Completionism and storytelling


Completionism is a term mostly used in computer games for the drive to complete every objective in a game. This drive to complete and collect everything is what fuels the Pokemon franchise. With Pokemon Go now being an official hype, I thought I’d look at completionism in storytelling.


Completionism is a term from computer games, as I wrote earlier. It consists of two parts:

  • The player has a clear objective to complete,
  • The player can see his or her progress in completing the objective.

This mechanism provides catharsis, especially when the players attains the objective. Because it works so well, games increasingly use it. Pokemon Go is a prime example. A game about ‘collecting them all’. This is so addictive, that it has caused traffic accidents and even fatalities.

If we look at the last two decades, there are more examples. Magic the Gathering is a popular fantasy Collectible Trading Card game. Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K are collectable fantasy/science fiction army games. The last few generations of consoles have also put an increasing emphasis on achievements, specific goals in a game that trigger a trophy to be added to the user’s account. The completionist will grind down until they have the 100% achievement rate for their games.

A famous example of completionism is the maximum score in the Pac-Man game. The maximum score achievable score is 3,333,360 due to a glitch in level 256. Billy Mitchell achieved this score in 1999, which took him six hours of playing. Imagine for a second playing 256 Pac-Man levels without making a single mistake.

Video games have increasingly let go of good storytelling in favour of open-world games. This is cheaper to implement. In those last the player simply walks around completing simple quests and collecting stuff, without much of a story.

I think this is sad. This disconnect between storytelling and completionism is not neccessary. Stories can be built around completionism.

Completionism in storytelling

Many stories and books contain completionism as a way to achieve catharsis. For example, there are seven Harry Potter books, exactly as many as there are years in the Hogwarts education programme. Each book covers one year. Each book/year provides progress to clear-defined end. As another example, in the last books Harry has to find the seven horcruxes. Again, clear progress to a set objective.

In the Wheel of Time, the Dragon has to defeat the thirteen forsaken and then the Dark One. Each time one dies the story progresses. One of the most annoying parts of the series is when Forsaken start coming back to life. This really felt like back-peddling.

Many video games that are more story-focused still use completionism to drive the game. Role Playing Games and adventure games notoriously have you a fetch a number of specific items needed to move the story forward. This goes as far back as the text-based adventure Zork.

As stated, you need two things for it to work, objectives and a way to measure progress. This last one is important, and what sets it apart from simply having a goal for the main characters. If Hogwarts had used an apprentice-based system where Harry had to apprentice to other wizards until they felt he was educated well enough, it wouldn’t have appealed to the completionist in us.

If games have an unspecified amount of side quests, or don’t allow a player to easily keep track of them, it doesn’t work.

One of the weaknesses – I feel at least – of the Dark Tower series, is that it is quite unclear how far the characters have progressed to the tower they are trying to reach.


Many storytellers use completionism in their writing. If not consciously, then subconsciously.It increases catharsis and thus engagement of the reader.

Now, go back to catching all the Pokemon.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands