Bad endings in video games have always bothered me. They feel vaguely unfulfilling and never really worth the effort, and for me, there is no better example than the boss fight in the original Dead Space. What should have been a terrifying, amplified version of a necromorph was instead a weird, colourful sunflower monster that was more annoying than frightening. On the other hand, I seem to be in the minority when it comes to Dead Space 3’s finale. Necromoon, to me, is a heavy, existentially terrifying culmination of the Marker’s powers.
So I did what I always do when something in video games bothers me: I talked incessantly about it with my friends. Rather than focusing on the bad stuff, I was curious about what made video game endings succeed for different people. In the spirit of my previous interview series at Dork Shelf, I interviewed a few writers, developers, and journalists in games, asking them for their thoughts on what makes a good video game ending. And most importantly, why is that the case?
Natalie Zina Walschots, poet and video game critic, argues that a good video game ending is, “Something that suits the tone of the game emotionally and narratively. Something with heart. Something that means that the world has changed after all of these events have taken place. Something that isn’t necessarily positive, but satisfying.”
I think the sentiment is a strong one to follow. Endings should imply that something of consequence has occurred, whether it be on the ‘we’ve saved the whole world’ macro-scale of Final Fantasy VII or the personal micro-scale of Little Inferno, in which you realize your actions have not bettered your situation and it makes everything you did earlier feel so much more profound and heavy. For Walschots, that type of superb ending comes in Ni No Kuni. “A huge part of the game revolved around Oliver’s quest to save his mother, who dies in the game’s opening moments; but that’s not what the end place ends up being, or where the story ends,” she said. “Instead of bringing her back to life, Oliver learns to cope with loss and grief.” For Walschots, the fact that Oliver is unable to be the hero who saves the day is what makes the ending powerful.
Johnny Cullen, host of My Favourite Game podcast, prefers to look at the emotional weight of an ending, rather than just whether or not something major was affected or changed. “Make it emotional,” he said. “And music that matches the mood and tone of the ending wouldn’t go amiss. If a game has made me emotionally invested into its world and characters that by the end, I want to find out more [about] them, the game has done its job not as a videogame, but rather, as a piece of entertainment.”
Endings with a high emotional resonance make sense, but it’s not the only way to make an ending click. At least not for Yifat Shaik, an indie game developer. For Shaik, the emotional weight of a game is less important than the intent and execution of an ending. Shaik said, “I did like the ending of the last Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC [Trespasser] because I liked how they used it to set up the next game and how well planned in a narrative sense it all was. I also recently played Grim Fandango again, and really like the hopeful, [yet] slightly sad [tone] (’cause, well, they are dead) of the ending.”
For Shaik, a solid ending shouldn’t just be well-written: it should actually fit the conventions and narrative goals of the game and its genre. “It depends on the game genre and the mechanics,” she said. “In narrative heavy games, if the ending is not handled as well as the rest of the narrative, it doesn’t fit with the spirit of the game. Then the ending is a failure.” Lacking narrative and emotional weight only matters if the game prioritized narrative and emotions to begin with. A game can only fail or succeed at what it’s trying to accomplish, and if it isn’t trying to make you cry, then it hasn’t failed if you walk away dry-eyed.
Then there’s Chris Bourassa, creative director, artist, and co-president of Red Hook, who created Darkest Dungeon and who has yet another approach to the subject. “I think the ending of a game should be a culmination – a summary and escalation – of your experience, not just a conclusion to it,” he explained. “A great ending should give players a new perspective on the early chapters of the game.” For Bourassa, the original Bioshock is the master. “Bioshock layered its plot points throughout the quest-driven gameplay goals in such a way as to make the ending a genuine ‘a-ha!’ moment – it felt like it had been there all along, right under my nose. It wasn’t forced, and didn’t come off as an attempt to quickly wrap up loose ends.”
I often find myself praising – and defending – Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. While obviously TPS pales in comparison to Borderlands 2, the ending of TPS manages to achieve something I’ve never experienced in a game before: it made me rethink my actions in a previous game. We all knew Jack was an enigmatic, dynamic character capable of carrying a game on his own. But what got me with TPS was the reveal of how the constructors are made, and how it retroactively turned my victories, headshots, and conquests in Borderlands 2 into a brutal, thoughtless massacre. Replaying Borderlands 2 after beating TPS has made me rethink the core theme of Borderlands in a new way: you really, truly are not a hero. You are just a mercenary. And sometimes it’s better not to know the full story.
What makes a good or successful video game ending isn’t going to be the same for everyone, but it’s the difference in perspective that intrigues me the most. Rather than be annoyed at my displeasure with most video game endings, it makes sense to take them in stride and realize a lot aren’t going to please me because I want something different than what the game is offering. And that’s okay. Everyone approaches video games with different goals in mind, so we’re not all going to agree about what makes a video game ending great.
Except for Chrono Trigger, of course. That one’s fantastic, and we can all agree on that.
What are some of your favourite endings in video games? Tweet at us @dorkshelf and let us know!