Experienced Points

All My Hard Work and I Get This Ending?

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It’s happened to all of us: You play a video game for 10 hours (or 20, or 80) and when you get to the end it all falls apart. Maybe it was an anticlimax. (Fable 2.) Maybe it spent more time setting up the next game instead of tying up its own story threads. (Dreamfall.) Maybe it was a thematic mess. (Deus Ex: Human Revolution.) Maybe it just didn’t make sense. (Fahrenheit.) Maybe it had an underwhelming boss fight. (Rage.) Or maybe it broke character and tone for the sake of a boss fight where one wasn’t needed. (BioShock.)

Some games end badly,. It happens. But often when the ending of a game doesn’t turn out the way a player wanted, you’ll hear the complaint, “After all my hard work getting through the game, this is the ending they give us?”

And then the counter-arguments: Aren’t you just being entitled? Isn’t the developer free to end their game however they like? And while we’re at it, can playing a video game count as “hard work” if it’s fun? (And if it’s not fun, then why were you playing it?)

Right away we run into something at the root of a lot of our arguments: We often play games for different reasons. You play Shoot Guy III: The Shootening. I also play Shoot Guy III. And we assume that since we’re playing the same game we must be after the same thing. Or at least, there ought to be some overlap in what we look for in a game. But this often isn’t the case. Games are more complex than the mediums that preceded them. Or at least, they can be. Sometimes you just want to kill twenty minutes with some bright flashy lights while waiting for Game of Thrones to start, and sometimes you want a challenging emotional experienced where you’ve got some agency in how things turn out. How important the ending is to you depends on why you’re playing the game.

But the whole “work” idea points to the big difference between games and other types of entertainment: The audience is involved. Even in passive media, we don’t appreciate stories that waste our time. People tend to get pissed off if they sit through an entire show or movie only to discover the whole thing was a dream, or if the story created some kind of expectations and then failed to fulfill them. This resentment over wasted time is even stronger when we are participating in the process. I might get annoyed at an hour long TV show that wasted my time with a lame ending, but I’m going to be furious if I played a game for 40 hours to get the same result.

Saying “if the game is fun, then why care about the ending?” kind of misses the point. If I spend three days building a ship in a bottle and you smash it with a baseball bat the moment I finish, I’m not going to shrug and say, “Oh well, at least it was fun to build.” In fact, a lot of the enjoyment of building something comes from the anticipation of what you’ll get at the end. You’re working towards a payoff. When you play through an RPG and agonize over decisions and mourn when beloved characters fall, it’s a bit like building a ship in a bottle. You’re taking hundreds of small actions that (you hope) gradually move the game world into some kind of more desirable (or more interesting) state. Finding out that your actions didn’t matter — or led you to a world state you find unsatisfactory — is closer to having your ship-in-a-bottle smashed than it is to sitting through a dumb TV show.

As an aside, I’ve never liked the “who cares about story, games are about gameplay!” defense. That’s like saying the plot of a movie doesn’t matter as long as the stunts are good. You’re saying style and craft don’t matter. Sure, I liked the Fable 2 gameplay well enough, but wouldn’t it have been so much better if the story hadn’t been a long tortured mess of conflicting tones, plot-holes, contrivances, and railroading? Why spend millions on cutscenes if the story doesn’t matter? And if it needs to be there, can’t we expect it to be good?

I don’t envy game designers. Ending a video game is hard. You’ve got all the obligations of a typical story (which is enough of a challenge for most authors) plus there’s an expectation that the end should tie together all the gameplay elements. If you’re playing an action stealth platformer, then most players will expect the final sequence to incorporate all three elements. If the game featured choice, players will want a big choice at the end. If the game has been about shooting dudes, then we expect to shoot a lot of dudes at the end.

The designer is trying to finalize a story and a set of mechanics at the same time, and those things often have needs that run counter to each other. Having an “ultimate challenge” at the end of a game is mutually exclusive with the moment of “ultimate empowerment” a hero gets at the end of your typical movie.

I’ve said before that this industry is going through some odd growing pains. We’ve got a lot of game designers who can barely handle the basics of storytelling, much less tackle the complex job of making a unified symphony of tone, plot, themes, gameplay, characters, interactive narrative, and pacing.

So designers fail. It happens. And often we’ll find ourselves feeling unfulfilled at the end, not because the gameplay was lacking, but because the gameplay was the only thing that worked.

Endings are worth getting right. When a game falls flat at the end, the designer hasn’t just wasted our hard work, but also some of their own.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.

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