Think about the game you’ve spent the longest playing, over the course of your gaming life. The cumulative hours you’ve poured into that one game. Would you say you’ve completed it?
You’ve probably seen the end credits, maybe you’ve even done multiple run-throughs, seen different endings if they’re available. But do you have every achievement or trophy or whatever your platform of choice calls them? Have you seen every corner of its world, picked up every last collectable? Have you 100-percented it?
There are players who don’t let go of games until they’ve experienced every last thing they have to offer. It’s common enough that Dictionary.com actually offers a word for them: ‘completionists’. But why do they do it?
“It's about having a curious mindset, really,” says Gurubashi, a graphic designer and animator with a particular passion for the Mass Effect series. “I hate leaving something unexplored. I want to look behind every corner, I want to know what happens when certain criteria are met. It's a slightly obsessive sort of behaviour.”
The completionists that I speak to name a wide variety of games they’ve 100-percented – everything from Castlevania to Tekken, Halo to Viva Piñata – but a few crop up again and again.
“In the time before achievements existed I would try to do everything in Final Fantasy games,” says Dead_Dave01, an audio engineer by day and YouTuber by night, where he posts playthroughs of games including Arkham Knight and Red Dead Redemption. “In Final Fantasy XI took it to the absolute extreme – all dark aeons beaten, all characters and aeons stats all at 255, all Al Bhed translations, the works.”
When you get the works on a burger, it means everything. A delicious thought. One part of how completionists think that surprised me, though of course it makes sense when you think about it, is that these players often plan their playthroughs in some detail before picking up a pad.
“The most fun I’ve ever had 100-percenting a game has to be Final Fantasy VIII,” says Curious Dreamer, a designer of print-and-play card games. “This was back before the internet was really a thing, so you had to rely entirely on word of mouth.
“A few years ago I bought a PS3 for the sole purpose of playing FFVIII again. This time I was an adult with access to the internet, and spreadsheets. Oh so many spreadsheets. I think it was about six hours before I even picked up the game itself, but I had a plan. I knew the location of every Triple Triad card, how many dragon skins it was going to take to make sure every character had a Hyper Wrist… It took around three weeks of my life. But if I could do it all again, I would.”
Two series frequently come up in connection to one another: Rocksteady’s Arkham games and Assassin’s Creed. “They’re similar games in what drives you to 100-percent them,” says Gurubashi. “They're these beautiful, picturesque cities you use as a playground, so you inevitably want to go and stick your nose into every nook and cranny.”
Ever thought that Ubisoft open-world games are getting a bit too stuffed with… stuff? The completionists have your back.
“I think it’s the research and the historical aspect, and the challenge of getting to certain places,” Esme Carpenter, an English teacher and author, says of Assassin’s Creed – or at least, the earlier games in the series. “I think after Black Flag, there were just way too many collectables, and it became a grind rather than a fun exploratory device. The map was so cluttered and there weren't enough hooks to keep me there. In the end, I lost interest.”
Skip to 21:13:20 to see Bigfoot
GTA has always been especially good at recognising and rewarding completionist behaviour. Every game since the series’ three-dimensional rebirth has dedicated a menu screen to showing the player’s progress towards 100 percent, and since Vice City they’ve all offered specific rewards for getting there. If you complete GTA V – a feat that, according to PSNProfiles.com, has been managed by 5.3 percent of its users, some 46,000 players – UFOs begin to appear in the night sky and, in a reference to one of San Andreas's most enduring myths, Bigfoot himself can be found in the wilds of Blaine County.
Not all games come with the neat pie chart of GTA V, however. So how do completionists decide that they’ve reached the 100 percent mark?
Esme believes a game is done “when the map is clean”, Dead_Dave01 once “there is literally nothing else to do but either free roam or complete tasks that I have already completed”, while Gurubashi says it’s “a question individual to each game”.
There is one thing everyone I spoke to agrees on, though:
“Achievements and trophies are not a good yardstick to call a game 100 percent complete.”
“Achievements can't reliably be the entire metric.”
“Getting all achievements, in my opinion, is not the same as 100-percenting a game.”
The thing is that trophies and achievements are developer-controlled metrics, whereas something core to the idea of 100-percenting a game is that the player defines what that may be.
“There are games like Prison Architect, which I’ve sunk 534 hours into, which I would happily say I've 100-percented even though I only have a third of the achievements,” says Curious Dreamer. “And then there are games like Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, where I have all the achievements, even though I don't really remember playing it.”
Other games are, arguably, impossible to truly 100 percent. While Gurubashi is an enormous Mass Effect fan – having finished every quest, talked to every NPC and read every codex entry and even the spin-off books and comics – he acknowledges that he’ll never see every possible permutation of its decision trees.
“I've gotten every possible ending in Mass Effect,” he says. “The only gaps left to fill are roads to those endings I haven't travelled yet. Some of them, if you consider the sheer number of plot points, I never will, and that's perfectly fine. It's maths, in fact. A game with just seven major forks, you would need to complete it 128 times to cover every combination. It's not feasible. So what you do is make sure you get to see every possible outcome, instead of focusing on having made every possible input.”
It’s precisely this vastness which has kept him coming back to the series, however. “I think, when it comes to games like that, the illusion of endless possibilities is the likely culprit of our obsession with exploring all they have to offer.”
When I ask the rest of the completionists why they approach games this way, the answers are as varied as the games they play and their individual definitions of complete.
“There’s something cathartic about finishing a game 100 percent and knowing that you never have to pick it up again because there’s nothing else that you can experience in that game,” says Dead_Dave01.
“Stories drive me, but I'm also a perfectionist. If I start something, I am always inclined to finish it,” says Esme. “I think it's an intrinsic part of my nature – but also, I respect the people who make these things so much that I want to do their work justice by exploring everything I can.”
“I suppose it does bleed over into the rest of my life,” agrees Dead_Dave01. “As an engineer I have to be pretty thorough.”
But Curious Dreamer sees it differently: “I don’t consider myself a completionist in many aspects of my life – I’m quite lazy. But when something is presented in the form of several small challenges, I think it’s only human nature to want to try to achieve as many as you can.”
Trying to get value for money is one reason that comes up repeatedly, as is having a competitive nature. Unlike speedrunning, though, it’s worth remembering that completionists aren’t directly competing with anyone except the games themselves.
“I spent eight years playing World of Warcraft,” says Curious Dreamer. “Countless hours chasing levels and getting new gear, all so I could show off to my friends my cool new mount or my new robes or the gear I’d won from PvP combat.
“100-percenting games is exactly the same experience. It’s bragging rights, even if you’re the only one listening.”