Wolfenstein designer Manveer Heir brought up an interesting point in a recent Twitter post. Is it possible, he wondered, for videogames to have “downer endings” without angering players by rendering the time and energy they’ve invested into the game “useless?” Obviously, he wasn’t able to delve into the matter too deeply with just a Twitter post, but the idea intrigued me. Everyone likes a happy ending but it’s not all that terribly unusual for a movie, book or television show to end on a sour note. Yet in videogames it’s almost unheard of.
It’s understandable in a way, because unlike other forms of media in which we watch others struggle against herculean odds, in videogames we are the hero and the struggle is ours. It’s not the man on the page or the screen who stumbles, falls and fails. It’s us. So it’s not hard to see why game designers are hesitant to take “authorial control” and essentially bend the player to fit whatever story they want to tell.
Heir held up Half-Life 2: Episode 2 as an example of a game with a less-than-sunny ending but, with all due respect, I really can’t agree with the choice. As unhappy endings go it’s a compromise at best and, being the second part of a trilogy, not really an “ending” anyway. (There are spoilers immediately ahead, by the way.) Yes, Eli Vance is (apparently) dead, but so what? His character was a minor one, certainly not in the league of Alyx, Barney or even his far more memorable sidekick Dr. Kleiner. His demise was a quick shock but once it passed, nothing had really changed.
There are some games that don’t wrap up with a dazzling burst of victorious glory, of course. Planescape: Torment, that literary classic of videogames, ends on what is arguably a bit of a bummer, as does Fallout 3, at least pre-Broken Steel. It was quite possible to screw yourself for good in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl was positively gleeful about giving people exactly what they deserved: Players can easily find themselves blinded, turned to stone or crushed to death when they “win” the game.
But in the final analysis, even those are cop-outs. Planescape is really a story of redemption, while the final moment of Fallout 3 is one of heroic self-sacrifice. Both Bloodlines and STALKER, meanwhile, make it relatively easy for players to rectify their missteps and earn a more upbeat and, I suppose, satisfying conclusion.
In fact, the only game in my admittedly limited experience that leaps to mind as culminating in an unavoidable downer is the classic Another World, aka Out Of This World, in which the best a player can say about his condition when all is said and done is that he appears to be more or less still alive. Alone, stranded on a hostile alien world with no apparent hope of returning home, hunted by a powerful and ruthless enemy, unconscious, bleeding and helpless… but alive.
There were no reloads, no do-overs, no options for anything better; that’s the conclusion you got because that’s the story Eric Chahi, the game’s creator, wanted to tell. It was ambiguous at best and, when you really think about it, downright gloomy in most regards; assuming you didn’t bleed to death or die as a result of internal injuries five minutes after “The End” faded from the screen, there was absolutely no indication of what your survival earned you beyond a life, probably miserable and grossly abbreviated, trapped on a world that seemed oddly determined to kill you. The irony? It was freakin’ brilliant. (It was also remade and re-released in 2007 as a 15th Anniversary Edition, so there’s no excuse not to experience it for yourself.)
But that was then and this is now and whether or not we like it, games, and gamers, were and are different. Small, independent devs can afford to make art but the big players – that is, the guys who fill the shelves at GameStop – have to make money. So the question ultimately becomes this: Are today’s gamers willing to surrender narrative control to a game designer who has a very specific story to tell? Are we prepared to take that step, and to be cool about it when things don’t unfold quite as we expect or want them to?
We’re not going to find out until one of the majors puts its money where its Macbeth is, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope, at least not for the short term. The uniquely interactive quality of videogames makes them an incredibly powerful and immersive storytelling tool, yet that very interactivity that sinks us so deeply into the story virtually precludes them from being anything but tales of victory. The technology is ready and has been for awhile now; gamers, on the other hand, are not.
Andy Chalk worked very hard not to mention Max Payne 2 in this column.