I feel like this is something many of us understand intrinsically. The second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) playthrough is for acquiring, for measuring, for mastering, for deliberately doing what we weren't able to do before using our past experiences as a control group. The first is when we fumble and explore, when every action involves some sort of risk. Starting Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem for a second time means you'll no longer be as confused/horrified when the game tricks you into thinking you just wiped your memory card. Whether you only play once or not, that first arc defines your relationship with that game. It might take months, but it has a beginning and an ending, and everything that comes after occurs in its shadow.
Whether you only play once or not, that first arc defines your relationship with that game.
In 2009, David Cage gave an interview with G4 where he claimed, "The right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it's going to be your story. It's going to be unique to you. It's really the story you decided to write, and that will be a different story from someone else. And, again, I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it ... The game is always fair with you, so I would like the player to be fair with the game. Bear with the consequences of your actions."
This is the way I usually play, and will most likely continue to play, and I am not ashamed. I picked the wrong killer in The Colonel's Bequest , I didn't save Lara's legs in Chrono Trigger , I gunned down Lebedev in Deus Ex , and yes, I had Wrex killed in Mass Effect . All of these are things I'm not entirely happy with, yet I live with them and accept them as my canonical experiences with these games.
The objections to this approach seem to be along the lines of: Why? Why shell out 60+ dollars for something I'm intending to play only once? Why risk missing so much due to a botched run-through, especially when you can still accidentally blunder into a hopeless situation (as in the Wrex case)? Furthermore, this clearly isn't a play strategy that'll get you far in game genres that can only be enjoyed on multiple playings. I'm guessing there aren't many who would abandon Super Smash Bros. after defeating Master Hand once for fear of tainting their relationship with the game narrative.
Obviously there's nothing wrong with putting a variety of options and paths into a game; it is part of the world-building that seems to be our current cultural moment. Nor is it wrong to try and see every result offered (or to use a walkthrough, if you're that kind of person). However, for me at least, there's always one playthrough that really counts, one run that defines my emotional understanding of that game, and there's something to be said for keeping that pure. Some games support this through a randomizing mechanic that redesigns a certain feature every time, like the dungeons in Diablo or the branching conversation topics of Façade . Even this is unnecessary, though, because every experience of even the most linear of games is, after all, always unique to the player. You may have failed to hit every move exactly right in Dragon's Lair , but you didn't fail the way I did.
It could perhaps be said that, these days, too much focus is put on all the things a player might do in a game without teaching them to appreciate the things they actually do. Even hailed works like Heavy Rain that make consequence into a selling point capitalize more on the appearance of open-endedness than its realization. What gives your actions so much meaning is the idea that it could have gone another way. Actually play through all the options in a scenario and you'll often find they have less overall impact than you thought. If someone ever designs a game that is infinitely variable, where the way you hold the controller in Chapter One impacts the identity of a major boss several game years later, then there will be even less of a reason to repeat the experience.
So don't feel bad about putting your discs up on the shelf after the final cutscene. It's ok to not be a completionist. It's ok to say goodbye after your one experience. And it's ok to admit that it even if you don't, there's no taking back your first time, no matter how much you may want to. You'll always have Level 1.
Andy Hughes is a regular freelance contributor to Topless Robot, which is to say a really cool person. He can be reached at [email protected]