A week ago, I laid out that videogames typically have bad pacing. Did I also mention that videogames far too frequently to have bad endings, too?
No? Well, they do. So often, in fact, that I can lay out five distinct schools of bad videogame endings. Below, I list out those five traps of videogame endings, and how the games I have chosen to end my own list with escape those traps.
The simplest form of bad videogame ending is merely the side-effect of terrible pacing. It is not infrequent for games to waste away nearly all of their running time on meaningless delaying tactics (which is the only way they can think of giving the player something to do), only to belatedly tell a massive, twist-filled story as an eleventh-hour exposition dump. This was forgivable back in the days of Silent Hill (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo “Team Silent,” 1999), when character animation was an expensive process, and scenes with dialogue had to be parsed out with stringent economy. It’s less forgivable by the time you get to BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013), which for most of its running time pretends that it’s at least partially about American exceptionalism, the relationship of fundamentalist religion to US nationalism, and race relations, only to reveal at its end that it’s actually entirely (?) about multiverse theory, parenthood, and guilt. That’s confused storytelling any way you slice it, and the folks at Irrational really had no excuse for the haphazard pile of themes they delivered.
Then there are your random and incoherent endings. These reek of “oops we ran out of a budget, let’s just hastily paste together something deliberately confusing and therefore ‘evocative.'” Unfortunately, this technique pays dividends: as Neon Genesis Evangelion so aptly demonstrated, getting your fanbase riled up in an excellent way to increase your public visibility. Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010) fell prey to this. I would also slot the confused jumble of images that closed out Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, 2012) here. (Apparently that scene has been patched out of existence now, and replaced with something better, but I was so thoroughly disappointed by the team’s seeming inability to stitch together something coherent that I’ll likely never give the updated version a try.)
On top of these, there are two distinct different varieties of bad twist endings. Sometimes, you encounter over-telegraphed twist endings. These are endings that are thematically appropriate, and make perfect sense to anyone with a modicum of foreshadowing-following skills. The problem is that they are delivered if they are supposed to be huge twists, which feels patronizing and off-putting to players who have been following along. This stained an otherwise perfectly good ending to SOMA (Frictional Games, 2015) for me. I’d rather have this, though, than the opposite problem: curveball twists out of nowhere. When I finished up Ether One (White Paper Games, 2014), I wasn’t sure why the game had felt it necessary to lie to me throughout most of its playtime, but the knowledge that it had dampened any desire I had to untangle what the twist was actually supposed to mean.
Twist endings are, in general, massively overvalued in game writing. Too often, I think, they are seen as a convenient escape hatch from failing to tell a coherent story up until the ending. Sometimes, this leads us to the most interesting kind of bad endings: those endings that are thought-provoking in and of themselves, while feeling utterly divorced from what came before. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Ninja Theory, 2010) gives us a corker of a science fiction philosophical fable in its last five minutes, worthy of The Twilight Zone or early Star Trek. But it is utterly unearned, and leaves the game riddled with plot holes. In the last 15 minutes of my 115-hour playthrough, Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft, 2010) revealed a surprise origin story for its fantasy world. It was sort of fun, I guess. But it also felt oddly unnecessary, given what had already come before.
But then, every once and awhile, you encounter endings like those of the games we find here: Endings that genuinely work as a capstone to the game’s themes. Endings that feel utterly warranted, adequately foreshadowed in hindsight, and just deeply right. The games listed here all have considerable other strengths going for them, but the satisfaction I felt upon seeing their credits roll is perhaps their most distinctive feature. I’ve avoided explicit spoilers below as much as possible … although I suppose it could be considered a spoiler that these games have rich, thematically resonant endings. That is, after all, in itself quite a surprise in the world of gaming.
Mark of the Ninja
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, Windows, Mac, Linux
First, let’s get this out of the way: pretty much everything that Klei Entertainment has put out in the wake of Shank (2010) has been terrific. For how prolific they are, they have astonishing high quality control. So you should consider this my “Klei entry” on this list, but if you’re looking for general recommendations, feel free to check out something like Invisible, Inc. (2015), which is also almost inconceivably excellent, instead.
The reason I haven’t absolutely saturated this list with Klei games is that Klei makes very “gamey games.” They make stealth games. They make survival simulations. They make beat ’em ups. They make these games well, honing their craft to perfection.
Now, normally I’m someone who thinks that displays of expert craft in popular entertainment should be assigned more critical weight than it often is. (It’s part of the reason I devoted an entire category of this list to a technical issue like plot pacing.) But, as I laid out in my introductory note, I am attempting, as much as possible, to avoid “gamey games” in this list, in favor of games that push the possibilities of the medium in exciting new directions, courting new audiences along the way. Klei isn’t really a studio that does that. And so, while I want to give them their due, I’m also limiting myself to just one of their games for this list.
To the game at hand, then: Mark of the Ninja is terrific on many levels. It has stylish visuals that are also 100% effective in efficiently communicating to you exactly what your character knows about his environment—while also withholding what he doesn’t, very fairly. It has great level design. It has wonderful modular difficulty where you can set your own goals (a huge plus in a stealth game, for me). It has controls which can feel sticky and unwieldy if you’re not paying attention, but reveal themselves to be elegant and nuanced once you realize you need to actually look at your character on the screen at all times, paying attention to careful cues in his animation that illustrate how he’s interacting with his environment. It just consistently displays terrific, tight design.
This extends to its ending. Mark of the Ninja flirts with two big clichés as it reaches its conclusion: the twist ending, and the binary choice. This sets off all kinds of warning bells. Binary choice videogame endings are too often delivered with a shrug, existing as a lazy attempt to check off “multiple endings” from a features checklist rather than for any real storytelling reason. And then there’s the twist ending: already a warning sign, but Klei dips even further into cliché by going to the “this helper character wasn’t who you thought they were” well that has just about run dry in the wake of System Shock 2 (Looking Glass Studios/Irrational Games, 1999) and BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007).
And yet … Mark of the Ninja delivers. Simply, and effectively. The twist has been adequately foreshadowed, and the decision we make actually has a real impact on how we perceive our character and the events portrayed in the game. It’s not a stupid “save the children/blow up the orphanage” moment; it actually speaks to our character’s moral center, and the way we chose to perceive the events of the story.
The ending of Mark of the Ninja isn’t earth-shattering, by any means. If I encountered someone else who loved the game but admitted to not remembering its ending at all, I wouldn’t hold it against them. It is a competently-executed ending. Nothing more. But it’s striking how rare that is in games. And so, again, Klei delivers, showing that sometimes all you need to push a medium forward is to apply an expert level of competent craftsmanship.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Windows, iOS, Android
“Epiphany” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in game design and game criticism. No one wants to play a game where you are hand-held to the point of boredom, and no one wants to design one, either. The idea is that one should give players enough room to figure things out by themselves, without allowing them to fail too painfully. Ideally, the result of this hands-off game design philosophy will be a series of meaningful epiphanies, “oh!” moments where the player synchs up with the game’s logic, and understands that all they need to do is apply the vocabulary of actions they’re already learned in the game in an unorthodox way. When designing puzzles, or boss battles, this sort of ephiphanic moment is the holy grail of game design.
Engineering this response is an elusive goal. Different players come to games with vastly different skill sets, and so the scope of what counts as “hand-holding” varies greatly from player to player. An inexperienced player might wander around for minutes on end in one of Valve’s games, confused as to where to go, whereas I would more likely just roll my eyes when I see they’re using birds to direct our attention yet again. On the other end of things, there are people who genuinely love how sadistically obscure Problem Attic (Liz Ryerson, 2013) is, and claim that playing it is the only time they’ve ever been able enjoy an epiphanic moment in a game. I am not one of those people. I think Problem Attic is outright abusive in its uncommunicativeness, and found the experience of playing it to be palpably unpleasant (although I do respect it).
Long story short: If anyone ever praises a game for creating a sense of “epiphany,” you should realize that such praise is always intensely subjective. I might think that a game respects my intelligence, and you might find its answers to be simplistically telegraphed. And vice versa! Engineering intellectual responses is not a science.
Which is a very long prelude to me saying that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons ended with what I found to be a perfect epiphanic moment. It was, for me, exquisitely doled out: just a few seconds of frustrated confusion, followed by a moment of revelation in which all became clear.
The crucial part, though, is that this wasn’t just some dry mechanical epiphany. It was an emotional revelation, as well. My deciphering of the challenge mapped perfectly onto a moment of emotional growth of one of the game’s characters. While it’s possible to achieve this kind of mapping of intellectual puzzle-solving with emotional resonance in other media—I would say that there’s an epiphany that viewers will come to over the course of Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016) that achieves a similar effect—this is one of those things that videogames have the potential to do exceptionally well. Brothers is a short game, lasting only a couple of hours, and the fact that it ends on such a brilliant note makes it a no-brainer to recommend.
That said, there are things that could have possibly kept this off of my list. The game’s control scheme is a fun exercise in multiple embodiment, and its painterly art style is often breathtakingly gorgeous. Its gender politics, though, are almost bad enough to sink the entire enterprise. There aren’t many women characters in the game, but the sheer number of tired tropes replicated without irony in the few that are here is downright cringeworthy. In the end, the good outweighed the bad for me: its perfect mapping of emotional resonance onto a mechanical epiphany was a once-in-a-decade experience. But consider yourself warned, on the gender front.
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
Platforms: Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, iOS, Windows
I’ll admit that it’s a bit odd to have 999 on this list, and not its two sequels in the Zero Escape series, Virtue’s Last Reward (2012) and Zero Time Dilemma (2016). By most reasonable metrics, 999 is actually the weakest of the three games. Virtue’s Last Reward introduced a spiffy new UI feature that fixed the monotony of tracing the various forking paths in 999. This UI carries over to Zero Time Dilemma. On paper, then, since 999 is the most annoying to play, it would logically follow that it’s the worst of the series, and doesn’t belong on this list.
But even if I’m willing to grant that Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma are “better” games (and I guess they are, in a certain technical sense), that doesn’t dampen the fact that 999 has the best ending in the series.
It comes down to being the first, really. The sequels piled on plenty more twists, but I think we can all agree that twists aren’t things that improve with quantity. A dozen escalations can’t top the sense of novelty and wonder that accompanies one exceedingly well-played reveal. 999 accomplishes this. Whatever its faults, you can’t take that away from it.
What the sequels could never hope to recapture is the sudden realization that the game you are playing is actually quite a bit cleverer than you might have originally assumed. 999 asks you to forgive a lot. Its characters frequently launch into random digressions, padding out the game’s run time with seemingly extraneous dialogue. It asks you to play and re-play and re-re-play its puzzles, holding out the promise of unseen endings—a tired carrot for visual novels, if there ever was one. By the time you’ve put a dozen hours into it, it is easy to mistake the game for a teetering edifice of pointless self-indulgence.
But then … something happens. Something that is very hard to describe without spoiling it. What first feels like an act of cheating opens up a whole new universe of possibility. With a click, the game changes. If you take the time to hunt down the game’s final ending, you discover that it isn’t really an “ending,” at all. It is, rather, the entire story of the game, finally unveiled, after a ponderous build-up. Ponderous—but, as it turns out, necessary. What previously seemed to be digressions crystalize into crucial acts of foreshadowing. Despite its lugubrious presentation, the game had never actually lost the thread. It was just weaving something larger than you might have initially thought.
The subsequent games in the Zero Escape series have all chased the high of this first ending reveal, piling on concept after concept until the franchise’s universe has become a ridiculous pile of science-fiction contrivances. I really do love them to death, despite all of that. But they’ve never again achieved anything as elegant and as provocative as that first ending.
The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
In my ambition sub-list, I noted that neither BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007) nor Spec Ops: The Line (Yager, 2012) were going to be on this list. I acknowledge that yes, by several reasonable metrics, they were epoch-defining games. But I also stood fast in asserting that their subservience to the genre requirements of shooters rendered their critiques less effective than the similar critique of mindlessly pursuing the only available option that The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013) offers, minus the violence.
This might have created the impression that I don’t think games can successfully blend violent gameplay with a well-rounded critique of violence, agency, and fascistic impulses.
This impression would be mistaken.
Because The Last of Us gets it right.
It gets it right throughout the entire game. Violence in The Last of Us never ceases to be unpleasant. It’s one of the view games where I pursued stealth options not simply because of personal gameplay preferences, but because I felt actively nauseated at the prospect of killing another human being. Its combat is “visceral,” but not in that moronic buzzword way that game marketing execs high-five each other about. It is visceral because it is terrifying, and upsetting, and nauseating. The Last of Us is a game you boot up because you want to have a powerful emotional experience, not because you want to feel cool and empowered.
But it doesn’t become clear just how right it gets things until the ending. The ending, where we realize that having a thorough emotional understanding of why a character behaves the way they do, understand the mix of instinct and tragic personal history that feeds into their actions, doesn’t preclude us also recognizing that their actions are monstrous. Where we realize that some of the most evil acts that can be perpetrated might be legitimately emotionally cathartic for those who perpetrate them.
If I were to lay out the entirety of my praise of the ending of The Last of Us, it would pretty much be a rehash of points made by Leigh Alexander. So, rather than plagiarize her, I’ll just link to the original source.
Other people have written good things about the ending, as well. Peter Field, a narrative designer for the game, gave a great talk on the role of perspective in its last minutes, and how that impacts our understanding of characters, recounted here. On a similar note, the author of the now-defunct Press X to Story blog wrote an extensive counter-factual imagining about how the game would play if we played as Ellie for a much longer portion of its running time. Even in proposing a hypothetically “better” version of the game, one in which the resonances of the ending are made even more explicit through a tightening of gameplay design, this post still serves to illustrate the thematic meatiness of the game’s ending, as it exists. I think it still highlights the successes of some of Field’s decisions, even if would have been possible to push things even further.
I couldn’t help but feel that Asphyx (Droqen, circa 2012) didn’t quite belong alongside these other games. Make no mistake: Its ending is utterly brilliant, firmly stacking up with those listed here. But the game is also quite short, meaning that you reach said brilliant ending without much in the way of build-up. That dampens its effect a bit, but still: worthy of a recommendation.