Hey, You're Alive! I'm so Happy! (The art of ending a game)

In this essay I briefly, obliquely discuss Heavy Rain, Mass Effect 2, and Persona 4 in relation to the tones of some of their endings.  Please don't read any further if you want to preserve some suspense for the endings in any of those games.
 

There Is no Perfect Ending + Siddown, fashionistos!

 
 
I really don't like a lot of the divisiveness in game conversation.  I think avenues get cut off when people get haughty about what constitutes a game in general (as to their individual tastes, fine, but if people are going to start burning bridges that might come in handy later, it'll just take longer for people to rediscover them.  This isn't the fashion industry; we don't need to pretend like it is).

Still, there are certain trends that bug me, and one of them is the perfect ending.  If I play Heavy Rain, I'm pretty much predisposed to like it, but I'm pretty sure most people would say HR and Mass Effect 2 are only similar in one gameplay mechanic, that of the non-recoverable conversation choice.  

What they have in common beyond that, though, something that is fundamental to the experience, and to me grating, is that you can do everything right.  You can bring everyone home in ME2.  You can get a shiny happy result in Heavy Rain.  Having this hidden is fine, because it's a real delight to see everything pay off, but on the internet, nothing is hidden, so it has to be pretty clear that any perfect ending will likely be found pretty quickly unless it is on the easter egg level of hidden.

Perfection itself is not a big deal, because you have collection games that people can give up on if they don't want to push themselves, you have RPGs that reward hard work but don't make that work mandatory to pass.  But with endings, you eventually run into them if you progress.   
 

Challenge Gave Way to Entitlement

 

My idea of a sad death waiting at the end of the game is sort of a return to a retro outlook that I think is missing.  You kept pressing on, despite the odds, building your score, before you were wiped out.  The game beat you, but you wanted to get back into the cockpit again.  As games started to reward players for their ability to excel, I think we started to lose sight of the fun, ultimately, that the challenging climb it took to get there can evoke.

I think this is in part a function of arcades giving way to home entertainment, because there wasn't a need to keep sucking quarters out of people's pockets if they had already bought the game.  We'd have to wait for MMORPGs to take up the slack that the arcades left behind.  Those games, again, have a tendency to try to push you to buy more, and therefore the endings never really feel complete, if they're there at all.

A guaranteed happy ending, compared to one that you really have to earn through a tough, possibly fatal game, feels too simplistic, like something you put in to keep kids from becoming too cynical too early.  With the median gaming age not exactly the same as it was during the 20th century, I would think that this particular aspect should be willing to stretch out a bit more.

And I'm not talking about dissonant endings here, where the hero rests and then some monster screams and boom, credits.  I'm talking about the multiple endings that many have come to expect winding up being too easy to predict which one is best.  At the very least, if there's a super good ending, it must be earned.  
 

The Shadow of the Best Ending

 

Watching others play Persona 4, it was pretty clear that there was an ideal ending that was casting a shadow on the game.  The more the players paid attention to the rumors, the more it was spoiled, so they tried to ignore tips that would ruin it.  Yet at the same time, there was a purported Huge Bummer Ending at the end of this book if they didn't do specific things right.  

That tension of avoiding the bummer ending was cool, but because the better ending was known to a ton of people, it was hard to ignore.  And it stands out, because it's the supposed RIGHT ending; the perfect ending where everything is supposedly happy.  It might, for one, be more obscure if it was simply a good ending.  If things were still messy.  That has more gravity, even if there's a single ending, than the reward for everything going right.  

There winds up being an unnecessary competitive aspect to a game with a perfect ending, where people can look down on those who didn't do the game correctly.  I've got that a lot with the Mass Effect 2 crowd.  I've seen an unusual blob of youtubers bash people who are merely SHOWING bad character ends, because, duh, you did it wrong, and I hear Heavy Rain has a similar level of perfectionism for its nice end.

Computers have an ability to hide things in numbers.  They can add up permutations in a way that people can't usually manage.  Why not use that to make the near-perfect ending a bit more obscure?  Bury it so deeply in choices that it's not a foregone conclusion how to get there, encouraging replay.

Or better yet, make the ending match the tone, and if a perfect ending wouldn't fit the tone, then leave it out.  I like endings that feel earned; in books or movies, too, it's not any different.  If deus ex machina comes in and pulls the thing we're involved in out of the abyss at the last moment, it feels cheap.  Games don't need to fall into that trap any more than other media.

And that's assuming there need be any ending at all.
8 Comments
9 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure
In this essay I briefly, obliquely discuss Heavy Rain, Mass Effect 2, and Persona 4 in relation to the tones of some of their endings.  Please don't read any further if you want to preserve some suspense for the endings in any of those games.
 

There Is no Perfect Ending + Siddown, fashionistos!

 
 
I really don't like a lot of the divisiveness in game conversation.  I think avenues get cut off when people get haughty about what constitutes a game in general (as to their individual tastes, fine, but if people are going to start burning bridges that might come in handy later, it'll just take longer for people to rediscover them.  This isn't the fashion industry; we don't need to pretend like it is).

Still, there are certain trends that bug me, and one of them is the perfect ending.  If I play Heavy Rain, I'm pretty much predisposed to like it, but I'm pretty sure most people would say HR and Mass Effect 2 are only similar in one gameplay mechanic, that of the non-recoverable conversation choice.  

What they have in common beyond that, though, something that is fundamental to the experience, and to me grating, is that you can do everything right.  You can bring everyone home in ME2.  You can get a shiny happy result in Heavy Rain.  Having this hidden is fine, because it's a real delight to see everything pay off, but on the internet, nothing is hidden, so it has to be pretty clear that any perfect ending will likely be found pretty quickly unless it is on the easter egg level of hidden.

Perfection itself is not a big deal, because you have collection games that people can give up on if they don't want to push themselves, you have RPGs that reward hard work but don't make that work mandatory to pass.  But with endings, you eventually run into them if you progress.   
 

Challenge Gave Way to Entitlement

 

My idea of a sad death waiting at the end of the game is sort of a return to a retro outlook that I think is missing.  You kept pressing on, despite the odds, building your score, before you were wiped out.  The game beat you, but you wanted to get back into the cockpit again.  As games started to reward players for their ability to excel, I think we started to lose sight of the fun, ultimately, that the challenging climb it took to get there can evoke.

I think this is in part a function of arcades giving way to home entertainment, because there wasn't a need to keep sucking quarters out of people's pockets if they had already bought the game.  We'd have to wait for MMORPGs to take up the slack that the arcades left behind.  Those games, again, have a tendency to try to push you to buy more, and therefore the endings never really feel complete, if they're there at all.

A guaranteed happy ending, compared to one that you really have to earn through a tough, possibly fatal game, feels too simplistic, like something you put in to keep kids from becoming too cynical too early.  With the median gaming age not exactly the same as it was during the 20th century, I would think that this particular aspect should be willing to stretch out a bit more.

And I'm not talking about dissonant endings here, where the hero rests and then some monster screams and boom, credits.  I'm talking about the multiple endings that many have come to expect winding up being too easy to predict which one is best.  At the very least, if there's a super good ending, it must be earned.  
 

The Shadow of the Best Ending

 

Watching others play Persona 4, it was pretty clear that there was an ideal ending that was casting a shadow on the game.  The more the players paid attention to the rumors, the more it was spoiled, so they tried to ignore tips that would ruin it.  Yet at the same time, there was a purported Huge Bummer Ending at the end of this book if they didn't do specific things right.  

That tension of avoiding the bummer ending was cool, but because the better ending was known to a ton of people, it was hard to ignore.  And it stands out, because it's the supposed RIGHT ending; the perfect ending where everything is supposedly happy.  It might, for one, be more obscure if it was simply a good ending.  If things were still messy.  That has more gravity, even if there's a single ending, than the reward for everything going right.  

There winds up being an unnecessary competitive aspect to a game with a perfect ending, where people can look down on those who didn't do the game correctly.  I've got that a lot with the Mass Effect 2 crowd.  I've seen an unusual blob of youtubers bash people who are merely SHOWING bad character ends, because, duh, you did it wrong, and I hear Heavy Rain has a similar level of perfectionism for its nice end.

Computers have an ability to hide things in numbers.  They can add up permutations in a way that people can't usually manage.  Why not use that to make the near-perfect ending a bit more obscure?  Bury it so deeply in choices that it's not a foregone conclusion how to get there, encouraging replay.

Or better yet, make the ending match the tone, and if a perfect ending wouldn't fit the tone, then leave it out.  I like endings that feel earned; in books or movies, too, it's not any different.  If deus ex machina comes in and pulls the thing we're involved in out of the abyss at the last moment, it feels cheap.  Games don't need to fall into that trap any more than other media.

And that's assuming there need be any ending at all.
Posted by ArbitraryWater

If we want to talk about "perfect" endings that nobody is ever, ever, ever going to discover without use of a guide we could talk about Fire Emblem (No, not any of the crazy Japanese ones that I have been playing. The first one to come out in the US). Basically, on chapter 19x (Hector mode only. It's the one where you first encounter the magic seal guy.) you have to had previously leveled up Nils to level 7 in Lyn's story, at which point you have to kill the Magic Seal guy. All in one turn, because he leaves the turn after you attack him.
 
If you manage to do this, you get access to chapter 19xx. If you do the other two "Magic Seal" chapters, you are treated to an ending where it is heavily implied that the main bad guy (Nergal) is actually the father of Ninian and Nils. I have yet to obtain it, partially because of the insane amount of difficulty in killing that boss. 
 
I would call Persona 4's "true" ending to be a Deus Ex Machina in itself, not only because of the hoops you have to jump through, but also because it doesn't fit the rest of the game tonally and instead is just a "tell all" that explains away any of the leftover plot holes and serves a more traditional SMT villain at the same time.

Posted by ahoodedfigure

Whoa.  I'm not sure I knew about that one in Fire Emblem.  I thought I got to a double X chapter at one point, but I'm not sure I did at the end.  I'm pretty sure I beat Hector's campaign...  heh.  Cool.

Posted by Jeust

I agree. That's one of the reasons i usually don't replay games. I like to feel the weight of my choices, and consider the path i've done in-game, apart from the good/bad/average ending.  
 
Silent Hill 2 had a good ending, but it left it on the side as a footnote and curiosity, the "true" ending followed the theme of the game and was dramatic and emotional.  
 
The hunt for the best ending is a consequence of globalization. In a world were news are known minutes from the events happening, it's hard not to feel influenced by the experiences of others. But i for once try to remain true to my experience, and follow to the ending i deserve and feel it personally, like a true intrinsic experience.

Posted by WindFall259

You know, the more I think about it, the more I believe that the perfect ending is our own. Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins, Heavy Rain... Loved all three games because they gave me the ending that resembled my choices and consequences the most.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Jeust: @WindFall259: 
 
Very cool that the both of you try to do that.  I go into it feeling that way, that the first run-through at least should be something that fits me.  It's hard, though, when values are placed on endings, even by the game itself.  It almost changes the tone of the game when it says "look here, if you go off to the side a bit you might have some new thing happen."  
 
I realize this is still a young medium, especially if you talk about games with stronger narratives, so I think this sort of thing may be ironed out by people who want to not shift gears just to satisfy everyone.  
 
I like games where I can replay and see other endings, but I tend to want my last thoughts of a game to be positive, if that makes sense, like I earned what I got.  If it's a deliberately downer (as in, you failed to screw all the widgets into their respective magic sockets) ending, it sort of sullies further endings for me, and if you get the super good ending, if I go back and look at the other endings they usually feel weaker.  This goes for U R So Evil vs. U R So Good sorts of endings.  In those it more feels tailor-made for me, but it also feels like the option to be good or evil was sort of artificial wish fulfillment, sitting in wait for two hypothetical players.  The evil ones, especially, tend to hit the wrong note for me, maybe because if anything were truly evil we'd usually be disgusted by the outcome, so they don't really know what to do beyond checking the box for that demographic.
Posted by Jeust
@ahoodedfigure:  
  
I agree. This is still a young medium and there still much discovering to be done concerning a branching plot. But there are still games that do it justice. Silent Hill games normally have such an ambiguously story that lends well to all the endings it provides, except the ufo endings of course. 
 
But generally the endings get a gradation, from worse possible to best, and that truly sucks. But with that games i generally only play one time to get to me ending. The one that personifies myself. The rest just doesn't appeal to me, as i don't feel good pursuing them.  
Posted by Claude

The ending, with the type of games I play, they don't come often. Sports games are forever until you buy the next one, only a season ends and then comes another. You could 100% them, but for me that's not the point. It's the stories, through stats, that have been told during the gameplay that counts.
 
Story driven games are different, but my tendency to like what I like plays a major role. I just recently finished the story in Endless Ocean: Blue World, but the game continues on. The story wasn't bad and the ending was pretty cool. I was actually touched sometimes within the story elements. What I really liked was the opportunity to play on after the main story was done. It reminded me of playing Oblivion and how the story ended, but the game didn't. 
 
A game like Bioshock, I got the bad ending because of my evil ways. Never saw the good version except on youtube, I just played it and was done. The Witcher ending took you through a gauntlet of your past events, it was... very gratifying to see my past played out. 
 
Dead Space... great game, but whatever at the end, just another boss battle, and a glimpse into the past and future. 
 
I really liked Mass Effect, but there again the ending felt like a prearranged blockbuster movie.
 
I really don't know how I feel about endings. I just let the gameplay take me there and see what happens. I'll remember the good ones and hope for more in the future. What's crazy is the fact that I've loved games I've never finished. I never saw the end.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Claude:  Well, I forget when you got into gaming, but we're both old enough to remember endless games.  At the time pretty much everything ended when YOU ended, so you sort of had to make up stuff on your own.  You also had to put quite a bit of imagination into the little chunky sprites, and I often made up my own stories to go along with it.  So maybe that helps me not care so much about not having a narrative end to the story so much...
 

 The ending, with the type of games I play, they don't come often. Sports games are forever until you buy the next one, only a season ends and then comes another. You could 100% them, but for me that's not the point. It's the stories, through stats, that have been told during the gameplay that counts.

True!  The goals and the end in this case is already sort of defined.  Is there a Cricket game out there, though?  I hear that could theoretically go on forever.  
 
Some games could learn from this, since the goal is so clearly laid out, it's more in the experience than the end (which is what I imply in the article I linked above).
 

Story driven games are different, but my tendency to like what I like plays a major role. I just recently finished the story in Endless Ocean: Blue World, but the game continues on. The story wasn't bad and the ending was pretty cool. I was actually touched sometimes within the story elements. What I really liked was the opportunity to play on after the main story was done. It reminded me of playing Oblivion and how the story ended, but the game didn't. 

Yeah, you can do that in Grand Theft Auto and the like, too, where they're nice enough not to cause the end of the world after the story is toast.  I hear Brutal Legend is like that, too.
 

A game like Bioshock, I got the bad ending because of my evil ways.

 
For shame! :)
 

 Never saw the good version except on youtube, I just played it and was done. The Witcher ending took you through a gauntlet of your past events, it was... very gratifying to see my past played out.  

 
Hey!  Witcher's progression is DEFINITELY something I would like to see more of.  In Fallout (the first one) it would take you through static screens that would talk about the consequences of all your meddling.  To see something more detailed than that, to relive your experience, is especially nice.  
 
One of the games I absolutely love, the first Dune game, was missing that one crucial element, I think.  I would have liked to play that game again to improve upon my efficiency and find all the hidden bases.  In a way it would be similar to the stat-based sports idea of increasing your performance levels rather than concerning yourself so much with the plot once you've played it all the way through.
 

Dead Space... great game, but whatever at the end, just another boss battle, and a glimpse into the past and future. 
 
I really liked Mass Effect, but there again the ending felt like a prearranged blockbuster movie.

True. 
 

I really don't know how I feel about endings. I just let the gameplay take me there and see what happens. I'll remember the good ones and hope for more in the future. What's crazy is the fact that I've loved games I've never finished. I never saw the end. 

I had that sort of experience with Morrowind and Daggerfall.  My enjoyment of the latter was tempered substantially, but the former was a blast just to wander through.  There are quite a few I haven't finished, actually.  I guess I should remind myself it's not so much about finishing the game, it's about the journey and the memories that journey produces.  Y'know, like life and all that.