The End of the Ending?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know How I Met Your Mother aired its finale last night. Over the course of nine years, HIMYM told a deep, personal story of one man and his quest for love. And then they botched the ending. It brought up memories of when another once-popular sitcom, Seinfeld, botched its ending. It was especially jarring given Breaking Bad, another popular show that ended recently, managed to get its ending just right.
Endings are hard. For every brilliant ending like Breaking Bad or MASH, there’s a lacklustre ending like HIMYM or Lost. You need to find a way to tie up the story, possibly leave the door open for more, and make it as satisfying as possible to the people most invested in it. For TV shows and movies, that’s your viewers. For games, it’s your customers, also known as gamers. And just as HIMYM got its ending wrong, causing some to declare that it ruined the entire series for them, games and their endings can affect the experience you have had with the game as a whole.
It’s been my observation that more and more modern games are failing to deliver compelling, satisfying endings. The game itself may be competent, fun to play and delivers a great story. But then the ending comes along, and you can’t help but feel a little… cheated, somehow.
Not all games are guilty of this, of course. Recently I played Tearaway, a fantastically creative game from UK developers Media Molecule. It was a blast to play through from start to finish. And it had a fantastic ending that continued its theme of a paper based, interactive world, essentially simulating a pop-up book that told the story… your story… of the way you played through the game. It could have just been stats and figured “you jumped 100 times” and “you took 10,500 steps” but it was told in a fun, creative way. It used items and sounds and pictures you created throughout the game to personalize your ending in a way that made it satisfying.
Bioshock: Infinite is another example of a recent game who managed to tell a fantastic story while delivering a brilliant ending. From the resolution of the story, to the call back to earlier Bioshock games, the ending was emotionally jarring as well as complex and thought provoking. Even the credit roll managed to be great, including a video of the two main voice actors recording a beautiful duet of “Will the Circle be Unbroken”, a Christian hymn with thematic significance to the game. Brilliant.
Other games that have had similarly great endings include Journey, Braid, Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Ocarina of Time. Even Call of Duty: Ghosts had a decent ending, despite its fairly shallow “rah rah America” story line.
But then there are great games that simply botch their ending. Thomas Was Alone, another game I recently completed, told a fantastic story that had me wanting to play all the way through to the end. Its ending lasted all of about five seconds before dumping me back to the title menu, and made me wonder what the hell I’d just seen. I replayed the last level about three more times to rewatch that ending, thinking I’d missed something. But no, those three squares was all there was… if you don’t count the huge amount of ambiguity.
As an indie game, Thomas can arguably be forgiven for this, but AAA titles have lacklustre endings too. The Last of Us, the critically acclaimed Sony exclusive, had another short-but-not-sweet ending. Like Thomas was Alone, it had a story that drove you to push through and complete the game. To its credit, its ending wasn’t as short and ambiguous as Thomas, and it did wrap up the story while leaving open a possible sequel, but it wasn’t particularly satisfying. At least not to me. The Tomb Raider reboot did the same thing. Great game, great story, all tied up with a lacklustre ending that opens the door for a sequel.
But some might argue that the ending sequence has evolved as games have evolved. For example, while the ending sequence of The Last of Us isn’t great, the moments leading up to that sequence… the ending of the games story, is great and arguably just as important. Similarly, Red Dead Redemption has a poor ending sequence, but the moments leading up to the ending are powerful, exciting stuff. If we assume the ending to be more than what happens after the player stops telling their character what to do, and include the moments leading up to that time, then the situation doesn’t seem as bleak.
But do endings even matter anymore? At this year’s GDC, the developers of League of Legends delivered a presentation that showed many gamers aren’t finishing their games. If we take the research at face value, it would be fair to say developers shouldn’t waste their time on delivering a brilliant ending because few of their players will ever manage or care enough to see it.
Ultimately, the quality of the ending of any given game is going to be subjective; I may not have thought much of the ending for The Last of Us, but I’ve read plenty of opinions online who thought it was perfect. So what do you, the reader, think? Do you think most games are getting their endings right? Or do you think that most games these days are giving their endings short shrift? Let me know in the comments below!