I've played a million beginnings and around a thousand endings, or at least that's how it feels. Imagine having seen the first act of Romeo and Juliet a hundred times but never having seen how it ends. That's my experience with all manner of games, from big story-driven RPGs to some of my favourite strategy epics. I've founded so many starter cities that have never birthed a civilization and met so many characters whose fate I don't know. And this isn't a case of starting a game and then abandoning it; these are the games that I play again and again, sinking days and weeks into them, restarting but never finishing.
Diablo III is the latest.
It's the kind of game that devotees completed within days of its release, carving their way through the story as quickly as possible so that they could move on to the real stuff: unlockable difficulties, new game plus modes that allow a character and equipment to carry over into a fresh playthrough, additional levels, equipment and features added after the initial release. The end is the beginning, which means the beginning probably isn't very much at all.
But, for me and many others, the beginning of a game is the place where we spend most of our time. I still haven't finished the campaign in Diablo III but I've made at least twelve different characters who have made their way through at least the first Act. I started again a few days ago and made this guy:
Years ago, I might have been forced to start again because of a lost save file, stored on a disk somewhere. Now, everything is in the cloud and even though my Battle.net account insists that I reset passwords every time I go back to Diablo after a few months away, it's usually fairly good at retrieving my characters. I can't bring myself to spend time with someone I've abandoned for so long though. The best friends, I've always thought, are the ones that you can see years after your last meeting and barely miss a beat with as soon as the conversation starts.
Save games and RPG characters don't work like that for me. I still haven't finished The Witcher 3 but I've spent so many weekends over the last couple of years in White Orchard that you'd think I had a time-share property there. It's far from the most interesting part of The Witcher's world but I'm so worried about moving on without seeing everything of interest that every time I visit I'm in for the long-haul. And I visit more often than I should because of the whole restarting business.
With a big story-driven game like The Witcher 3 perhaps it's more understandable than it is with the hacky-slashy loot-gathering likes of Diablo 3, but, equally, I could argue that Diablo's vaguely roguelike origins make it a game intrinsically suited for many brief attempts rather than one master character. The problem is, most roguelikes encourage lots of replays by killing you. A lot. Diablo 3's demons might as well be caressing me with feathers for all the damage they ever seem to do, which is, I suppose, why so many people only consider the second, third or fourth playthrough with a character to be a “proper” playthrough. You can push up the difficulty as you play.
When it comes to The Witcher 3, I play with the combat difficulty turned down. It's not a game I play for the challenge of the fights, it's a game I play for the characters, the setting and the stories. The problem is that I become so anxious about missing out on a plot-thread or nuance of a relationship that I feel compelled to start fresh if I leave my save for more than a month or two. If I had to leave a film half-way through, I wouldn't start it again from that point if I picked a copy up months later; I'd start from the beginning.
Granted, things are a little different with a big RPG that might take me a hundred hours to play even if I don't keep restarting, but the feeling of losing track of certain threads remains.
It's not just the opening act of RPGs that I play over and over again though – strategy games are the worst contenders. Just this year, I've seen more randomly generated galaxies and 'Earths' than even the most courageous interstellar cross-dimensional voyager might expect to see in a lifetime. That's thanks to Stellaris and Civilization VI, both of which conform to the 4X strategy formula enough to be victims of my Best X theory. Essentially, that theory says that eXploration is the best of the Xs (the others are eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate).
I love discovering new worlds, step by step, hex by hex, or star system by star system. In fact, I like that part of the game so much that with Civ VI I've taken to playing Marathon length games, so that the actual discovery and settlement portion of the game lasts for absolutely ages. Unfortunately, that means the rest of the game lasts even longer than usual as well and – you guessed it – I end up restarting somewhere around the time everyone is sliding into the Kill Your Neighbours era.
With Stellaris it's even worse because I can make a species to play as. Given any kind of character or empire creation tools, I'm likely to spend as much time creating saves as I am playing them, for a little while at least. Stellaris has a great randomise button as well, so I can hit that, start a new game as a new species in a new galaxy, and then play until a mushroom decides to blow up my favourite colony. Or my best scientist goes mad and vanishes into the unknown.
To be clear, I do finish games. Quite a lot of them. And that goes for both the big story games and the strategy campaigns. Even the ones I've completed twenty times or more, like the original Doom, feel unfamiliar in their later levels though. I could draw you maps of most of episode one from memory, but after that it all gets a bit hazy.
I can't be the only person who does this. Surely there are others who either enjoy something about the particular excitement of a new (or old) beginning that they get stuck in a cycle of restarts, or simply struggle to get past the reception room? Even if there are millions similarly afflicted, I think I might have a particularly bad case though. In that opening paragraph I said that Diablo III is the latest restart in my life, but here's the terrible truth: I started writing this article yesterday and around an hour ago I restarted Pillars of Eternity. My last save was my seventh fresh character and I was twenty five hours in.
Total playtime: 137 hours. Times completed: zero.