“Without art in the ending, a game ends up without art.”
For those that are new, welcome!
For those that have been following this series, now in it’s sixth (I think?) installment, I know it seems like I may have forgotten about it. I hadn’t (mostly), but like certain Canadians, I just didn’t know the best way to finish it. Then we had the recent excitement over Mass Effect 3, and I realized that the main point that had been building to with this series – in fact, the concept I originally wanted to talk about when I started – was more apt than ever. It was a like a kick in the pants to get back to finishing this thing!
But then life decided to get absolutely nuts. The last couple weeks have been an inconceivable mash up of conceivable family issues: a birth, a death, a wedding, and a lawsuit. All within 14 days. Sheesh.
Thankfully, April comes with less insanity and more time to write!
If you want to get caught up, you can find each article with the following links matched to their nifty themes! There was the pair concerning TIME and SPACE (in two parts), which were pretty good, but then there’s also MIND and BODY! Yup, definitely five parts before this one! I’m in no way skipping ahead to cover a more pertinent issue.
Anywho, here we are at last: VOID, A.K.A. The End.
Finales. Conclusions. Finishes. Terminations. Whatever you want to call them, video games are usually known for doing them wrong. This is the “void” of which I speak; the thing both game player and game maker seem to dread. This is also what I believe to be holding gaming back from further growth, from truly becoming more meaningful to more people. After all, if nothing matters in the end, why begin in the first place?
WARNING! This is the completion of a series that’s well over 10,000 words already. It’s going to be long.
In The End, it doesn’t really matter . . .
Seriously, if I didn’t already make it clear, most video game endings are garbage. If you’re now being contrary and remembering a game that happened to have a great ending, let me reassure you that is an example of the minority. Most games end like a key party for a cyclist: everything’s done and you’re left alone, awkward, and wondering why you came in the first place.
For experienced gamers, this state of affairs is nothing new and there are plenty who have fun making lists of the worst. Heck, in some genres it’s the expected norm instead of being considered a flaw. No one expects Street Fighter to be Sunset Boulevard, or Tetris to be Titus Andronicus; as long as the experience is fun, and there is a way for the game to end, then how well it ends apparently doesn’t matter.
Apathetic expectations like these seem to stem out of the early history of video game storytelling. There was a time, not too long ago, when the “stories” driving any given game could only generously be called trifles. They were mere sketches of ideas meant to give the absolute minimum amount of explanation as to why you were single-handedly taking on the Robots/Orcs/Gang of bad dudes with your Prototype Cyber-Suit/Ancient Magic/Bare fists of beatdown justice.
The expectation became that video games do not necessarily need the story to matter, or even make much sense, as they weren’t about telling stories, but participating in them. Like pornography, the “why” that gets us to the hot, sweaty, action merely needs to be paid lip service and once the climax has been reached, er, final boss is defeated, the game pulls out quickly to prevent leaving any lasting impr- aaaand I think this metaphor’s gone too far.
Unfortunately, this “Games as action pornography” view seems the accepted consensus. That gaming has been and will always be about the nature of the verb actions gamers perform, instead of trying to craft a meaningful narrative or create memorable characters. The logic, when carried to the context of endings, seems to be “if the stories in games are trivial and generally suck, why would you expect anything else from the ending?”
Except, here’s the thing. While yes, games are primarily about the doing of things and that will never change (nor should it), the rest of these premises aren’t true, and never have been.
The roots of modern gaming started in two distinct forms: in the arcade and on the PC. While it’s very true that arcade games – and the console games that sought to emulate them – usually didn’t aim for higher narrative concerns, on the PC things were quite different. There, an opposing type of game grew wild, one that concentrated on interesting plots and personalities . . . you know, the “traditional” aspects of storytelling? The ones shared by film, theater, and literature? The aspects that apparently gaming has never focused on before?
Whether with a graphical or text-based interface, adventure games have been around nearly from the start of the medium and are essentially elaborate interactive books, and on occasion, films. Just look at the adventure game sub-genres. They’re the same type found in other narrative mediums – mystery, comedy, horror – which are based on the intended emotive content for the audience, versus the genres of action games – shooting, fighting, racing – which pertain to the verbs you perform during them. These games not only explicitly contain a focus on narrative expectations, but as with any book or film, it’s their primary selling point!
Now I’m not saying adventure games were all epic dramas that touched the soul since there were plenty that focused on touching other parts entirely, but the belief that gaming has never been about telling stories is ignoring quite a lot of gaming history to the contrary. Of course, this skewed account makes sense statistically. While always finding an audience, Space Quest fans never outnumbered the army of Sonic the Hedgehog loyalists; I get that the bias trends toward the guys with Geneses, not the dudes using DOS.
But the history of the situation doesn’t really matter anymore since games are no longer as segregated when it comes to narrative focus. When it comes to narrative, games have blended, crossbred and fused; pretty much every action game has a story far expanded than its eighties equivalent, and mechanics that used to be the purview of Adventure games and RPGs are popping up in countless other genres. Look no further than the popularity of progressive leveling in modern online shooters, for example.
Heck, if Uncharted didn’t have charming characters like Nathan Drake, would it be worth playing at all? It really doesn’t have cover shooting mechanics better than those found in similar games. Why, it’s almost as if an action game’s main point of differentiation is that it has compelling characters and plot?!
Sure, there are still games out there that ignore the importance of the plot – see Duke Nukem Forever, and Ms. ‘Splosion Man for examples from last year – but these days I’d say gonzo gaming is the exception, not the rule. Though the slow evolution has made it difficult to see, gaming has grown along every avenue, including narrative expectations. Players want even the most gruesome action game experience to have a story these days; you can’t just give them “Kill all the dudes” and be done with it.
Then there’s the nature of gaming itself, since as most moms addicted to Farmville can attest, even the simplest games have the ability to enthrall. The remarkable ability of games to – through the act of playing them alone – grant new experiences in a direct manner can be profound. In fact, immersive gameplay can make it very easy to ignore the oft cliched stories a lot of games contain, even making them seem better than they actually are.
Actually, this might explain why gamers accept weaker narratives, but to me, it’s the exact reason why we shouldn’t. Aside from the simple ethic that, if you’re going to tell a story, do it well, just think of the possibility of profundity gaming has. Why wouldn’t you want the narratives to match the immersive nature of the medium?
The point I’m trying to make is that yes, the storytelling of a game is important, and is in fact as important as any other quality a game may contain. While I understand that the slow creep of this importance has caused many to devalue it, I disagree with those who insist it not be taken in consideration with reviews, no matter how logical the arguments against this practice may be.
Which leads back to endings. Though many realize that an ending can make or break a story in a game (proven by science!), it seems just as many still hold to the apathetic old ways, and don’t see a problem. Worse, some offer flip suggestions seemingly made only to frustrate fans who want the quality of narrative to improve.
It’s a state of affairs that needs changing, especially if gaming is ever going move forward as an art form. After all, if you simply accept trite pablum, what do you think you’ll end up getting?
Unfortunately, I’m merely critic and commentator. Aside from making sure narrative qualities are factored into a review whilst hoping others follow suit, I am powerless. My ability to eloquently hurl words at something has never been able to fix a real problem it seems.
About the only thing I can do is point the problems out . . . so let’s do just that, shall we?
Thanks to severe anti-social tendencies, I’ve seen far too many game endings make me wish for game overs. The following are the worst trends in them! Some are old, some are relatively new, but all are terrible!
It’s a little feature I like to call . . .
End Errors – Game
Oh, and yeah, I’m going to be talking about endings so you best be prepared. If you know what I mean.
1) Denouewhat? I don’t Speak Spanish!
What is “Denouement”? Aside from a word most English speakers probably mispronounce?
Simply put, it’s the “falling action”; which isn’t a skydiving gunfight but the stuff that happens during the resolution to a story; the thing after the subtle metaphor for story-orgasm we call the climax on plot diagrams. It’s the part where Anthony Micheal Hall writes the essay via monologue, or where the transsexual crushing mayor hugs his daughter after kicking a handicapable mob boss out a skyscraper. This is also apparently a concept that is as alien to game developers as a sense of shame is to furries, since it’s missing or mishandled in approximately 90% of games.
Seriously, the vast majority of game endings contain lackluster or simply lacking denouement. From a literary perspective, it’s easily the medium’s most prevalent problem. This also happens to occur in the two endings for Dark Souls, which makes for a perfect example of what I’m talking about, and ties back into the title of the article, so yeah, that’s good.
At the start of your masochistic adventure through Lordran, you’re presented with an intro narrated by Lady Galadriel if she smoked three packs a day. It explains the primary conflict of Dark Souls: undead roam the land and the magical fire that ensures humanity’s providence has burnt out, and the God that protected it gone mad. You play as an accursed undead, lighting small bonfires of salvation and defeating monsters, demons, and deities for the next fifteen to fifty hours (depending on how much you grind) until you confront the the daft God Gwynn and rekindle the “Fire of Lords”, which apparently means you get a minute long cutscene showing your character explode like napalm.
Notice the disparity? Dark Souls is a game you’re probably spending a week or two of more or less constant play on to see it through to the end. Yet when you get past the final climactic hurdle, you simply get a confusing explosion that doesn’t reveal whether or not you solved the primary conflict of the game, and credits! There’s even an alternate ending that only an extremely rebellious and inquisitive player (or tester) would find, but while it does offer a more definite resolution – you become Lord Skeletor of the Lip-less Dinosaur Snakes – it’s even shorter!
Such brevity in the terminus isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Star Wars‘ has the quick “Everybody gets Medals except Chewbacca” ending and is plenty satisfying; once Marla Singer is told that it’s been a very strange time in Tyler Durden’s life, it’s explosion-penis-credits! If falling action falls rapidly, it has the possibility of working. But a minute or two span is a pretty tight hindrance on tying up loose ends or resolving a story, and it’s rare that this is enough time in a two hour film, let alone a twenty hour game.
Even then, the issue here isn’t that this happens occasionally, it’s that this is the dominant methodology for game endings! Unless they do it during the credits, and some do, most games spend a scant few minutes (or far, far less) showing what happens to our characters past escaping the exploding base. As it’s rare for developers to fit in an appropriate scenario within such limited constraints, why do they keep doing it?
Tradition and poor planning seem the likely culprits. Ending a game on a “STAGE CLEAR” screen while level statistics and a spot to enter your initials pops up (S.E.X. of course) has roots in the arcade games of old. However, back then the main limit on an arcade game wasn’t time, but money; with enough quarters any arcade cabinet could be defeated, and usually within a couple hours. Proportionately, a minute long ending for an hour long game really isn’t that bad, especially since few arcade games dealt with deeper concepts than punches, explosions, and talking aquatic mammals.
Proportions are a big part of this. A single screen is fine for a single screen game like Tetris. If you’re playing a month long RPG that loves to lift ideas out of Tolkien though, the ending might as well do likewise and spend some time wrapping things up. Besides, if an ending has any sort of weight or meaning, I say listen to The Cranberries: you’re going to have to let it linger. How else can it be effective for the player?
The best, or at least most recent, example of a lengthy falling action sequence is the ranching portion of Red Dead Redemption. Of course, RDR is one of the few games critics like myself love to point to when talking about great endings in video games, but lo and behold, it’s also one of the few that understands how to use denouement for effect!
Funny how that works out, isn’t it?
As to the other cause – poor planning – well that simply has to do with budgeting your time properly. Unfortunately I have little faith in game developers on this score. Because humanity. Also, “Making Games is hard“.
2) Cliffhangers to Nowhere
While I would love to really dig into deconstructing the digital dearth of denouement (and perhaps one day I will), I also want to get to the other issues. Such as gaming’s overuse of cliffhangers and other sequel-centric devices instead of committing to narrative finality.
As game development costs have ballooned over time, so to has the pressure to turn every new game into a franchise. So while in the old days you might get the occasional “The Evil Lord of Ludicrous Evil was pushed back into the Murderrealm . . . BUT FOR HOW LONG?”, the modern equivalent of creating plot threads that can only be handled later or leaving pertinent issues like the main conflict unresolved when you smash cut to credits in order to drum up interest for the sequel seems to show up more and more often. Alliteratively: Crummy Cliffhangers Cause Computer Conclusion Chaos!
To be fair, sequel focused development mentality can lead to other issues with endings and stories in general (which I’m getting to). Aside from generally also lacking denouement – the end to Halo 2 is sudden enough to count as a jump scare in a horror flick – cliffhangers specifically carry a unique curse in gaming: if you end your first game on one it usually means there won’t actually be a second.
I swear, I think ending the first game on a cliffhanger is seen as a challenge to the gaming deities (who definitely exist), because they almost never let this act of hubris go unpunished. Among the examples are Too Human, Bionic Commando 2K9 (sequel technically, but also the first entry in a franchise reboot), XIII, Psychonauts, Beyond Good and Evil, Axelay, Clive Barker’s Jericho and the Orson Scott Card double whammy of wasted potential, Advent Rising and Shadow Complex (though Shadow complex was better about this). Often, this ends up actually killing off the studios who make them, or in the case of Silicon Knights and Orson Scott Card, their credibility.
While this is really more advice for developers to avoid some superstitious wrath, the ever increasing number of cliffhangers can also be seen as a minor symptom to a larger problem: the devaluing creative control because sequels must exist, ALWAYS. But then, that frustrating problem may have something to do with it affecting one of my favorite series, Mega Man X. Of course that leads directly into the next issue . . .
3) Endings? We don’t need no stinking ending!
The quick and dirty version is that the creator of the Mega Man series, Keiji Inafune, wanted to end the series after X5, and move on to a subsequent chapter that used the same characters in new (and much darker) ways. So X5 ends with it’s pony tailed breakout character – Zero – dying, and attempts to close the book on the rest. However, Capcom, a company well known for its respectable narrative craft and consistency, just went and made X6 – with Zero alive and well – shortly thereafter.
Why? Because they own it, and they weren’t done rehashing a franchise that at that point was on it’s 14th iteration (36th or higher if you count spin offs). Because money.
Or if you think Mega Man is a juvenile example, it is about SUPER FIGHTING ROBOTS after all, look at BioShock. It’s a game much more notable for its story, but it also had a pair of conclusive endings, one of which (the “good” one) I felt actually added poignancy and meaning to the game in the way only a conclusive ending can. When Irrational Games decided to not pursue a sequel, well that didn’t stop their publisher from forcing another studio to put an uninspired retread that didn’t achieve the first game’s narrative weight out the door!
But hey, it had multiplayer! That makes everything A-OK!
Dripping sarcasm aside, the unfortunate tendency of commercial interests to never let a good narrative reach a fulfilling finale isn’t limited to gaming. Most serialized storytelling falls prey to this problem, especially in comic books. There the writers have gone so far out of their way to never let their franchises die that they’ve frozen time itself.
Which, well that’s the more prevalent issue in gaming, actually. Thus enters: Skyrim.
For all of the positive qualities Skyrim has, and it has many, one of them isn’t an ending. Sure it has an ending. I suppose. You can defeat the antagonistic dragon of doom, Alduin, and save the land of Skyrim. You even get hailed by a procession of other dragons when you do. It’s all very grand.
But the game doesn’t stop. There are no credits that appear, no epilogue that reveals that re-establishing the Thieves Guild caused so and so to do X, or that winning the war for side A was better than for side B for Y reason. Nothing.
You just stand there on a mountain wondering what to do next, knowing that anything you do decide to focus on probably won’t compare to slaying an eternal dragon of time in Valhalla. Little of what you’ve spent the last month or four doing carries much weight, and the main reason you’ll probably stop playing Skyrim is dissatisfied boredom. This unending void drowns the story of any power it might have carried in a sea of the infinite.
(obviously that last sentence is proof that I wanted to be a poet, but found that there’s a lot more money in blogging)
Interestingly, not providing any sort of ending to an individual game is really quite old school, and also something you would see in arcades more than on PC. Pac-Man doesn’t end. Qix doesn’t end. Donkey Kong doesn’t end, even though it has a story that does. Which . . . is exactly like Skyrim, actually.
Not having an ending – either through a game that literally loops like Donkey Kong, in a game that lets you wander its world without wrapping it up, or through the meta concept of a series that can’t die – is the death of narrative. There is no permanence, so no change can occur. If no change can occur, characters cannot grow and the arc becomes meaningless since as any storytelling professor will tell you, all stories are fundamentally about change.
Immortal, unchanging characters and worlds are generally speaking, immature creations. Pac-Man not having an ending is totally acceptable since it was an immature game from a narrative perspective.
But then, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong aren’t trying to tell stories so much as be amusements, possibly metaphors about the obese temporarily escaping their inevitable death by overeating and what happens when a construction worker goes off his medication. Skyrim too, is arguably less concerned with narrative than on creating a tangible world and making it true to life. And life, while it may have occasional adventures, also has no through line, no true narrative arc.
As simulation, it’s totally valid. As narrative, it simply isn’t. But then, Bethesda also had other reasons not to put in an ending . . .
4) D-L-C! Talking ’bout 1-Big-Fee! For the Fin-Al-e! D-L-C! Fin-Al-E!
Bethesda, according to many of their fans, made a huge mistake at end their previous game, Fallout 3. They put the player’s character in a situation that was meant for them to to sacrifice their life, or the life of another character, in order to turn on the game’s overriding plot device, a water treatment plant. While that may sound a bit overblown, in the Fallout world, any working machinery past the technological complexity of a car is a damned miracle, since you know, post apocalypse and all.
Anyway, this ending might have sat well with everybody except for one thing: it had a giant gaping plot hole the size of a Super Mutant right in the center of it. You see, in Fallout 3 you could have different companions, and a few of these characters happened to be immune to the particular hazard that caused this to be a “noble sacrifice” rather than a “slightly annoying walk to a console to flip a switch”. Considering the title of the game, I’ll let you guess what that hazard was.
Now, because Bethesda was putting out DLC (downloadable content and something I’ve covered) already, they decided to listen to their complaining fanbase and fix this oversight. Rather than just fixing the plot hole, they changed the actual outcome of ending and made it continue onwards, as you’re character didn’t die after all, and into the never ending game model that they would then use again in Skyrim. Bethesda at least, learned that it’s fans wanted games that weren’t narratives . . . and the precedent was set.
Oh my. That sounds bad! And here I am in the year 2012, thinking gaming was all doing alright, ever progressing toward artistry, when you’re telling me that it all ended in 2009? When both Fallout 3 and the rebooted Prince of Persia received DLCs that either nullified or negated their original endings?
Oh wait. No. Those “destroy artistry” links are from journalists angry at fans wanting to change the end to Mass Effect 3, not Fallout 3. Funny, that.
I mean, I remember liking the end of Diablo 2. Quite a bit actually. It had this enigmatic end: at the closing of a framing device set in an insane asylum, a madman gave the last hope of humanity to its worst enemy. One who proceeded to walk the Earth . . . forever. Powerful stuff.
But then, the developer decided to add on an expansion pack that continued the story for just one more chapter, and turned that evil from the Keyser Soze he seemed to be, into a Saturday morning cartoon villain after a magic MacGuffin at the Worldcave or some such nonsense.
Oh, but where was the outcry that a dangerous precedent had been set then? Hmm?
Alright, I’ll knock off the facetiousness because this actually is a serious issue, just not in the way it’s being covered right this second. Also, to be honest, it’s one I am torn about. As I am of two minds on the current demands by fans to alter the ending to Mass Effect 3.
On the one hand, the ending is terrible. As of right now, early April 2012, the ending is mind bogglingly stupid and my review speaks to this. As does this guy’s thoughtful analysis. As a fan myself, I would love to see a different ending, because I feel what is present is rushed, doesn’t match what I think BioWare is capable of (as proven by the rest of their game), and is also inherently disrespectful of key tenets of the story up to that point.
On the other hand, I liked the ending to Fallout 3 as much as it was. After you, perhaps stupidly, jumped into the room to turn on the machine, you also got . . . surprise! an ENDING. Though not as good as the similar endings to Fallout 1 or 2, it maintained consistency, brought some closure, and let me know I had changed the world. It was a complete narrative for the same reason Skyrim isn’t, and I think the DLC that came out for Fallout 3 did kind of hurt the integrity of the story.
There’s also something to be said about artists being free to make their own decisions -and mistakes – without being forced to conform to the crowd. What an angry mob wants, when it comes to artistic expression anyways, is historically either wrong, bland, or a combination of both.
But was I mad at Bethesda for (wait for it) “caving” to whiners? Did it fundamentally hurt the artistic integrity of all games everywhere?
Obviously not! It wasn’t that big a deal. So what’s the difference?
Honestly, the group that was “whining” was smaller. Small enough that the people covering the the announcement of DLC didn’t assign power for the decision making process to their complaints. If it resolved this quibble for fans, fine, but it also did ten other things and THAT was all put in by Bethesda, who retained total creative control in the end. The difference is that the press complaining about the “entitled whiners” now, didn’t realize what was going on then, because otherwise it would have been the same. Right?
I wasn’t kidding earlier when I did say that Fallout 3 – not Mass Effect 3 – set a precedent. A much worse precedent than what the fans of sensible endings for Mass Effect 3 could cause: ending DLC in general. Because that IS happening, and being perpetrated by the worst of all possible companies: Capcom.
See, the things that bothers me about the “retake Mass Effect” movement isn’t that it might pressure creators into changing their story, that’s been around since Scheherazade or Sherlock, pick one. But many of the people asking for changes are so desperate for them that they’re willing to settle for BioWare selling it to them, even though their entire argument is basically that BioWare didn’t deliver an adequately finished story in the first place.
If they’re willing to yield this key bit of power (their buying power) without haggling for a kind of narrative recall, then whether or not BioWare does ANYTHING at all, other publishers now know that if their players are invested in a story that they have them by the quad. As seen in the link above, companies like Capcom are already trying to take advantage of this by selling endings separately from the rest of the game.
This. Practice. Is. Atrocious.
It’s one thing to make a serialized narrative that you pay for in installments; it’s in the format of a serialized narrative. The audience and the show, game, or book know what the score is. It’s another thing entirely to make a non-serialized narrative, cut off the most important part of it, and then ask the audience to pay extra money for what should be and always has been a given, AND on top of the full price!
This almost literal narrative hostage taking isn’t illegal, but damn is it unethical.
Unless you want every game, book, or film to become like the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then this is one practice that needs to be punched in its 1930’s Chinese gangster face.
See other gaming journalists?! I can spread hyperbolic statements about mob tactics and unfortunate precedents too!
It’s a lot of fun actually, I see why you do it.
5) Who’s the B-
Oh dang it! I’ve gone past the word limit. And I didn’t even get to my major points on Mass Effect 3, or what the MOST important problem in game endings is! But the Truncation squad is at my door, and they issue some hefty fines.
Hey . . . Waitaminute! If you help me out, I can pay the fine and finish this article AND this series in no time!
All I need is *runs calculations* either 500 dollars or fifty more Twitter followers, and I can leverage the pseudo internet status to convince this cop to let me off and finish the article – or just bribe him!
Congratulations for getting this far, you’re patience is legendary, but you’ll need to pay out if you want to see it to the end!
As one of the unfortunate few born with three first names, Adam endured years of taunting on the mean streets of Los Angeles in order to become the cynical malcontent he is today. A gamer since the age of four, he has attempted to remain diverse in his awareness of the arts, and remain active in current theater, film, literary and musical trends when not otherwise writing or acting himself. He now offers his knowledge in these areas up to the “California Literary Review,” who still haven’t decided what exactly they want to do with him yet. He prefers to be disagreed with in a traditional “Missile Command” high score contest, and can be challenged this way via his Xbox LIVE Gamertag of AtomGone, and if you want to “follow” him on twitter, look for Adam Robert Thomas