Serotonin: Endings can make or break an experience

March 2, 2013

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There are more than a few reasons why you won’t find me reviewing games for Snackbar anytime soon. Besides the fact that we already have an excellent review staff, I simply can’t be objective enough to calmly rationalize why a game is good and why it’s bad based purely on design. I’m too emotional.

I’ll overstate how awesome I thought one cutscene was, and give the game an incredible score that doesn’t reflect the quality of the entire product. If you saw my list of games that I’ve beat and ranked, you’d say I was crazy. I have Final Fantasy XIII ranked higher than Fallout 3. I have BioShock 2 ahead of the original. I have Mirror’s Edge ahead of The Wind Waker, Enslaved ahead of Metal Gear Solid 3 and Blue Dragon ahead of Tales of Symphonia. I’m susceptible entirely to how I felt about a game, rather than the core criteria a reviewer should look at and the rational thinking a critic should possess.

My lasting memories of a game rest largely on how good the ending was. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You spend hours and hours playing a game, so why should you care about the last one percent of your experience? Shouldn’t the gameplay, graphics, audio, presentation, impact, lasting appeal and overall fun factor be far more important? Who cares?

For better or worse, I care. Greatly. A bad ending can sour an otherwise-stellar experience. A good ending can leave me absolutely enthralled. I won’t be able to stop talking or thinking about it. This doesn’t apply strictly to games, either. How many times have you heard that a movie is great, but the ending is terrible? I don’t know what Oliver Stone was thinking, but the ending of Savages was so awful that I couldn’t believe it. The rest of the movie was pretty entertaining, but the ending? Somebody in our theater stood up and walked out. It’s a fundamental problem that artists across all media have. When, and how, do you finish?

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The basics of a good game ending aren’t hard to comprehend. It should tie up most loose ends. It should give you closure. It should complete the story in a way that feels satisfying. They don’t all have to be grand, epic endings or shock us with a twist. It needs to fit the rest of the game, and give us some sense of accomplishment. It’s not the only reason we play, but it’s part of it. We want to see what happens.

I’m not the only one who cares. We all saw the incredible backlash that Mass Effect 3‘s ending had on the gaming industry. Has it set a precedent? The Mass Effect series, easily one of the most notorious of the last six years, ended on such a controversial note that BioWare released a patch after the game had released, elaborating on a few points and added some choices to the final conversation. Fans were still irate. How could BioWare have gotten this so wrong? I wasn’t as mad as others; the last two hours were so intense that I couldn’t properly process what was going on until well after the credits were over. But it’s not the first time game developers have failed to deliver in this regard.

I hate to pick on Ni no Kuni. It represents my favorite genre in a classic way that also feels fresh. The visuals are genuinely impressive, as is the fully orchestrated soundtrack. The gameplay doesn’t match the high level of the aesthetic, but it’s passable. Upon completing it, however, I can say that the ending is god-awful. It totally fails to give you any sense of completion or closure.

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We’ve just taken a 40-to-60 hour adventure through a magical world, meeting many colorful characters, succeeding in numerous tasks to help the peaceful villagers and conquering many foes. I can picture numerous cutscenes of Oliver and his friends being received warmly by all the townsfolk, or a tearful goodbye from Oliver as he goes back to his real home. We don’t see anything of the sort. What, no last words with Mr. Drippy? The beginning of the game packs such an emotional punch that I was almost insulted at how little the game wraps up the story. Ni no Kuni was originally a DS game, and the PS3 version added on some content, including the “new” ending. You can very easily tell where the previous ending was, and it’s much better.  I need to mention that there is a better ending available if you satisfy certain post-game accomplishments, but the majority of gamers aren’t going to do that. It’s a rare lazy choice by Level-5.

Two types of endings really get gamers’ goats: those lacking content (I’m looking at you, Ni no Kuni) and cliffhangers. Oh, the cliffhanger. I know why they do it, we all do. It’s so they leave room open for when they inevitably make the sequel.

XIII and Halo 2‘s endings are shameful, terrible cliffhangers. They don’t give you a sense of closure, and you don’t get any sense of accomplishment. XIII‘s throws you a twist that you really couldn’t care less about and Halo 2‘s ending finishes with Master Chief replying that he was “finishing this fight.” What he meant was that players would have to get Halo 3 to see the real ending.

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We understand the reasons behind it, but that doesn’t excuse these poor finales. Cliffhangers don’t have to be terrible. I know I’ve already spent an entire article gushing about The Walking Dead, but its ending is very powerful. It’s a cliffhanger, sure. Telltale confirmed a second season was coming before the first had finished. But nobody would call it empty. It finishes the main storyline with an appropriate brutality, no matter what choice you make. So we can have our cake and eat it too.

As much as a bad ending can diminish a positive experience, a great ending can exponentially increase your enjoyment. Chrono Trigger and Heavy Rain both have multiple endings. Not only does this encourage multiple playthroughs, but it also rewards the player with a custom experience based on the choices they made.

Games don’t have to have grand, epic endings to be satisfactory. To the Moon, a very simple game that would qualify more as a piece of interactive fiction rather than a traditional video game, has a wonderful ending. A great accompanying soundtrack gives you a warm feeling as you complete the story. Kingdom Hearts II‘s ending fills you with relief. After about 19 forms of the end boss, Riku and Sora end up back home. The ending consists of you running to your friends and embracing them to one of the best end themes ever made. Sure, there’s a post-credits cliffhanger, but because we get an emotionally satisfying conclusion, it’s forgiven.

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The endings of Portal 2 and Red Dead Redemption‘s endings are nothing short of brilliant. Portal 2 combines gameplay and character design flawlessly in the concluding scene. It’s shocking, hilarious and satisfying. Red Dead Redemption‘s is so tragic, I still feel bad for the main character. John Marston is a man with a bloody past, and it finally catches up to him. It’s Shakespearean. It’s bold. It is so monumentally unfair that the revenge you get as his son is barely enough.

Developers, don’t cheap out on the ending. Sure, you can give us a cliffhanger and prepare us for a sequel. You don’t want to write yourself into a corner, I get that. But give us something. A sense of accomplishment. Something to think about when we put down the controller. Long after we pop out the game and put it back into the case for the last time, we’ll remember that last moment.

{ 7 comments }

Andrew Passafiume March 2, 2013 at 10:24 am

I can see where you’re coming from on this, Henry. When you finish a game, the last moments will probably be the ones that stick with you the most simply because they were the last parts you experienced. In a lot of cases, I can agree with that, but more often than not I can’t. For me, terrible endings only ruin an otherwise great experience if they expose a fatal flaw that just wasn’t apparent throughout most of the game on top of just being a bad conclusion.

But endings that are just bad? They suck, sure, but I usually take those final moments reflecting on everything else I loved about the game. Maybe that’s just a personal thing, but I can never quite grasp why some people loved 95% of ME3 but would call it a disappointment because of the last 5%. Some think it invalidates everything else, but I can’t wrap my mind around how. Even if I hated that ending, I still was able to reflect on everything else about the experience I loved.

Example: Assassin’s Creed III’s ending is such a slap in the face that it almost ruined a lot of that game for me. However, upon reflection, I realized that everything I loved about it remained in tact and I still would consider it one of my favorites of 2012 despite the awful, rushed ending. Again, I’m one of the few; most people would probably agree with you on this one. I just think that a little reflection would make all of the difference.

Henry Skey March 2, 2013 at 11:27 am

You make some great points, Andrew. I get overemotional about small details, endings being one of them. To me, a quality ending is so relatively easy to do, and it yields such positive results, that it drives me crazy when it’s bad.

Shawn Vermette March 2, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I agree with a lot of your points as well, though I disagree with at least one of your examples of a bad ending(*cough*ME3*cough*), and I am also able to see past a bad ending eventually, though it does sometimes take awhile(I stopped playing P4G for 4 or 5 days when I got a bad end and didn’t realize it wasn’t the real ending and STILL haven’t played Chrono Cross again because of the bad end I got).

That said, as someone who has dabbled occasionally in writing fiction, I can tell you one thing for sure. As easy as it seems from the reader/consumer side, good endings are possibly the hardest part of writing a story. At least, for me it is.

Henry Skey March 2, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I suppose it’s wrong of me to separate works of written fiction from games, but I’d say it would be way harder to write a good ending to a book than to a game. Maybe I’m oversimplifying. With games, I don’t even need a great ending, or a good ending. I’ll take almost anything, as long as they’ve put some thought and effort into it. I’d rather see a bad ending than no ending at all.

Shawn Vermette March 2, 2013 at 6:04 pm

It might be. Or it might be harder. I’m sure it’s a bit different because so many great book authors have tried to write compelling games and failed. And conversely, many game writers have tried and failed to write compelling books. There’s some kind of disconnect between the media and I’m not quite sure what it is.

Henry Skey March 3, 2013 at 2:37 am

Shawn, do you remember your favorite ending for a game, ever?

Shawn Vermette March 4, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Ok, the three endings that meant the most to me, emotionally, were To the Moon, Mass Effect 3 and Ghost Trick.

Thematically, I think the best three endings I’ve experienced were Radiant Historia, Journey and Mass Effect 3.

Obviously, when I mention Mass Effect 3, I refer to the full, extended ending version of the game. (Though, right from the moment I beat the game, I understood that what happened was exactly what was added in the extension.)