Disclaimer: The following post contains potential spoilers for The Walking Dead, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed 3, Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.
What matters in a story? The characters are important as they are either identified with, sympathised with, or cheered for. The setting is important, for it’s how the world becomes a tangible place, and which can turn impossible events into ones that are merely implausible. The causality in a plot is important, as events happening in an incongruous manner can break the ability to suspend disbelief. With a game, it’s also required that the gameplay support the telling. All of these parts are taken in by the audience with the unspoken promise that the narrative will be worthwhile, and will go somewhere.
A narrative has a point.
The audience goes along for the ride because they expect the story to take them somewhere. It’s also expected that however the story wraps up should be consistent with what’s been presented, and that an ending will not introduce new elements. Presenting a new character, or explanations that have not tangible presence in the preceding events, is a violation of the trust between the creator and the audience.
In The Walking Dead game, the ending goes the same way for Lee and Clementine, which the real end being about the advice that Lee bestows on Clementine before they part. It’s a conclusion to Lee’s story, and the end of a chapter in hers. There aren’t any army medics with a zombie vaccine bursting in to save Lee in his final moments – doing so would have no precedent, as no foreshadowing on that had been done. By the time they are locked in the garage, it’s clear that Lee is infected, and nothing but that running to its course would be acceptable. As a game focused on characters rather than zombies, it’s naturally the characters that are the focus in the end.
The story of John Marston in Red Dead Redemption is another example of an ending that is consistent with what has been presented. The game tells what happened in Marston’s past with Dutch’s gang, and that he walked away from it for the sake of family. It shows him chasing his former gangmates for the authorities, so that he can live with his family in peace. The bar is constantly moving for Marston, and as it comes closer to the final confrontation, there are cues laid out that say this story won’t end well for him.
The shootout at Beecher’s Hope has to happen. While he would have been physically able to run away from the law again, his family would never have peace if he did so. That he dies is sad, but it makes the ending. The epilogue with Jack Marston is melancholic when played to conclusion, as all that John did to give his son a better life comes to nothing. Even this is still within the tone of the game, though there is disassociative element because of John’s side-missions are still there to complete with Jack.
Through all its plots about Reapers, synthetics, and organics, the Mass Effect series is the story of Commander Shepard. Shepard is our voice in a future that is both brighter and darker than present day Earth. In the fight against the Reapers, the game presents the best of humanity and also the worst, and while the relationships between characters, between the races, and between organics and synthetics are all explored, it’s experienced through Shepard and Shepard’s actions. The ending of the series in Mass Effect 3 is not a singular thing, but the game itself is not an ending. Goodbyes are said to many characters, but that does not equate to resolution. What’s generally taken to be the ending is everything from the final run to the Conduit in London, through to the Stargazer’s wrap-up. The reception to the ending itself was mixed. Some players hated it, some liked it, and others didn’t care enough either way.
The problem with the ending is not that it doesn’t have an upbeat ending (and every explained version of the Extended Cut does), but that the Catalyst exists in its presented form. The series had been about the actions of Shepard until the emergence of this character in the final five minutes of gameplay, and while it is still up to Shepard to make the choice between the functions of the Crucible, they are choices offered by the Catalyst. It may have been Shepard’s actions that led to that point, but if the Catalyst/Reapers had decided not to offer the choice (as happens with the Extended Cut’s refusal ending), then it would have been for nothing.
This removes Shepard’s contribution and negates whatever agency appeared. The same negation occurs within the original Bioshock, but the point of that change was to highlight the illusion of free will we’d experienced up until meeting Andrew Ryan. In one it serves, and in the other, hinders. If the same choices were presented through Shepard’s actions without the Catalyst existing apart from the Citadel, the disparity between the ending and the rest of the series would not exist. It doesn’t spoil the series, but failed to leave it on a high note.
It’s okay for an ending to raise questions, or to hold uncertainty. The High EMS destroy ending for Mass Effect suggests that Shepard could be alive, and the varying choices presented when activating the Crucible result in a very different galaxy in each sense that in itself is interesting, though it would make an encompassing chronological sequel difficult for Bioware. This part of the ending is fantastic, and the inability to frame any of the choices as paragon or renegade (as the game tends to do) asks the player to instead make a choice that is difficult.
In the case of the ending to Desmond’s story in Assassin Creed’s 3, the game needlessly ends on a cliffhanger. The game begins and ends with Desmond dying, and Juno being unshackled. The final words of the game come as Desmond sacrifices himself, saying “You played your part well, but now it’s time I played mine.” It may have been consistent with the world presented, but ending there is a betrayal to the trust between creator and audience. It may have escaped an outcry because of a reduced investment in Desmond’s story, which had been a sidenote for most of the series when compared with the characterisations of Altair, Ezio and Connor.
A great ending can also transform the story of a game, or propel it further than a straightforward conclusion might. Bioshock Infinite could have ended with Booker and Elizabeth getting away, setting course for Paris. It could have ended with the revelation that Elizabeth was actually Booker’s daughter Anna, as the emotional context gave it significant weight (which manifests best in Elizabeth’s voice when she repeats the sentence “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.”)
When the focus shifts from Booker to the other versions of Comstock and the truth of his origin, the narrative changes from a story about a broken man, to one about the consequences of responsibility. The many-worlds aspect is a great addition to the Bioshock mythos, and allows for many more stories to be told (as with the announced Buried at Sea DLC), but Infinite is foremost another study on choice. Many of the choices bear no real consequence, but the main argument presented is about the rationale that separates Booker’s choice regarding his baptism – If you can absolve yourself of personal responsibility for your actions, what would limit the actions you would take? These questions are raised earlier in voxophones, but it’s only through the revelation of Comstock’s identity that the argument can carry its full weight.
The ending of a game is no more important than the last five pages of a novel, and it’s the journey in-between that is important. Do you agree or disagree?
Darren: Well, the ending has to reflect the journey. It has to not necessarily provide closure, but deliver I think a summation of how the journey changed the main character. Think of the final moments between Naked Snake and The Boss, between Lee and Clementine, between Chell and GlaDOS. Without those moments – without a way for the player to contrast the game’s end state to its beginning – what would those games mean?
Jimmy: What? That’s insane! When did the last 5 pages of a novel not matter? Ever? The ending of a game is a reward. It’s not about closure or making sure everybody is alive or the mystery is solved, it’s how well YOU have done, according to the game rules. If you worked really hard and the game ends badly, I think you are right to be annoyed. You could very well have failed and their mechanics may have been torturous to play and it may have had a brilliant story, but then it tells you that no matter how well you did, you still fail? I think that a lot of gamers take that personally, and they are right to. It’s even worse when there’s a good story. Look at Mass Effect.
Games ask for more investment than any other art form. If the ending betrays that investment, yeah.
Chani: Disagree. The ending of a game (just like the last chapter of a novel) is so important. If it doesn’t resolve properly or answer questions that need answering, it makes me feel like I’ve just wasted X amount of hours for nothing. I won’t give a shit about the journey if the ending is no good. I’ll just get angry and resent the game for wasting my time. There is only one exception and that is a cliffhanger, but they still need to address certain points. They can’t just fade to black. The cliffhanger must allude to a sequel. That gives hope that your questions will be answered and you didn’t waste your time.
Hong: I think they’re both as important as the other. I can say that there is nothing more heartbreaking than going through an entire game and loving every minute of it – only to have the ending leaving you feeling dry and hollow. It’s kind of like eating a really good burger, only to have the last bite turn out to be soggy and horrible. Similarly, I’ve also played games that have been really terrible all the way through, but the ending came to pleasantly surprise me. In those cases, it feels like too little too late – by then I’ve already made up my mind as to whether or not I’d ever recommend it to anyone. Still, if I had to choose I would much prefer a satisfying game with a mediocre ending than a mediocre game with a satisfying ending.
Tash: I would say both elements influence one another, as it is the quality and satisfaction provided by the ending that adds value to the journey you spend with the characters. Of course, an ending isn’t anything without a journey to get there, and yet an ending is the culmination of the journey you have spent with the characters and within the world. I believe the ending is incredibly important to the game, as this is the closure we receive as gamers. And whilst the journey to get there is important and has its own value, in the end the quality of a game will be judged by the satisfaction the ending provides to those who have played it.
As we have seen with games such as Mass Effect 3 and Bioshock Infinite, if players are left unsatisfied by an ending, it doesn’t matter how involving and impressive the story to get there was. I believe it’s akin to driving off a cliff, and pointing out to those unhappy with this ending how scenic the journey to get there was. The journey may have been the most scenic journey possible, but if it ends by driving off a cliff, you’re not going to care how beautiful the journey was. You’re still at the bottom of a cliff.
As an aside, I believe satisfaction is tied to the degree of choice gamers have exercised up to that point, in that higher degrees of choice within a game will lead to more intense levels of either satisfaction of dissatisfaction with a game ending. Returning to the question, however, I disagree that the ending of a game is no more important that the last five pages of a book. The ending is the culmination of the time you have spent with the characters within the world, and no amount of pointing to the quality of the journey will help if an ending is completely unsatisfying.
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