This is why I consider level design and challenge so carefully. Levels, missions, or challenges are a way for designers to present clear ideas for players. And by overcoming all the levels in a game, perhaps I can get the full gameplay experinece the designers wanted to most convey. Back in the arcade NES days, simply beating a game was the best way to prove one's mastery over a game. With few to no save options, games often reset players back to the beginning of the entire experience forcing players to develop enough skill to overcome the entire game rather than fudge their way via checkpoints.
Now games are different. They're easier than ever to simply beat yet harder in other ways due to their optional challenges. I often ask myself when I have mastered a game? When I get all the achievements? I've gotten close with Spelunky, Dyad, and Mega Man 10. Am I a master when I 100% a game? I've recently done so with Mighty Switch Force and New Super Mario Bros 2. Perhaps. But just knowing that there are higher, more skillful levels of strategy and playstyles to reach even when the developers don't set such goals can keep me from being completely satisfied.
In search of a full experience I consider how much I actually accomplished on my own. Nowadays, many gamers can't imagine playing games without the aid of the internet. By looking up walkthroughs, let's plays, tips, strategies, secrets, cheats, or simply sharing experiences, many gamers don't think twice about using outside resources to help them beat games. Real-time video game challenges are always a combination of knowledge skills and real-time skills like timing and reflex. A big part of building skill is doing experiments and figuring out information on your own. This is especially true for puzzle games.
Can I get the full experience of mastering a game when I look up information via outside resources? At times I lean toward, yes. But things get a bit more complicated from here. They say since the beginning games have been a very social activity. People play together, watch games being played together, and talk about their accomplishments. In fact, people are always strongly connected to their communities and cultures. Socializing is how we learn more about ourselves and others. Aside from spoiling video game content like puzzle solutions or plot twists, perhaps all methods to gain information about a gameplay system is fair game. No matter if you ask the audience, consult the dojo master, study your technique in a book, or experiment on your own, perhaps getting the knowledge and using it is the full experience.
I will say that many games have very poor tutorials. Many games simply throw players into complex gameplay systems and expect them to figure out how to play one way or another. I think this kind of design is problematic for many reasons. As someone who appreciate gameplay and high levels of skillful execution, I also value of quality teaching and learning experiences. There are quality games that carefully tune their challenges, level design, and conveyance of information to sustain quality learning experiences like Advance Wars or The Legend of Zelda. It's a shame when players opt out of such a well designed learning experience to look up information using outside resources. If the game is a great teacher, then why seek out any other method to gain knowledge?
Single Player or Multiplayer
You can only experience something for the first time once. After that, you'll have strong expectations and impressions that will shape how you play and what you think forever. If part of the "full experience" of a game is taking the time to embrace what the game is and how it conveys information, then playing solo is probably the best way to accomplish this goal. After all, learning is very personal and private experience where learners often move at their own pace. Trying to share a learning experience complicates the experience. From peer pressure, to self consciousness, to pacing incompatibilities often times learning in a group results in leaders and followers where followers are less engaged.
So when you decide to play through a shooter or other co-op game with your friends for your initial experience with the game, understand that this choice has pros and cons. Playing this way you'll never be able to experience the game solo. And if you play solo, you'll never get the experience of playing with friends. This reality may seem somewhat trivial or obvious, but you can look at many aspects of an experience in a give-and-take manner rather than an always additive experience. And when viewed in this way, it becomes clear that getting the "full experience" may be impossible.
DLC and Additional Content
Then there's DLC or any content added to a game. This includes user generated levels, patches, updates, free content, and paid DLC. My natural inclination is to consider all of this added content as optional when trying to master a game or obtain the full experience. But what if the new content affects the original game elements? What if it improves the original? If I try to get the full experience from a game, then perhaps I have to accept the idea that the game itself can change over time. And this change doesn't only come from the developers, but from users generating content. And this content isn't just in the form levels for games that feature editors, but the all the ways that players shape a game's history, culture, and define a metagame of gameplay strategies and techniques.
When I think about it this way, the "full experience" of art can't be obtained in a vacuum whether I embrace passive cut scenes, story elements, or even active gameplay challenges. Whether there are time sensitive events within the game like holidays in Animal Crossing, limited-time real-world opportunities like Keldeo in Pokemon, or seasons of activity due to online servers and leaderboards, the full experience of playing the game is very much the product of what I bring to the game, the game, and the history surrounding that game. Just like art, understanding the cultural context and the discourse around a game is important. In fact, there's almost always a more challenging way to play a game, a different way to play, a deeper layer to the story, an overlooked motif in a song, a richer context, and more experiences and emotions to uncover if I'm willing to do the work.
The full experience is not about getting your moneys worth. It's not about seeing all the endings. It's not about checking off all the boxes to indicate that you've seen all the content. It's not about getting to the end of the story either. It's about what's really going on inside you as you enjoy what you like and pursue what you desire.
So with an endless quest ahead of me every time I pick up a game, I don't worry about getting the full experience. I use my attitude and temperament as a guide to dig deeper into games only as long as I'm intrinsically motivated. Sometimes I find games to 100%, to master, or to commit hours and hours of my time to understand. And sometimes I leave games behind after minutes of play. But more often than not, I have to talk or write about games to get more out of them. The point is, the "full experience" is an elusive concept that is reflective of ones own desires and values. The better you understand yourself, and the clearer you can articulate this understanding, the more you'll find that the full experience is something you don't chase at all.