Endings are important. Only in the ending are the loose ends tied up, various subplots and character arcs culminate, and we learn what the point of the whole thing was. In theory, anyway. In practice you’re just as likely to get a hasty “TO BE CONTINUED” thrown up while the writer’s agent tries to bribe a sequel out of him with a bucket of vodka and money. But the ending is arguably the most important part of a story, even more so than the beginning. Without a beginning a story doesn’t exist at all and leaves our memories unsullied, but a bad or omitted ending leaves the reader frustrated and resentful of the whole work, even if everything up to it was a tour de force literary blow job.
The ending is important because it’s the last thing the audience takes away, and this isn’t secret insider storytelling lore, this purports to be common knowledge. Stand-up comedians are always advised to end the set with their best joke. Movie DVD extras will often include an alternative ending, and very rarely an alternative scene from forty-five minutes in. So why, since everyone knows endings are important, have I played so many games with incredibly disappointing endings lately?
It should go without saying that there may be some spoilers in this column, so this is your warning now. I’ll even embolden the names of the games I’m talking about so you can see them coming, assuming the formatting makes it past the edit.
Mafia 2 brought this subject to the forefront of my mind because Mafia 1 had quite a good ending, in which the hero is hanging around in the nice garden witness protection provided, only for some goons to show up and prune back his overgrown conscience with both barrels. In Mafia 2, meanwhile, Vito Scaletti, after a lengthy series of cock-ups that have left him marked for death, manages to fix everything the usual way one fixes everything in the Mafia – by shooting a whole bunch of greasy blokes. Then he gets into a car with his father figure, and Vito’s friend Joe gets in a different car. Said father figure then heavily implies that Joe will now be answering for Vito’s crimes in a probably non-survivable, bullet-related kind of way. Vito’s response is to go into a bit of a sulk as the camera pulls back and the credits roll.
This was very jarring. Inasmuch as any emotion can be said to have crossed Vito’s chiseled, expression-less face, the one thing that the story has established is that he is loyal to a fault, the fault being that he’s marginally more loyal to his personal family than to his professional one. This is the guy who turns around and murders his employer once it comes out that he may have had something to do with Vito’s father’s death. Who goes behind his don’s back to save the marked man who helped him in prison. And Joe has been like a brother to Vito since the beginning, they’ve both risked their lives for each other for far worse reasons than this. For Vito to suddenly shrug his shoulders and accept Joe getting the world’s fastest crewcut seems awfully sudden. You could argue it’s part of an arc in which Vito is gradually suppressing his emotions in favor of loyalty to the mafia, but it’s hardly a satisfactory climax for such an arc and now you’re just making excuses. Stop it.
Kane and Lynch 2 also had this amongst its colorful myriad of other significant problems. The confrontation with the main bad guy (unless Kane and Lynch are supposed to be the bad guys, which I find easier to swallow), the source of all the unpleasantness up to that point (excepting Kane and Lynch’s own actions, of course), isn’t even the ending, and wouldn’t have been a good one even if it was. The game only ends after the next mission in an airport where Kane and Lynch hijack an airplane and rather cheekily leave the camerman behind, showing that the two of them are still precisely the same absolute amoral fuckwits they were at the start of the game. And the attempts to make Kane sympathetic by having him telephone-stalk his estranged daughter is still as insulting to the audience as ever.
Now, I do have a fairly good idea of why so many games have disappointing and cut-down endings. For a lot of studios it would be a resource issue. Towards the end of a development cycle all the money for fancy cinematics and voice acting that seemed like so much eight months ago has dribbled down to an amount that would embarrass the snack machine. The ending will certainly feel the chop before the intro does, because the intro is what suckers the players into parting with their disposable income, and once they have your money producers couldn’t give a shit about whether you leave the experience feeling enriched or not. And of course when it comes to make the ending all the actual developers will be tired and miserable and anticipating getting fired once the big project is complete. Well, they are if they live in Brisbane, apparently.
This last point seems odd to me. Speaking as someone who’s done a bit of long-form storytelling in his time (buy my book), doing the ending is the point that I’m most energized. Doing the beginning, too. When I’ve developed games the work always starts off easy, then becomes tortuous in the middle, but towards the end we’re over the hump and speeding gleefully towards the finish. The fact that this isn’t evidenced in most mainstream game design is another sign of the culture of design-by-committee that is a permanent bugbear of mine, and of not enough people on game development teams taking a personal interest in the creative soul of the work. I made a speech on this subject to some developers once. In Brisbane. I guess it didn’t take.
I thought I’d cite an example of games with good endings, and I got half way through typing the words Prince of Persia Sands of Time and Silent Hill 2 before stopping myself. I’ve cited these games so much it’s getting boring for me. Yes, they have really good stories, and since endings are the most important parts of stories then the games logically have really good endings. Change the record.
It occurred to me to give an example of a fairly mediocre game that nonetheless had a good ending. And for some reason, what came to mind was Singularity. If any game illustrates the “beginning and ending good, middle bit dreary slog” rule, it’s Singularity, because I remember quite enjoying the game at the start when things were a bit more BioShock-y and you didn’t have fifty game-breaking weapons. But sat the end, while the plot twist was handled a little clumsily, there’s three quite satisfying endings depending on your actions in the very last room. You can either shoot the nice scientist and join the evil one to rule the world together; go back in time and shoot yourself to prevent the game’s events; or shoot both the scientists and bugger the whole business. Each course of action has a detailed epilogue movie and none of them give the impression of being the “proper” ending, which is how multiple endings should work.
I think what impressed me was that taking the first, evil option doesn’t immediately result in the evil scientist betraying you. Rather, he turns out to be a proper evil gentleman and keeps his word. Turns out the asshole is you: Once you’ve ruled the world together for a while, you break off and form an opposing faction that plunges the globe into civil war over which one man will rule all. And I appreciated that, because it was exactly what I would have done in real life.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.