What is a game but a miserable pile of secrets? It sits waiting for me to untangle its mysteries, solve its problems and find all the quest items. Sometimes a game will offer optional things to find or solve, but always there is a main goal to be achieved. What happens when I do? Depends on the game, I suppose. Sometimes there is nothing left to do. Sometimes I can begin again with all my items in tow to solve the game a second time. But always (ok, usually) there is an ending. Many games treat their endings differently, opting to make them conspicuously less challenging than might be expected or piling on the difficulty in a simple linear manner. Some story heavy games dump a ton of resolution at the end either interactively or in a cutscene. Not all games get it right. So what should a game ending be?
Assuming the majority of games represents the ideal form of a game ending, what a game’s ending should be has changed quite a bit over the generations. In fact many games simply did not end early on. As a child I remember I sat down with my father and we decided to play Balloon Fight and get as far as possible. Eventually we just ended up at the first stage again. Several other games from this time period behaved this way, but some had definable endings. Super Mario Bros., like many others, had a reward screen with some congratulatory text (no credits of course) and an option to play on a harder difficulty mode.
And as games became more narrative focused, as the people working on them began to insist on being credited for their work, games made efforts to reward the player with dazzling cinematics sometimes during a credit roll. Games made many moves during the late ’90s and throughout the 2000s to be more like movies in their presentation, and of course this included their endings. RPGs often had hours of cutscenes, the length of which would be advertised on the box, and probably a good hour of that was reserved for the ending of the game. But there are more to games than their noninteractive moments of congratulations or cinematic reward. Games must have an ending gameplay moment, too.
The final boss is one of the oldest gameplay devices still in common employ today. This encounter is perhaps the true ending of the game, it represents major resolution of any plot and the final challenge of the game. Boss encounters themselves are puzzling things that can be and represent many different things. Traditionally bosses and final bosses represent a test of acquired skill by the player but can also be plot vehicles by subverting that expectation and being an easy encounter. The final encounter in Final Fantasy X is a near defenseless bug creature that cannot be lost to (party members are automatically raised if knocked out) which still conforms to the boss encounter model (it is not a final block puzzle, after all).
At some point down the line developers began playing with the extra “leg room” for more content in their game by producing multiple endings, often tiered in order of best to worst depending on difficulty to attain. Multiple endings imply that there may not be any one true ending to a given game’s story. The Resident Evil remake on the GameCube featured multiple endings based upon how many teammates the player is able to save by the time the whole place blows up. Interestingly most of these potential endings are invalidated by proceeding games that feature characters that could have perished in some of the conclusions. Likewise, the RE series has featured multiple story angles from different player character perspectives that are also invalidated based on proceeding events. So an ending to a game may not always represent the ending of the story, the one that is considered true for the series. Does this make the other endings represent failure more than a resolution?
More recently Mass Effect 3‘s multiple endings made a big splash on websites as many people voiced their dissatisfaction with everything from the degree to which the story was resolved to how different the three endings were from each other. It brought with it a lot of discussion at the time of what game endings should be and to what degree the players should be able to change a game’s plot. As someone who lost interest in the series after the second entry it was difficult for me to weigh in on the exact matters of the problem but I feel as though many of the best questions raised during the event remain unanswered or at least not widely agreed upon. Bioware eventually stated their willingness to change the game and be receptive to their fans’ demands, and the whole matter highlighted for me how important a game’s ending can be. In Mass Effect‘s case it was also the ending of the trilogy for a series with a heavy story focus and then-innovative connectivity between player choices in previous entries. The ending had to deliver something that epitomized the series in some way and the product left many wanting. Some were satisfied and some where not, though on what criteria I cannot claim to have found a clear answer to.
Game endings, for those of us fortunate enough to see our games through to the end, are clearly expected to be some kind of reward. Some games, those less story focused, can get away with simpler ending scenes but they still can be subject to criticism for a poor final encounter. The most highly regarded games and series have all dropped the ball on their endings at some point or another but they are saved by being made up of so much more than that one moment. Still, the ending is the last thing the player sees and carries a cache possibly only matched by the beginning of the game.
So let me know of any particular game endings that you thought were best or even disappointing. Is there some aspect to those endings you can single out that explains your feelings and is there something you would like to see happen in a game ending. Fill in the blanks in the comments section below, don’t forget we are still hiring and read chapters eleven and twelve for the test on Monday, have a nice weekend class!