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Hey, remember that whole Mass Effect 3 ending thing? Mercifully, I don't plan on giving it any further attention beyond that sentence. But it did – in its less oppressively obnoxious moments – give rise to a renewed discussion about videogame endings. The general consensus? It's the point where even the mightiest fall, tumbling from a perch of lofty regard to the turgid depths of disappointment. BioShock, Fallout 3, Knights of The Old Republic II – even the most beloved franchises have proven all-too-capable of heinous back-stabbery at the 11th hour.
And those are only the standouts. Plenty of other series have committed last-second crimes both large and small, so you could be forgiven for thinking we're in the midst of an epidemic fatal specifically to fond memories. Where, after all, is your satisfaction-fueled victory lap? Why, instead, is there an angry mob waiting at the finish line, pitchforks, torches, and voices raised in a howling thunder of angry regret? Why do games seem incapable of producing satisfying endings? That's the question many gamers have been asking themselves, and they've yet to uncover an answer.
Perhaps that's because they're asking the wrong question.
“Why do so many endings suck?” is a half-formed thought. Yes, we now understand that it probably won't fly with fans if their send off is a closure-free cliffhanger in which the hero and villain stare each other down, banter cryptically, and then clash blades/guns/Pokemon, only to be cut off mid-sentence by a “To be continued. In two years. Maybe. If this one meets publisher expectations for the fiscal quarter.”
But, in grumbling about flops and bellyflops and probably flip-flops, we're missing an incredibly key point: games are – and have already proven to be – capable of incredible endings. Some of the most moving, memorable final moments I've ever encountered – regardless of medium – have come from games, and most of them hedged their bets on particularly potent tools from gaming's bag of tricks.
The most basic of these techniques, of course, is the possibility of multiple endings. But that, in itself, isn't really so spectacular. Some of gaming's most interesting finales have emerged from developers' awareness of that potential last-second possibility smorgasbord. Endings, after all, don't have to be opposing forces, locked in an eternal tug-of-war between “good,” “bad,” and Silent Hill 2's dog ending (aka, “best”). What happens when we consider these things frayed ends of the same rope?
That's where we get endings like those in Bastion and indie survival-horror hit Lone Survivor. I've already discussed Bastion at (possibly excessive) length, but in both cases, there are multiple equally valid endings, each feeding into and informing the others. The full picture only becomes clear when you've assembled jigsaw pieces from both sides of the story.