Video game endings are fickle things. They are the final moments of an experience that requires hours of investment, only to be seen if the game can manage to sustain the interest of the player, which isn’t always easy to accomplish with the amount of games competing for attention in today’s gaming market. When a game ends poorly, there’s a noticeable blemish attached to that experience. No matter what sort of innovations or strides the game has made they are tainted with an unfulfilling ending. Beating a game implies that you’ve triumphed over the opposition that developers have put into place, beating the game means that you’ve committed to seeing something to the end, beating the game used to really mean something to me when I started playing games, and I think that beating the game deserves a true feeling of accomplishment.
2012 was arguably the year with the most unsatisfying end of game moments for me in recent memory. Just in case you haven’t experienced some of these games, I will warn you that there are slight spoilers coming. Enormous storylines such as Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed saw what has been built up to the epic ending of these massive storylines and both of these games tainted games containing polished in-game mechanics. Assassin’s Creed III is arguably the greatest looking and playing game of the franchise, but a weak resolution to tie up the loose ends seemed abrupt and disappointing. In a nearly identical case, Mass Effect saw massive uproar from fans and critics on its ending; enough discussion that convinced Bioware to develop an altered DLC ending free of charge. Far Cry 3 produced on of the most interesting protagonists of the year in Vaas, but killed him halfway through the game and subsequently killed its buzz and squandered everything that could’ve been great with the game. In fact, the Dishonored was one of my favorite games of the year, however certainly not for the predicable and utterly disengaging last third of the game. Dishonored made a weak attempt to create an interesting good and evil paradigm to allow some flexibility yet they makes no major changes in the way it wraps up the game. Azura’s Wrath took a completely different route by charging players to purchase more DLC to unlock the true ending of the game, which completely disengages me from ever picking up the game.
However, some games chose to take a the easier path by allowing the player to engage in the story to the degree that you want to. In games such as Journey and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you are given the flexibility to invest in the story as little or as much as the player decides to no great effect. Keeping the narrative to a minimum is completely fine by me; I won’t be expecting something that is sure to disappoint if it never tries hard in the first place. This is the path Nintendo has typically followed outside with some notable examples such as the Zelda and Paper Mario games. It’s much easier to forgive a weak ending to a story if the work wasn’t ever put into place in the beginning.
For all the unsatisfactory endings I encountered in the past year, one game was able to shine amongst the rest, which is certainly The Walking Dead. Telltale games created an experience that carefully calculates the player’s choices and gives the illusions of serious involvement in the way the story concludes. The game ends with gut-wrenching and emotional turn, ensuring that no one will forget its impact for years to come. The ending gave me a huge sense of satisfaction with the way I played the game, and the final chapter reflected on all the gruesome and sadistic choices I made. Unlike the good versus evil limitations of a choice-driven game such as Mass Effect, there was never a clear indication of which decision is the “correct” path to follow in The Walking Dead. Another notable ending exists in Spec Ops: The Line and changed the way people might think about games set in war-like environment. The game tackled post-traumatic-stress-disorder in an interesting and classy way and put you at forefront of afflicting the ailment. For those that never had the experience, the game culminates with the illusion that your character is going insane from the bloodshed he is forced to commit, in a way that each Call of Duty clone has expectedly ignored. The ending itself was enough to motivate many players to experience the game, albeit the mediocre gameplay. For me the most noticeable endings came from games I didn’t expect to see such a delivery from, while established and successful storytellers found some way to fail in the latter moments of their games.
Unlike television and films, video games are built upon an expectation of involvement to develop the story along its path. The players are the driving force of the narrative; we kill the bosses, we save the people, and find the tools and people to end whatever ailment is afflicting the game’s world. Franchises such as Metal Gear Solid and the Final Fantasy series have proven that excellence in storytelling is entirely possible. In fact the Metal Gear Solid games stand as some of the most adventurous and committed storytellers of today, although the come at the expense of truly committing to extended cut scenes. If game narratives truly want to be taken seriously and held within the same discussions as stories as other forms of media, they must take their stories and endings to more serious degree. Huge JRPGs are the surest example of the investment required in completing a game and necessitates a quality ending. They are certainly some of the surest examples of the difficulty of a quality ending as well. When a game’s finale is challenging but not overly difficult, I feel a greater redemption for my time put into the game. I should be expected to test all of the skills and abilities I’ve garnered throughout the story; in a way that’s clever and memorable. I cannot tell you how end bosses were when I first started gaming, and surely point to Super Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy end scenarios. Surely there’s exceptions to this expectation, but I love the difficulty of an old-school format to game endings.
If anything, 2012 showed how important an ending truly matters to fans of a series, especially if they’ve been built up and adored such as Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed. Two years ago when Mass Effect 2 burst on to the scene, many fans and critics already began to question its ability to wrap the story up in a way that would fulfill all of the huge expectations that it was building up. In fact it is the ending of the game that could’ve possibly cost Mass Effect 3 several game of the year awards. To get to the true point of this argument, by moving into a new generation of game consoles I hope that developers don’t completely ignore the non-technical aspects to these games. I’m completely down for enormous narratives told on grand scales, multi-game stories that culminate into that final, lengthy boss battle. However I just can’t stand to see anymore engaging narratives that fall flat on their face in the end. My time investment must be redeemed and to fail to do is certainly reflected in its legacy and optimism for games following their forerunners.