Infinite games are on everybody's mind. We hope, in eternal optimism, that the obsolesence inherent to all capitalist endeavors won't touch games. We hope that there is a game which, once developed and played, will replace all other forms of entertainment. Indeed, there are a few games which scratch that particular itch for some - Spelunky, Nethack, Dwarf Fortress, Animal Crossing - but the notion of a perfect infinite game, which can be played forever and which has no goals, is still unrealized. It may, in fact, never be realized.
Infinite games rely on procedural generation to construct their facade. This dungeon generation algorithm, that atmospheric simulation, and so on. But we, as humans, are finite creatures, and the algorithms we write in our attempt to create the perfect, unending game are by nature finite. The finite can never truly understand infinity, because their entire lives are built around the concept of finitude; we are born, beginning our journey, and we die, concluding it.
Perhaps it is hubris that convinces us that we can create something so vast, so infinite, that it transcends our own finitude. That a set of equations, put through a series of rigorous enough wringers, can produce infinity.
Infinity has no end. It may have a beginning, of course - all things do - but where finite games end in victory, infinite games only end, at least for the player, in death. The only truly infinite game is one which can not be completed in its entirety. The game simply goes on forever; the only two conditions are play, and lose. While there may be small victories, the overall game must continue; otherwise, it is not infinite.
The purpose of an infinite game isn't to win, but to understand the bounds and constraints that cause an infinite game to, in this particular time and place, coalesce into a finite game. The purpose is to notice the patterns and influence the future of the infinite based on our understanding of its finitude. But this, too, speaks to the infinite actually being finite.
Almost all games we consider to be infinite are not so much "infinite" as "infinitely finite." The languages, upgrades, ships, monolith events, and general method of play of No Man's Sky are designer-defined, have clear limitations, and do not change significantly over the course of play. Based on this, a player can construct an ideal build by understanding the designer-laid mechanisms. Just because the game has near-infinite variations does not make it an infinite game. Its finitude, rather than being in the end goal, is in how the world is defined.
These permutations are facets of a limited, clearly-defined whole. You always know what you are playing when you start a game of Spelunky, and with enough experience you are able to effectively predict and overcome future obstacles with ease. At high level play, there are - strictly speaking - no surprises. Just variations on a theme.
Getting angry at a game that is finite, then, is absurd. All games are finite. All games have limitations. The expectation that a game not have limitations is not just irrational, but impossible; our finitude translates to how we design games, so there can never be a truly infinite game.
We should, instead, strive to understand these facets to better understand the game being played. We play No Man's Sky not because we have the goal of reaching the center of the universe (hopefully), but because we wish to learn how the universe is made.
The best players of finite games are ones who, given enough knowledge and experience, can predict the course of the game based on minutiae. A skilled dice player can manipulate their so-called "luck" through deftness. A skilled Dota 2 player can predict and counter enemy movements almost before those moves have been made. A skilled chess player sees the consequences of a move up to ten turns out. A skilled Metroid player can beat the game in under two hours. Finite players use their understanding of not just the rules of the game, but the nature of its play, to influence the outcome of the game.
Infinite games can't be predicted in a normal sense. They are, instead, more like serialized stories, continually playing out their miniature dramas. Aspects of the game may be consistent - people must drink, for example - but the overall whole is resistant to the construction of optimal strategies. Infinite games can't be speedrun or completed; they can only be experienced, and that experience is but a miniscule part of the game's potential. Divide infinity by any number, and you still get infinity.
A goal in such a system is just a gaol, a needless restriction to the exploration of unknown experiences.
Our obsession with the concept of an infinite game stems, perhaps, from our desire to lose ourselves in another place.
Games have always been a form of escape. But the nature of a game is to be finite; the game must, eventually, end. This is antithetical to the concept of escape, as a true escape involves never returning. Games inevitably return you to your life. They have to; once they end, that is it. No more. The ride is over, it's time to get off.
We adore the idea of an infinite game because the ride never has to end. Instead, it varies and changes, mutating along with the riders to create a deeply personal experience that only ends when the player decides it should end. The ability to invest ourselves into a completely different world of infinite possibility is tantalizing because it allows us to trascend our finite limitations.
Finite games are escapism; infinite games are true escape.
Endless games are not infinite games.
Desert Golfing is a game without victory or defeat. You hit your ball across the desert, forever, without end. There is no going back, and there is no goal. But this doesn't make it infinite. It is bound by a proscribed series of limitations - the shape of the landscape, the method by which you progress forward - which have a distinct finitude. Even though no two holes in Desert Golfing are identical, the overall moment-to-moment play of it is.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Endless games offer us a casual escape that is easy to understand and define. We play Desert Golfing to pass the time and maybe fulfill some personal goal. We play Animal Crossing to build and maintain a town which will never go away. We explore the universe in No Man's Sky because it is there, and it beckons us to explore it. But these games are not infinite just because they have no end. They are still bound by the constraints of existing as a game made by finite creators. Somebody had to lay down the algorithms, define possible player choices, create assets and text.
These games were created with limitations. And limitations are not infinite.
There is only one truly infinite game. Everything else is just pretending.
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