With every game I've completed over the last few months, I feel like I'm starting to understand what works for me and what doesn't. I probably should have written on this topic some time ago, but I wanted to spare some of the rants (like my Persona 3 tirade) that have come to mind, and take a more measured approach. In general, I that good game endings are becoming few and far between; not because developers are incapable of concluding or producing a well written narrative, but rather because they have more interest in maintaining a franchise that may last an indeterminate number of titles (a-la Call of Duty).
I certainly don't begrudge game developers the need to make franchise games, and earn as much as possible. To the contrary, the proliferation of sequels tends to give us better titles in the immediate term. Think about it - Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Gears of War 2, etc. "Sequel-itis," as it gets dubbed, allows develpers to build assets, engines, and other tools that can be iterated upon; in short, it can be a wonderful thing. The problem arises when developers assume that their games will have sequels, and that every games will play the sequel in question, and therefore can leave gaping plot holes to be wrapped up at an undisclosed time. With some franchises, we have been waiting many years from something approaching closure. But not all devs decide to go the "cliffhanger route," many don't and are better for it. Other developers just leave games on a question mark without any real hope of a sequel.
With that foundation, I'll cite some examples of what I think works, and what doesn't. I'm going to try to keep the spoilers here to a minimum, and I'll place spoiler tags on the discussions regardless, so no worries. But these will not be detailed spoilers if possible
Portal/Portal 2 -the good
I've never been one to jump on the "everything Valve does is magic" bandwagon. Hell, I though Half-life 2 was mediocre at best (yes, not a popular opinion I know). However, the first Portal wrapped itself up nicely. Chell (the player-character) had won, GLaDoS had been defeated, and "that song" played. The door was left open for a sequel, but the immediate situation had been resolved. Valve did retroactively change the ending for the PC version once Portal 2 was in the works, but this didn't affect anyone's previous enjoyment of the game. With Portal 2, Valve knows it has a potential franchise on its hands, yet decided to wrap Chell's story up nicely, at least as far as we can tell. Aperture science keeps running (in a manner of speaking) and Chell ostensibly goes her own way. I have yet to talk to or hear from anyone who was not supremely satisfied.
Dead Space 2- the good
Enslaved: Oddyssey to the West - the Bad
By all accounts, Enslaved was a solid action title; not superb, but solid. Containing some of the most effectively realized characters, it became hard not to at least identify with Monkey and Trip as they made their way through a dystopian, albeit green, apocalypse. Unfortunately the ending for that game sqanders it (Vinny ranted about this on the bombcast- and he was correct). Effectively, the ending comes out of left fielf, not being set up or established in an effective manner at all; the last moments of the game show the main characters with confusted looks on their faces as the camera pans away, as if they cannot believe that the devs went this route. I can only assume that Ninja Theory thought it would be kind of a "Sixth Sense" thing where repeat plays would inspire "ahhhh" kind of moments in which you see how events lined up. But repeat plays of Enslaved only reveal terrible continuity errors. Why this route was taken, I do not know.
Dragon Age 2 - the Bad
Enough has been said regarding Dragon Age 2, that I scarcely need to repeat it here: overused maps, little variation in gamepley, a plot that doesn't come together until the final moments, and an arguably oversimplified inventory mechanic (i.e., lack of party armors). By no means would I call DA2 a bad game, but it lacked the polish I've come to expect from Bioware. Put simply, it's the first Bioware title that I cannot give an "A" to in retrospect. No small part of this frustration comes from the Game's cliffhanger ending. DA2 builds its narrative by having a party member talking about the Champion in the tone of "we never knew what would happen to lead to these cataclysmic events," Unfortunately, there are no cataclysmic, world-shaking events that the player partakes in, at least not until the end. The game concludes with speech over cutscene, explaining that the Champion's actions cause some serious backlash, and now he/she cannot be found. To compound this, it's suggested that something major is happening that could involve both the Chamption, and the Grey Warden player-character from DA1. Unfortunately, that may (or may not) be answered in another game.
Assassin's Creed 2/Brotherhood - the WHY?
Trying to explain exactly what's happening in the Assassin's Creed series is a little like trying to explain the story of Final Fantasy XIII to a brain-damaged hamster. Effectively, the story relates to the centuries-long war between the Assassins and Templars, which apparently infiltrates all levels of government and business, and is somehow liked to world domination through these apples, which may be tied to some alternate deity and ancient race who created....AFGHHH. You get the point. But in a more practical sense, the game follows the exploits of Nolan North, erm, Desmond Miles and his tiny group of Assassins as they try to find these ancient artifacts of power. But both AC2, and in a worse way, AC:B, end in the sharpest cliffhangers imaginable. The latter closes the camera on a shock death of a main character. Well, by all accounts, it seems that this is a crazy good story- so what's the problem? Simple, there's no resolution of any kind for gamers to get behind. The assumption is that players will have to play through every game (now at least 4) to understand what the hell is going on. Yes, you can of course Youtube these things, but that defeats the purpose of playing through a story, at least in my view.
To summarize, I see different trends. Sequels within larger franchises can wrap up effectively by putting a period on the immediate events of the game, while leaving the door open for bigger issues or different stories to be pursued in later sequels. The problem comes when developers make the assumption that gamers should be required to play 2, 3, 4, or more games to get the smallest amount of closure.
I have to write from my own perspective here, but this is a relevant issue for people like me, who may not have the time and/or money to keep buying and playing each game in every series. I know I'll be in law school this Fall, so it's not likely that I'll be able to keep up with series like Assassins' Creed or Dragon Age. Frankly, I'll be lucky to get to any games while school is in, and so for me, these will remain entirely unresolved stories. Games should do what they can to build their brands, but not at the expense of the individual games' experience. This is even more relevant when secondary titles may never happen. Think about Ubisoft's Prince of Persia (the cell-shaded one), Too Human, or Alpha Protocol - assumptions that these would be bigger franchises left big holes in the narrative when all was said and done.
Do you agree, or am I missing something critical?