A satisfying ending

A number of games feature multiple endings to their narratives. Right off the top of my head, I’ll name four: All three of the Deus Ex games, and Mass Effect 3. These come particularly to mind for a singular gaming conceit: The magic pick-an-ending button.

Regardless of what you’ve done, how you’ve developed and defined your character’s personality, who has lived and died, who you’ve befriended or opposed, you’re presented with three choices right at the end. Press the button (so to speak) and get the ending.

In narrative terms, that’s a cop-out. That isn’t even phoning it in.

The very nature of a satisfying ending in a narrative is an ending that inevitably emerges from who the protagonist is, whether the ending is in the nature of a victory or a tragedy.

In modern, Western fictional narrative, it often boils down to the choices made by the protagonist when they are at their lowest point, or their highest. Often two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through the story. From there, the way the narrative will end becomes either inevitable, or – if that inevitability is defied – unsatisfying.

These games each give us considerable scope to define our protagonist. Who she is, what she believes is right or wrong; her entire philosophy. And then, at the end, the game allows us to throw all of that away to pick an ending, perhaps presenting us with a choice of three, none of which we may particularly like.

That cheapens the ending and weakens the story, by allowing us to essentially discard our each-and-every choice up to that moment.

Satisfying endings are consequences of our protagonists’ choices, not specifically choices in and of themselves.

These games have endings that are entirely divorced from the choices of the protagonist (and you) throughout the game.

And I think we can do better. The original Fallout did. The ending of that game showed us the consequences of our choices. The game would have been nearly so appealing and satisfying it it had simply had us pick an ending. Fallout’s endings were all about our earlier choices and the inevitable consequences of them, and that resonated in a way which many, more modern game narratives, do not.

9 thoughts on “A satisfying ending”

  1. So, in essence, the designers of computer games suck at story-telling. They can give us the actions scenes, but a plot?

    There’s maybe some common factor with the poor communications from Linden Lab. And maybe not. But announcing and explaining some new feature is a sort of story-telling.

  2. Special shout-out to an old favorite of mine, Silent Hill 2, which tracks certain play styles and action through the entire game: How much time your health is dangerously low (vs healing yourself quickly), how close you stay to a certain NPC, and certain actions which show interest in specific subjects (such as returning to specific places or examining certain objects).
    From there, the game tweaks the ending encounter slightly (some dialogue and motivation for the end boss changes), and the final ending *very* substantially, but also very sensibly.

  3. Well, those are just shooters or kind of. I think, Fallout 3 did an excellent job. At least it puts several aspects of the gameplay together. I actually don’t think that the majority of people care so much about the ending anyway. Those are experiences for the moment and afterward, hardly anyone can remember what it was all about. Right now I’m looking forward to XCOM: Enemy Unknown (the turn based strategy game – not the shooter) and if it’s anything like the original, i gonna love it. This game was well known for its unpredictability. I like action games either but that’s just a distraction I probably play once a week. What was Deus Ex about again? Ah right, follow the marker, then pew pew *smiles*

  4. Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire both suffered from this, too. You spend the whole game making choices about whether to be good or evil (or something in between), but the ending only depends on a few dialog choices in the final parts of the game. I think this is meant to cater to gamers who are curious what other endings are available, but don’t want to play through the whole game again to find out. Instead, you just load your save game from a few hours ago, choose a different option, and voila.

    To the original Deus Ex’s credit, there was at least one ending that would only be available if you made certain choices much earlier in the game. But, that just became one more ending to choose from at the end.

    BioShock and BioShock 2 were both pretty linear, but the ending was slightly different depending on actions you took throughout the game, not just at the end.

    And I suppose a game where the ending is unsatisfying because you can choose an alternative at the last minute, is better than a game where you have no choices ever and the ending is crappy anyway. 😀

  5. It’s so very difficult to discuss endings without spoilers! (shakes fist in mock anger!) Anyway…

    Mass Effects 3’s endings have certainly been highly controversial. And I’m very inclined to agree that the “choose your ending” thing is pretty lame. I had issues with the romantic options too, but that’s off topic. 😀 But I think my biggest disappointment was more that I didn’t feel like I “won” the game. I don’t mind at all if you make the ending a sad or tragic one, but it has to be in such a way that made it all feel worthwhile. When you spend the time scanning every freakin’ planet in the galaxy, do every side quest you can find, explore every chat tree, and then are given an ending that makes you wonder why you bothered… well. I have to feel like I won somehow, and in this case I just didn’t.

    I agree with above sentiments about Silent Hill 2 one hundred percent. Because of this game I’ll still be shelling out money for Downpour despite repeated slaps to the face from the franchise. The original Deus Ex was just so awesome for it’s time, I rather gave the way endings were implemented a pass. A game that really did endings based on a karma system right recently was Infamous 2. They were highly tailored to your actions, and they let me feel like all that running around healing or blasting people meant something. I think Heavy Rain also deserves a mention too. The endings were pretty cookie-cutter, but there were enough cookies to either crumble or eat that it felt worth additional playthroughs.

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