Let’s talk about endings. (Mostly Video Games)
That’s a simplification, since plenty of games end poorly in many different ways. The Telltale Game of Thrones didn’t end badly that way season two of The Walking Dead game ended. And yet, There is a pile of games that have bad, or poor endings.
Why is that? What is about games that results in this phenomena?
Spoiler warning: can’t talk about endings without talking about endings.
So I just finished playing Telltale’s Game of Thrones game, and lo and behold, it’s another video game that ends poorly. That’s a simplification, since plenty of games end poorly in many different ways. The Telltale Game of Thrones didn’t end badly that way season two of The Walking Dead game ended. And yet, There is a pile of games that have bad, or poor endings.
Why is that? What is about games that results in this phenomena?
One of the classic reasons for it, doesn’t really hold water in this case: Often video games are developed with gameplay in mind first, with story being fit in later. That’s just not as true as it used to be, particularly with Adventure games. Story is the draw, and if the story lets me down that’s kind of a deal breaker.
Games are also long. The easiest comparison is probably to TV shows ending poorly. When you spend so much time building to something, even if it’s technically ok, it can be unfulfilling because the emotional investment is so high. Or maybe “The Plot” wasn’t the thing that kept you invested, maybe it was characters or atmosphere, and getting a dump of plot at the end doesn’t match up with what you liked about it.
Or maybe it just ends with a dumb sequel bait that actually satisfies nothing. That’s a different kind of bad ending yet again.
Another issue with games is the way that they empower the player to feel partial ownership over the story. This isn’t a phenomena exclusive to games, there are plenty other things that have fans married to their own theories about the fiction that have little basis in actual text. For example, the team behind the TV show Losthad a lot of fun putting in little easter eggs and clues to tantalize their hardcore fanbase to keep them engaged in the show, even though very little of that ever amounted to anything real, and eventually came back to bite them a bit by the time the series ended.
There’s a balance between feeding the consumer what they want, and the creator having the convenience to tell the story they want. The more focused the story is, the more likely those two interests are going to intersect, except that also means a smaller potential audience probably. The issue with big games is that they spread a wide net to try and appeal to as many people as possible, and even if you find a way to get a hook into many different groups, you then have to figure out a way to reel them all back in at the end without them feeling like they’ve been suckered.
Let’s get down into some more specifics.
The most notable “bad ending” event in recent years is still the Mass Effect 3 ending. There are a bunch of layers to that ending that made the backlash particularly vicious, so I probably won’t get to everything, but bear with me. First of all, there are people who don’t have a problem with how that game ended. I’m not one of them, but I know they exist, and I’m not prepared to fully dismiss them, even though I still disagree with them.
Mass Effect is a big thing. It’s one story that happened over the course of 3 games, and it encouraged the player to define who Shepherd was themselves. It’s a role-playing game and people role-played as Shepherd. BUT, built into the franchise from the start is the idea that Shepherd is Space Jesus. [In case the name didn’t clue you in.] There are a lot of classic hard sci-fi trappings, particularly in that first game, so that it ends with Shepherd choosing the fate of the galaxy and dying for our sins isn’t out of place. No matter who your Shepherd was, this was a fact you couldn’t escape at the end of the game.
And if you played Shepherd that way, fine, maybe the ending worked for you. The issue is that by the time of Mass Effect 2 that wasn’t really the story BioWare was telling anymore. The hard sci-fi was rounded down, the RPG mechanics were refined, and we got a shooter with strong emphasis on character that played out more like a heist movie than Star Trek. “The Plot” was no longer so important, it’s still there, but everything that happens is relatable in the moment. You’re not so much chasing an ancient alien legend as you are looking to get revenge on the bastards that blew up your ship and killed you. You’re not exploring the galaxy, you’re helping your crew members with things they care about. Importantly if you don’t care about them, they don’t care about you, which gives the player a lot of direct understandable control over the content they want to see. It’s not that other RPGs don’t have extra side content for player to ignore; it’s that when that content is out there for them to find on their own it’s harder for them to know if it’s worth it for them to seek it out themselves beforehand. Mass Effect 2 is accessible in a way the first game isn’t.
Mass Effect 3… is mostly still that. It’s now closer to an action blockbuster than ever before, but it’s still grounded in characters. The game is full of character moments, to the point where it feels incongruous to the plot as you take a death march on a dying world to say goodbye to everyone. The game is even structured to evoke the suicide mission of ME2, although now on a much grander scale, with the promise of every decision made prior paying off in some way. And that all falls apart at the end, because the end is about you making a moral choice about the universe. The obtuse way your decisions feed into that ending, and the existential nature of the choice you make there feels like something that might have made sense with how series began but doesn’t jive with what it became, or at least why I cared about it. For me, Mass Effect was about characters. I didn’t really care about the world in the abstract.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a similar ending, where you just press a button on the End-O-Tron-9000 at the end of the game to decide the fate of the world, and while I also think that’s a bad ending, it’s at least more in line with the hard sci-fi line that story is drawing. The problem of Mass Effect 3 was with meeting expectations, not just with what people thought should happen, but with what people even thought the story was about.
Now I’m gonna talk about an ending I don’t necessarily think is bad, but I still found unfulfilling: The end of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.
The issue I have with that story is that for most of it the focus is on Jim Raynor’s efforts to marshal his forces and then get revenge on Arcturus Mengsk, but in the final act that plan is abandoned in favor of Raynor taking his forces to rescue Kerrigan from the Zerg. I don’t have a problem with Raynor going on a mission to save Kerrigan, I think that would be a fine story, I just think that if they were going to tell that story they should have just told that story. The game spent too much time getting me invested in taking on Mengsk, so that when I never got the opportunity to even try to do it within the game, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Or at least unfulfilled.
Getting back to Game of Thrones, this feels more like a case of business getting in the way of storytelling: the blatant sequel-bait ending where things aren’t actually resolved. Halo 2 is a famous cliffhanger ending example and while that got its hate back in the day, Halo 5 just pulled the same thing and no one seems to care. The issue with the cliffhanger endings is that they’re not an ending, the creator is just stringing his audience up on a line and then walking away, for years [At least with games]. You’re either being sold an incomplete product, or a complete one with a built in ad at the end. Either way the choice to do that is tied up in the desire to get you to commit to the next product. The key is if you’re invested enough in the thing to be ok with that proposition. And then there’s the further evaluation on whether the wait ends up being worth it or not. It puts greater burden on the creators to tie things up well the next time around. The story telling debt is being pushed forward.
Telltale’s Game of Thrones ended without tying its multiple threads together or resolving its major conflict. Episode 6 could have been a pretty good second to last episode; there’s a lot going on, and there are clearly a lot of permutations on how events can go depending on your choices. But there are probably too many, to the point where the story lacks cohesion, and I have no faith that any of this will ever be tied together. It’s like watching a juggler just walk away in the middle of his act: yeah the balls go all over the place, but to what end? There’s no victory, no defeat; just the roar of the money train.
But here’s the thing that really frustrates me about bad endings: Great endings are so fucking good.
Endings leave an impression; they’re the last experience you have with something, and the feeling they leave you with is going to strongly color your thoughts on the thing forever. The more you care, the more the ending matters. It’s all well and good to say that it’s the journey that matters, or that I still enjoyed my time with something despite its lackluster ending, but when I see something that really ends well, that not only matches what I want, but elevates the entire work by pulling its potential together, that’s what gets me excited about media. That’s what makes me a fan of something, that’s what makes me seek out more stuff, what makes it all worth it.
A great ending turns something good into something I will remember and love forever. It’s something worth striving for and I’m not sure I have the energy to defend stories that don’t even try.
*cough* Life is Strange *cough*