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.
Lone Survivor, especially, uses that necessary repetition to amazing effect in conjunction with gaming's most obvious end-of-the-line exclamation point: the player's experience of actually, you know, playing the game. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.) At first, I approached the game like I would any other zombie apocalypse fight-or-flight-in-fright situation: Did it move? Shoot it. Did it then say, “Wait, stop shooting me”? Shoot it again anyway. Did it follow with “I'm still alive, somewhat miraculously, and am willing to forgive you – possibly because of blood-loss-related delirium”? Hm, that's a toughie. Flip a coin. Heads: shoot. Tails: flip another coin.
And it was miserable. My masked avatar's body was as beaten and broken as his incredibly fragile mind. Meanwhile, progressing became incredibly difficult for me as a player. Ammo was in short supply, as were food and drink (yes, it's a survival-horror game with actual survival) and means to get back to my apartment for precious, frequently necessary sleep. I got extremely frustrated, and eventually, I just sort of gave up. I became all at once cynical, despondent, and hopeless.
And my character echoed those feelings. He complained of exhaustion every time he got out of bed. Momentary glances into mirrors were met with laments of “I'm such a mess” or “I don't even recognize myself anymore.” I met a couple other characters who'd somehow avoided the horrific flesh monster mutation that was seeping the nation, but they wanted supplies. How the hell did they expect me to lend them a helping hand when I could barely even take care of myself? Eventually, I managed to make a mad, desperate dash for the game's finish, and I was treated to a confusing hallucination in which my character ultimately took his own life. It was a powerfully fitting final scene, to be sure, but it also felt empty. I felt like I was missing something.
So I tried again. Violence, I decided, would be my last resort. I was patient and methodical – venturing from my apartment only as far as I knew food and stealthier routes would allow. It took time, but my character kept his cool – and so did I. At that point, Lone Survivor ceased to be a game about zombies for me. I became obsessed with keeping this desperately feeble human being happy.
And it worked. He became confident and capable. Toward the end, I even had an excess of supplies, so I spread the wealth to characters less fortunate than my own. This time, my ending hallucination featured a couple of the same pieces of key imagery and some incredibly similar lines, but the context, mood, and end result were entirely different. One ending, then, was not complete without the other. But neither would've been nearly so powerful if I hadn't sat side-by-side with my character on that irritating, amazing emotional rollercoaster. (END SPOILERS.)
Elsewhere, on gaming's less traditional fringes, we find a coin with two incredibly disparate sides: 1) endings that only occur precisely when the player's ready and 2) endings that give the player no control whatsoever. The former happens all the time – though admittedly in all sorts very different forms.
If you've ever unsubscribed from an MMO, for instance, that's about as close to a final act as you're liable to get without a post-credit scene where Samuel L. Jackson asks you to join The Avengers. I mean, when I quit World of Warcraft after years of play to focus on college, I bid farewell to a place, group of people, and portion of my life I'd really come to love. It signaled an end to far more than a simple piece of escapist entertainment for me. Honestly, at that point in my life, it was one of the more intensely personal things I'd ever done.
On a somewhat similar note, I highly recommend that you read the final entry in Brendan Keogh's Toward Dawn Minecraft blog series. After spending more than a year chronicling his adventures in a single Minecraft world, Keogh decided to hang up his pick axe and settle down once and for all. I won't butcher the piece (which, again, I can't recommend enough) here, but the point remains the same: when we find games that really resonate with us on a personal level, they have a way of lingering – clinging to our skin and hair and the undersides of our fingernails until we scrub them away, only to feel oddly naked without them.
The latter of the previous two categories, meanwhile, is still pretty small, but experimental darlings Passage and The Graveyard both focus on death by natural causes. In doing so, both make interesting (if short-lived and minimalistic) points about mortality and the frail nature of relationships, but imagine if that limit were applied to something slightly more robust. Shooter, adventure, MMO, something entirely new – it doesn't matter. In each case, every second would count. Tick-tock-tick-tock. Death's right around the corner.
Games have taught us to treat death as a minor setback, so what happens when it's a foregone conclusion – or rather, the forgone conclusion? Decisions can't be taken back. How do you spend the minutes, hours, months, or even years until your character wastes away? Do you seek out unlimited power, weave your social threads into a comforting social sweater, or explore until your heart's content/has an attack? Do you try to do everything?
I guess what I'm saying is, do you waste your time on web forums complaining about crappy videogame endings? Or do you cherish the great ones and marvel at how lucky you were to get the chance to experience them?