Here to celebrate the end of the year, members from The Ontological Geek got together and ruminated for a while on game endings, good, bad and ambiguous. As you might expect, there are plenty of spoilers ahead. Here are the prompts we were given:
1. What makes a good ending for a game?
2. Examine a good ending.
3. Examine a bad ending.
Here’s what we came up with:
What makes a good ending for a game?
There used to be a day when games didn’t really end. When story was less of a priority than it is today, the victorious player was given the words GAME OVER, perhaps with a high score table thrown in for good luck. Nowadays, games tell stories. It seems obvious, then, that a good ending must wrap everything up. This solution, however, is tricky. What does it mean to wrap up an experience that can take some as few as twelve hours and others up to forty and beyond.
When I was a younger gamer, I desired the opportunity to play on with my characters (particularly in Morrowind) forever. Now I don’t so much believe that. I feel it is more important to realize that, much as the player will not adventure in the PC’s company forever, neither shall the PC be on hir quest forever. It is only right, then, that a good ending would give us a sense of closure and that our duties are done.
Games can change you. They can make you examine the truth about yourself and what you believe. They can speak to you on a fundamental level. But, like all good things, games must end. And when they do, it should not be because the developers ran out of things for you to do, but because you have reached the end of your PC’s story. Endings, like every other point in your quest, must be intentional. They must feel as though a stage in your life has ended. Does this mean that they must satisfy the player? Put all questions to rest and make the player feel as though every loose end is tied up and that they are now and forever in complete control of their destiny? No. But they must conclude the story, and generally it’s best that they do it with finality.
Examine a “good ending.”
Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.
One of New Vegas’ strengths is that it comes to an end. The previous game, Fallout 3, had an ending as well, but (no doubt because Bethesda is in/famous for endless games) this was rectified with the Broken Steel DLC and the Lone Wanderer was permitted to wander the Capital Wasteland for another ten levels (surprisingly more time than one would think). This decision wasn’t, strictly speaking, a bad thing. The Lone Wanderer was a young lad or lass, fresh out of Vault life. I could (and probably will someday) go on at length at the injustice of the Lone Wanderer’s original fate (which, SPOILERS, is to be either a martyr or an asshole), but Bethesda picked up on this and gave hir a reprieve (Spoilers, I guess), a second chance at life after becoming the Brotherhood’s napkin. 3’s ending succeeded because it gave the player a sense that, even though ze may walk away from the game, hir character will be okay. There is some hope for the Wastes and the Wanderer beyond Game Over.
New Vegas, however, was different. The Courier’s age is never specified, but I always got the sense that I was playing someone significantly older than nineteen. The Courier has traveled many miles before ever meeting the Player. Though we are told what happens to the Courier (and the number of ending variables, and thus possible outcomes to the game, is deliciously baffling), there comes a point, as with all good Western (A word which here means “Cowboy”) stories, where we must let them ride off into the sunset. And New Vegas does that with a slideshow, allowing the player to reflect on hir actions and the choices ze made and to see the effects those will have on the Mojave. You really get a sense of what you have accomplished in your play, and you see just how much one person can change the world.
So basically, what I’m saying is that Fallout: New Vegas is better than Mass Effect.
Examine a “bad ending.”
Hitman: Blood Money
Hitman: Blood Money is one of my favorite games of all time. It is a sandbox of stealth and murder wherein you play as Slender Man and take on increasingly daunting challenges (by which I of course mean opportunities to murder people, because we should not forget what’s actually going on here), each with a dizzying range of options for completion. The game is fun because it is unapologetic; it lets you plan and get creative with how you want to murder people, and gives many satisfying alternatives to simply running and gunning (which almost never works). In fact, as in the Metal Gear Solid series, direct combat serves more as a punishment than a viable option. It can be done, sure, but the game feels designed to make you regret your foolhardy ways, and will punish you with ratings such as “Thug”, “Deranged Slayer”, and (my personal favorite) “Mad Butcher” if you run and gun.
Then Hitman: Blood Money makes a booboo. Specifically, it makes you run and it makes you gun.
Throughout the game, we are shown scenes of a funeral at an impressive, secluded mansion, though there’s no indication who is the guest of honor. Well, it’s for you. Agent 47 is laid out in a display that would please the Band Perry. He is not actually dead, though; the player can, with a manipulating of the controls I confess I failed the first two or three times I got to the scene, revive 47 and proceed to kill all the dudes. But remember how I said the game punishes you for the hubris of running and gunning? It gets even worse here. Because half of all the dudes are security guards who are armed much better than you are. I think in my gaming career only Ninja Gaiden for the XBOX the First made me retry one gorram part more than this game.
The ending sequence might have been designed to be cathartic; after slinking and sneaking like you’re ashamed to be targeting and killing unsuspecting people at their children’s birthday parties or something, perhaps the developers thought they were doing us a favor by taking us off the leash and letting us run free. The flaw, in addition to the problems with the game itself, is that the deck is stacked against you. Agent 47 is in his idiom in the shadows, sneaking around and taking the measured, calculated approach to force. This sequence has you waking up in broad daylight in front of many people you’ve pissed off throughout the game with narry a moment to get your bearings before the beatings begin. Needless to say, it was neither fun, nor cathartic, nor satisfying.
What makes a “good ending” for a game?
Man am I gutted I failed to get involved in the extremely successful Boss Roundup young Bill organized. That would’ve been much easier! This question has me wracking my poor little brain and every time I think I’m on to something I think of an example that goes clear against it. I guess it’s obvious that there’s no clear cut formula to creating a good ending for a game, but a decent bet is to maintain some consistency with the spirit of the game proper. If you can manage that, which is harder than it sounds, then you’re most of the way there. We all know a great ending when we see one, and it follows that usually it’s the culmination of a great game that brings everything to a head in the last few moments without spoiling it. It’s a bit like sex. Or flying. Or, indeed, both. While it’s happening it’s the best thing ever but so help me god if you don’t nail the landing (I’ve mainly gone with the flying simile) it can ruin the whole damn thing. When it goes right and everything becomes still at the end you’re left wide-eyed and breathless, you spend a moment bathing in what just happened and you feel all at once really quite alive.
What were we talking about again?
Examine a “good ending.”
Say, did you ever play Prince of Persia: Sands of Time? Did you like it? ‘Course you bloody did, everyone who played that game did. Partly that’s because it’s a great little mix of platforming puzzlery and excellent combat mechanics, but mainly it’s because it has a narrative structure that’s at once surprising, delightful and kick ass. The game’s coup de grace moment of weaving its own time traveling theme to turn the whole plot structure on its head is so damned satisfying that you cannot help but smile. There aren’t many games where pulling a stunt like this would work, but the whole incident is internally consistent and perfectly in fitting with the tone of the game as a whole, not to mention the Prince himself. The risk here was that the final moments would come off as overly conceited and crammed in to manufacture a cheesy happy ending. Fortunately the game positively dances across that tightrope and we’re treated to something smart, charming and actually rather funny. Love it.
Examine a “bad ending.”
Let me be clear: I love the Metal Gear Solid series. I can’t pick my favourite book, actor or even my favourite yogurt, but ask me my favourite game. Go ahead. It’s Metal Gear Solid. Now, having said that… Fucking hell, Sons of Liberty. Just… fucking hell. The second game itself is pretty good, though probably the weakest of the series, which means that when that ending comes it crashes just as hard as Arsenal Gear’s meeting with the Manhattan shoreline. There are elements I like which, again, are thematically consistent with the build-up. The idea of the game’s events being a simulation to mimic the Shadow Moses incident works beautifully into the series’ tendency towards meta self-reference. And then… I think maybe that turned out to be a lie as well? Or maybe that was right and the other thing was a lie? I just… I…
I mean, look at me, Sons of Liberty. Just look! Do you see how many question marks and ellipses are in that paragraph? No rational human being should be brought to such heathen depths. Whether the ending makes any sense is something we can bounce back and forth all day long, but really that misses the point. The fact that we could even have that conversation means it is a narrative failure. The real issue here is that when the player is bombarded with a series of plot expositions, deux ex machina, full on character u‑turns and insane AI gobbledygook in the final moments of a game it becomes a nightmare for that player to keep up. I’m sure I had it once, I got my head around it all and it seemed clear and bright as a brand new day. Some years have passed and now all I remember is a mess that puts me off ever wanting to start the game again for fear of finishing it. I’m all for hidden meanings and ambiguous signifiers, to which the application of thought and analysis are as morning sunshine opening the petals of a rose. Sadly, Sons of Liberty’s ending shuts the rose in box in a safe in a castle guarded by bastards.
What makes a good ending?
A good ending is something that gives a sense of narrative closure to a game, and it should be in proportion to the intensity of the narrative in the rest of the game. It doesn’t have to be much; if the game is abstract, the ending can be too. Super Hexagon is a lovely example of this. Not all games need an explicit ending, either. Just progressing to a new high score in an endless game (think arcade classics) can mark enough closure for a player.
For games that tell a more elaborate story, a fulfilling ending is important. If we’ve become invested emotionally in game characters, we want to know what happens to them at the end. If there is a major antagonist, we want to see it defeated, or alternatively, we want to lose and be defeated ourselves in a meaningful way. If there is a loved one to rescue or protect, we want to see them safe at the end of the game, etc.
For games that have a narrative, but which rely mostly on the exposition of a compelling game world—such as many RPGs—the ending may again be less important. It can be very difficult to create an ending that lives up to the many adventures players have experienced during the game.
Examine a good ending
A game that does this very well nonetheless is Planescape: Torment. While the game has a very compelling setting, it is a story and character-driven RPG at its heart. Its ending is brilliant in combining multiple climaxes: finding and unlocking the crucial pieces of the personal history of the protagonist, a showdown with the main antagonist of the game, and optionally a final battle where all characters are at the pinnacle of their powers.
Two other endings that impressed me greatly are the last two games by The Chinese Room: Dear Esther and Amnesia: a Machine for Pigs. Without wanting to spoil anything, both endings combine an emotional climax with beautiful music and a spatial or architectural design that is highly symbolic and perfectly suited to their position in the game and the story. Although part of me sees through the structure of these endings while they are happening, for some reason that doesn’t take away much from the beauty of them. They just feel right.
Examine a bad ending
One of the more disappointing endings is that of The Curse of Monkey Island. I love that game, but after hours of solving puzzles and meeting crazy people, all to rescue your cursed pirate love Elaine, after the final puzzle the game ends with the briefest of movies and bang! it’s over. This can’t be anything but end-of-budget constraints, but it’s just so sad.
A mildly disappointing ending was that of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which doesn’t really do justice to the concept of multiple endings. You literally have to select between a few different buttons on machines to choose the ending you want. Why not just press 1, 2, 3 on your keyboard and be done with it? The ending is particularly disappointing compared to both the original Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War, both of which are perfect examples of how to make choices between different endings meaningful by making the player work for them.
What makes a “good ending” for a game?
The question of a “good ending” is a tricky one, now that games’ stories are being judged increasingly through literary lenses. These days it’s a bit like asking what makes an ending to a film or novel “good.” Obviously it’s wise to remain internally consistent – it’s not really considered Best Practice to give a modern romantic comedy flick a Hamlet-esque “kill ‘em all” ending, nor do audiences expect a sci-fi-inspired thriller like Minority Report or Inception to have a clear-cut happy send-off (e. g., hero gets girl, perpetuates essentialist gender stereotypes, and exeunt all while repeating a line from the beginning of the movie but meaningfully this time). We expect our endings to follow the Code, and to an extent select our literary and filmic excursions accordingly.
To an extent, this makes the question of a “good” ending a matter of preference. In my theatrical life, I’ve often heard from both practitioners and audience that theatre is meant for entertainment, for good cheer and laughter, and of course for happy endings. I would argue that theatre can be, and should be, much more than that by definition, but who am I to argue with the enduring influence and importance of the satyr play? My love of Pinter shouldn’t define an ending’s goodness with any objectivity.
In videogames, the ending is also coded. We know, generally, how a Final Fantasy ending formula works (party gains power and kills God, some weird stuff happens, some people hook up, and the world is saved through some kind of sacrifice), or a BioShock (identity twist, last vestigial power structure crumbles, ambiguously good potential future for the heroes). Any vaguely competent narrative is of course going to produce the sort of consonance required for the ending to match at least the general tone of the overall work, though, so this isn’t the key factor here.
Central to conversations like these are the things which games do that other media don’t (the ludo-stuff). Therefore, the intersection between mechanics (design) and story, how they talk to one another and cooperate, has to be one of the most important parts of examining why certain endings are and aren’t effective. The ideal situation is a ludonarrative synchronicity: both elements making sense both in and out of the context of their interrelationship.
Examine a “good ending.”
Chrono Trigger remains one of the first modern games to employ multiple endings in a branching storyline effectively. Its setting is cartoonish, sometimes even downright silly (your journeys to the distant past force you to reckon with sentient dinosaurs and ooga-mooga Flintstones-style humans), but its progression is logical even if its premises are too far-fetched for some (“realistic,” modern) gamers.
Not long into the game, you reach your first “hub” and the world becomes increasingly open and travelable as the plot thickens. After a certain point, you wind up playing in something very similar to one of Bethesda’s sandboxes. As you employ various means of jumping back and forth through time to prevent a foreseen apocalypse from happening, you can see your actions in the past have direct consequences in the future. Many of these changes are totally optional, and range from highly important and plot-driven to rather inconsequential (change the moral fiber of a modern character by influencing his or her ancestor’s life in a major way, or, yanno, cause an eternal, evil city to hover in the sky so that future generations treat it as commonplace, natch).
Nearly all of these choices will have visible effects in the ending you get, as well. There’s about fifteen of them or so, and all of them contain variables which you’ll hammer into place through your cosmic meddling. You can put the cart way ahead of any beast of burden and dash to defeat the main boss of the game at about the halfway mark, if you know where to go and manage to become powerful enough by that time. You can side against the humans in the aforementioned travesty of a Pleistocene and trigger the evolution of dinosaurs into the supreme rulers of the planet, having along ago eliminated the mammalian threat.
The game’s all about the butterfly effect: a small tweak here, a three-sentence conversation there, and all of a sudden, history is changed forever. This matches the ending(s), all of which are very thorough about showing you (and having you play through some of) a Where Are They Now synopsis of the subplots and characters you encountered, both major and minor. The binding-together of the story and its themes at the end, the tying together of its threads (made of, it may be said, cosmic strings) synchs up nicely with the game’s mechanical conceits: linear, back-and-forth time travel, and snap decisions with long-lasting and sometimes ethically heavy consequences.
Examine a “bad ending.”
At the risk of being like, so 2011, let’s talk for a moment about Mass Effect 3. If you’ve been online in the past two years you doubtless remember the extravaganza of Internet bitterness caused by the esteemed trilogy’s swan song. The hostile arguments brought about by the ending center mostly on the final fifteen minutes or so, which posits an explanation of the galactic threat, the Reapers, which really doesn’t have the slightest allusion to its credit in the previous three games. Okay, fine. Still further, at the end our hero Commander Shepard chooses between three different outcomes which, though radically different in theory, are almost identical so far as what the player is shown and what gameplay steps remain in order to put them into motion.
On the face of things, none of this really seems like a problem. After all, how many stories (those you find in games included) have but one ending? Pretty much all of them. The issue is that Mass Effect, like Chrono Trigger but even more so, makes a huge deal about player choice and consequence. There’s follow-through, logical progression, a keen attention to detail evident in nearly every interaction Shepard has with the characters and places he or she encounters over the course of three games. With so much lovingly-crafted variability apparent in the course of over 200 hours of game content, it was understandable that fans who felt promised the same amount of variation in the endings wound up disappointed and confused.
Bioware’s motivations and processes during the creation of Mass Effect’s final hours have been the source of much dispute and speculation. Many think that the writing team felt overwhelmed by the details, didn’t think they could manage to pull everything together effectively, and so opted for a diabolus ex machine to patch things up for the whole galaxy, Shepard as a go-between. This would have made the endings something like LOST-style reductionistic homages to fatalism: what happens is gonna happen, there’s no changing it ultimately. This is a fine theme to include in a story, of course, but it’s clearly not Mass Effect’s theme as it expresses itself during most of its run.
Other people believe (Indoctrination Theory, and yes I’m sort of in this camp) that the ending sequence is actually fiercely intentional, meant to illustrate the culmination of Shepard’s long and desperate struggle to retain control of his or her mind under threat of indoctrination by the Reapers. Again, all well and good, and there are some visual hints and bits of foreshadowing dropped along the way which seem to lend credence to this position, but that’s just it. The evidence is visual only. In the conversational gameplay, and all the modes of play save the last few minutes, Shepard retains as much capability as before. Just as formidable, just as much of a change agent.
We play games to immerse, to feel our way through a story instead of just watching it. To be asked to put the playing on hold, to ignore it, is the essence of what’s been lately dubbed “ludonarrative dissonance.” Its psychological effect on the player is similar to the concern and surprise one might express if one felt a solid-looking wall and found it squishy.
Bringing these two elements into a productive accord will be the next step in the evolution of gaming as an important cultural and artistic force. Perhaps sometimes we take steps back, but, as much of the indiesphere (at least) has taught us, we see the potential and we keep moving forward.
What makes a good ending?
“Good” in this context seems to mean both “satisfying” and “coherent with the rest of the work.” A game with a defined narrative thus has a lot of plates to spin with its ending: it has to both tie up the story (character arcs, overall plots, important questions of setting or Big Questions the designers are trying to ask) and provide a climactic and appropriately difficult gameplay sequence (boss fights and Important Choices are popular). One recurring problem occurs in games which do not lend themselves to Big Climactic Moments: stealth games are all about avoiding Big Climactic Moments, so how do you end one satisfyingly without just making it impossibly difficult? This is probably why many games seem to suddenly switch genres in their endings — stealth games become shooters, shooters become racing games, etc.
Examine a “good ending.”
The snarky response is “there aren’t any,” because videogames seem to have such a hard time ending — budget constraints, time constraints, and the fact that some obscene percentage of players won’t even reach the ending often puts “ending well” towards the bottom of a game’s priority list.
But I’ll play: (serious spoilers): Gone Home ends perfectly. The game’s use of horror tropes throughout (dark, spooky house once owned by mysterious and vaguely sinister bachelor uncle, flickering lights, missing family) has been busy setting you on edge all game, and the vague portents that Something Terrible awaits in the previously locked attic make the final ascent up the creaking ladder a nervous one– even though by now you’re pretty sure that no ghosts are serial killers are hiding up there, you have good reason to think that your little sister has killed herself and will be dangling from one of the attic’s rafters.
When you get there, no such terrifying sight awaits — Gone Home is not a horror game, it just wants you to think it is sometimes. Instead, you find your sister’s journal, and realize that she’s all right after all, and learn where she’s gone.
Gone Home is about exploration, mounting unease, reading other people’s mail, and a certain refreshing, courageous sweetness, and the ending underscores all of these themes — you sneak into the attic (your sister’s darkroom, where you are NOT SUPPOSED TO BE), lit all in red, using a key you more or less stole from her, and discover that maybe everything’s going to be okay after all.
Examine a “bad ending.”
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is one of my favorite games I absolutely hated playing, but its ending is disappointing as heck. After working your way through the bowels of Brennenburg Castle, chasing after a nigh-immortal monster of a man, you have to hide from and avoid all manner of terrible creatures. Utterly helpless, your best defenses against Alexander’s minions are closet doors and running, clumsily, in the opposite direction.
Amnesia is about hiding, helplessness, and insanity. It’s a stealth game with no instant-kills, where hiding in the darkness causes your character to slowly lose his mind. So, naturally, the end-game consists in pushing over pillars with no danger but a preposterously long time limit, in a brightly lit room. It’s incongruous and bizarre, wholly unsatisfying and entirely divorced from the rest of an otherwise-excellent game. (While the “bad ending” you get from just standing around and looking confused, allowing the villain’s Dark Plan to reach its loathsome fruition, is actually kind of satisfying, it’s clearly just there to satisfy players who want to “see what happens if”).