By megalowho 0 Comments
(no ME3 spoilers).
I'm trying to think back to the first time I was genuinely disappointed as to how a video game wrapped up. Sitting there as the credits rolled in, questions left unanswered, festering in silent resentment. Or maybe just aching to get it over with, stumbling again and again with a sequence that's been going on far too long to do anybody any good. It happens all the time in other narrative focused mediums, so it was bound to become a recurring issue for games as well. Sometimes despite best efforts, things just go to shit.
Growing up with score based arcade games, an ending always meant the literal "GAME OVER" screen. How satisfied you felt at that moment and where it was going was not the point. Doing a little bit better the next time was enough of a reward. Even on 8-bit consoles as storytelling evolved the emphasis was always on the journey. The ending to The Legend of Zelda was never controversial in my circles, it just ended. Every once in a while you'd get something memorable, like Metroid (Samus is a LADY) or a burger with Ronald Reagan. But on the whole the technology just wasn't there to create engaging story beats and thematic hooks, so the games rightfully focused on what they were good at.
On computers things were a bit more interesting, perhaps because the demographic skewed towards the older crowd. Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? on the Apple IIGS was probably the first time I was completely enthralled during the end of a game. All those hours spent chasing Carmen's henchmen around the globe, looking up clues in a goddamn Almanac, and never even coming close to catching the big fish. Then when you finally find out you're on her tail for real, the stakes are immediately raised. You get to see the big, one-off chase, the master crook behind bars and a long congratulatory fax from Interpol. I felt like the smartest person alive at the time. Feeling smart, feeling rewarded, feeling like you've accomplished something - those are still the hallmarks of a pretty decent ending today.
Of course if every game we played wrapped up in a bow with a high five, great job, you're the best kind of message, gaming would never really evolve as a narrative platform. Main characters dying, surprise twists, multiple endings, post credits sequences - it's all old hat at this point and people are always going to have opposing opinions about what works and what doesn't.
To truly be a bad, miserable, fuck-all-that-shit ending, to become something that was or easily could have become zeitgeist pre-internet, it's got to stand out from the pack. Introduce contradictions, plot holes, betray established characterizations and themes. Make it clear for all to see that you just plain ran out of time and/or money and yeah that sucks, here's what we squeezed out. Or perhaps drop the ball in the closing moments when things were going so well earlier - by stringing along the player with sequel fodder or refusing to wrap things up altogether. The more enjoyable the meat of a game is, the greater the potential for letdown.
Not all the bad ones leave a lasting impression on me. I can barely tell you what happened in BioShock after you jump into a Big Daddy suit and head out guns blazing, but I remember it being awful. That game is still brilliant as a whole and a highlight of the generation. I loved the last bit of gameplay in Fable II, even if many felt cheated out of a final boss. Other notable cases do stand out, however - Knights of the Old Republic II was painfully unfinished after a pretty intriguing and lengthy main game experience. Arkham Asylum's ending would have been a whole lot better if they'd gone the Fable II route instead of the big boss fight. And Resident Evil 5's denouement, oh man. From mindless fan service and button mashing to bad camera angles to QTE's to a cheap and prolonged Wesker fight that I kept replaying over and over again, when it was finally over I was left pretty much numb to any story implications or any positive takeaways from earlier in the game.
I suppose in the end, like most things for me, it all comes back to early PC point and click adventures. That's where I first started giving a shit about where a game was going and where it ended up, so naturally that's where I first felt the nasty sting of the memorable and lasting bad end. It's also where I started to become a fan of not just games but entire series - Leisure Suit Larry, Monkey Island, Space Quest.. and Quest for Glory. Quest for Glory I: So You Want To Be A Hero, aka Hero's Quest was a game way ahead of it's time, establishing a lot of the hallmarks that branching action/adventure RPG's still use today. The ending was satisfying, and the sequel was even better on all fronts. You could even import your character.
Then came Quest for Glory III: Wages of War, a game that technically was never planned for by the developers. The gameplay was overly reliant on combat which completely negated my Thief from the previous two games. It was a glitchy mess that crashed constantly. It was also maddeningly easy. The story was tacked on, convoluted and not up to the standards the series was known for. And then, it ended.
A bunch of nonsensical revelations, you can fall in love out of nowhere, a wizard happens, and you're hit with the twist that all those events that transpired in games I and II? Those people you saved, the bad guys you stopped? Never happened. Sorry bout that, everything is actually pretty terrible. And then while gathering with your travel buddies pre-credits, dark magic happens. Your character flips out, and you're rewarded with a nice big TO BE CONTINUED... IN QUEST FOR GLORY IV: SHADOWS OF DARKNESS. While two wizards look over you in an orb. You lose no matter what. And all this despite the fact that one of the hallmarks of the series was how open ended it was, how you could jump in again as a different class and make different decisions to change your experience.
Quest for Glory was never the same for me after that point. I had been disappointed in multiple ways by not only a game, but a groundbreaking series I'd been heavily invested in for years. It left a mark.
I must say I get what the kids are going through these days. But at this point, I wouldn't want it any other way. The spectacular collapses, over time, have proven to be at least as interesting as the satisfying conclusions. Sometimes even more so. We'd all be a lot happier if we just embraced the cold, unfulfilled reality of bad endings, and instead of the usual cacophony of outrage we'd join hands in unison to appreciate the finer nuances of the truly remarkable ones together. After all, they only come around once every so often.