Taking down my white whale

I think it’s a fair assumption to make that the majority of gamers (bar the most dedicated completionists amongst us) have at least a few games within their collection that they’ve never finished. There’s a plethora of reasons why games go unfinished – I know from personal experience that I’ve abandoned games because I’ve got bored of them, because I’ve been distracted, not had the time, or because a game was just too shit to even bother dumping more of my time into.

Generally when a game gets abandoned for one of these reasons it’s no big deal – you either go back to it at some later date, or you’re happy to let it languish at the back of a shelf.

But occasionally you encounter a rarity – a game that for one reason or another you have not, or even cannot beat – every moment that it goes unfinished something at the back of your brain burns away. Something in you that was once defeated, like Captain Ahab, yearns for conquest.

For me, there are two games that fill me with such an urge: Alundra, and Dead Space.

Alundra has been sat in my collection for the best part of a decade. I still keep telling myself that one day I am going to sit down with it and give the game a thorough pasting. Even if it means walking through the whole thing with a gameFAQs page open next to me – something in me longs to see that game through to the end, just out of principle.

I don’t know how Alundra came to occupy this mythic status for me. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it is tough. There’s  more to it than that though, I’ve certainly conquered harder games before. I think a lot of it may be psychological.

Over the years I have started playing that game countless times. Each time I’ve had to start at the beginning again, because I’ve long forgotten what’s going on in any save file I may have of the game. Each time I’ve reached a certain point in the game and for one reason or another I’ve abandoned it again. Thanks to this procession of failures, I’ve probably built the thing up in my mind to be more than it really is. It’s just a Zelda clone after all. Albeit a very difficult Zelda clone. I’ve finished all the Zelda games – so why can’t I finish this? For now I’ll just continue to repeat my mantra – one day, when I have the time, I will finish this.

As I mentioned before, my other white whale is Dead Space. And I can tell you exactly how that game came to be such an ordeal for me. Unlike Alundra, there’s no need to analyse any kind of reasoning here. Put simply; Dead Space scares the shit out of me.

But the fact that it so deftly instills a sense of monolithic terror in me that makes me want to play it and beat it. The reason that I come close to soiling myself whenever I play Dead Space is how perfectly designed it is. It’s one of the most immersive gaming experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I could go into a huge amount of detail as to why, and it’d come close to me writing a review of the game. But I won’t, instead I’ll just use the one example of part of my experience with the game.

I was playing through one of the early chapters, and came to a room in the game wherein a typical action game scenario occurs. You get locked in the room, a bunch of enemies appear, you have to kill them all in order for the room to unlock. I proceed to do all that. Then, as is standard, I explore the room looking for ammo, key items, etc.

What’s important to understand is that in Dead Space a lot of attention has been paid to the design of the game, both visually and audibly. You can hear pipes rattling in the background, the occasional bang, even the sound of distant screams from time to time. Visually, there are lots of extra touches to the environment, such as places where people have written on the walls prior to meeting their untimely demise at the claw end of one of the deformed monsters that still haunt my worst nightmares.

In this particular room there was a wall covered in writing, and whilst I was exploring I came along it. I stopped to read it, dropping my guard as I get further into what’s written on the wall. All of a sudden there’s a banging noise and what sounds like a monster. I panic, I raise my gun and start looking around frantically from left to right, there’s nothing there. I gather my composure, and start exploring the room again, looking for something I might have missed, surely there was a necromorph hiding somewhere, waiting for me to drop my guard again and rip my head off.

There was no such monster, I’d just been tricked by the meticulous sound design of the game and my own fearful paranoia. And as I came to that realisation, I came to another. For that 2 minute period I had made that in-game character act exactly as I would in that kind of situation. If I were really in that room, I would’ve definitely stopped to read the writing on the wall, I would’ve dropped my guard and I would’ve certainly started waving my gun around at the first odd sound.

I’ve not experienced immersion like that in a game either before or since. I think any game that can draw me in that well needs to be completed. Almost out of respect. But also because in spite of the fear, a part of me really enjoys that game.

However, I got distracted with my dissertation, and then other games came out, and every time I’ve told myself I should go back and finish Dead Space, it just seems so not worth it because I’m going to end up feeling like a terrified little girl again.

But soon this has to change. Dead Space 2 is coming out. I’ve been watching the trailers, following the news, and it’s a game that fills me with a massive amount of excitement. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it, given that it looks twice as terrifying as the original, (which itself once made me scream profanity so loud that my flatmate at the other side of the flat heard me.) But I must have it. And if I’m going to play the sequel, I definitely need to finish the original first.

Daunting as the task is, I can’t wait to experience the satisfaction of finally putting the nail in the coffin of one of the games that’s tormented me for so long.

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