Good Endings and Bad Endings

After finishing Dark Messiah of Might and Magic the other day and finding myself displeased with its ending but unable to vocalize why, I have been thinking about what makes a great end for a game, for me at least:

  • You can’t have a great ending for a bad game (which explains my misgivings with Dark Messiah, I think, despite its occasional Thief-y qualities), but you can have a bad ending in a good game, and a bad ending in a bad game.
  • Games that are designed with the ending in mind from the beginning seem to work well.
  • Difficult but good games seem to have good endings by default.
  • Explanation of the results of previous in-game actions is appropriate ending material. Refusing to show ‘what happened next’ or to even offer a hint at such is rarely effective.
  • New material introduced near the end that contradicts what has come before or switches genres is not good.
  • A single, clear goal – getting home, getting laid, finding the MacGuffin – is effective.
  • Returning the protagonist to something resembling their original state is satisfying, in a Mad Max sort of way.
  • Cliffhangers are unsatisfying unless the genre demands them.
  • Endings are important because I cared enough about the game to finish it – the longer the game, the more care should be taken with the ending.
  • A game has to overcome what I’ll call “ending fear” – my tendency to stop playing a game once I know I’ve gotten near the end, because I don’t want a good game to end – by maintaining a certain momentum that prevents me from stopping before I get all stupid and intellectual about what’s going on.
  • Essentially I play games because I like stories. If a good story is not being told, or there is no skeleton for me to hang my own story on, then there can be no good ending.

Such discussion cannot continue without examples. The best endings that come to mind, with a certain bias toward recent games, are…

  • The Thief series: On style alone, the ending cut scene of Thief: The Dark Project wins. Garrett’s bitter commentary is tone-perfect. The sequel’s ending is not as good as the first, but again, it has that same undeniable style. 3 has its ‘full circle’ moment, of course, but that game suffered from Xboxitis and a lack of the clearly defined chapters from 1 and 2.
  • Fallout 1 and 2: These classics stand out from the pack because both showed you the results of your actions throughout the plot in great detail, and the ending areas were far from trifles.
  • Chrono Trigger: I smile just thinking about this game.
  • GTA San Andreas: A memorable ending sequence, even though there is no good reason Samuel L. Jackson’s character should have lived more than 30 seconds from his first appearance.
  • FEAR: Ends well, in classic horror fashion, which resolves the anticlimax of a weak end boss.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: Immensely satisfying, whether Light or Dark.
  • Max Payne: The entire game is constructed around the ending, so it’s no shock that it works.
  • Hitman – Blood Money: Again, like Max Payne, a game designed around its ending. Contracts and Hitman 2 also use the same motif to good effect.
  • Homeworld: The storyline carries it more than the actual endpoint, as the entire game plays like the “33” episode of Battlestar Galactica – it is the resolution of the “our race is 30 seconds from extinction at any given moment” riff that works. Homeworld: Cataclysm also has that horrible sense of immediacy.
  • Chronicles of Riddick – Escape from Butcher Bay: Another standout, as the game plays with the concepts of beginnings and endings, creating numerous false climaxes and returning Riddick to his starting point in a series of Gilliamesque maneuvers.
  • Postal 2: Hey, it made me laugh.
  • Dragon’s Lair: One of the best endings ever, because of the blood, sweat, tears, and quarters involved getting there.
  • King’s Quest 3: Of all the Sierra AGI games, this one gave me the most sense of accomplishment.
  • Quest for Glory 2: Cancel that. There’s a better one. Despite the part where you have to wait around Raseir for three days for anything to happen, the ending battle versus Ad Avis is particularly memorable, and especially if you played paladin-style – serious heroics occur. The transition between the two cities is crucial for mood.
  • Conquests of Camelot: One of the first games that encouraged me to replay it to see what I’d missed.
  • Leisure Suit Larry: There’s something to be said about having simple goals in life.
  • King of Dragon Pass: Every ending of this game is rich and satisfying, particularly because it was my “story” – a story that I could dump to a giant text file if I wanted.
  • Deus Ex: I personally like the ‘destroy the internet’ option myself. The sequel is too nostalgic for the earlier game to have much identity in of itself.
  • Sword of the Samurai: Whether you died in disgrace along with your entire family, retired and became a Buddhist monk, or created a Shogunate that lasted 250 years, you know you did it in style in SOTS.
  • Trinity: Of all the old-school text adventures, you have to give Trinity the trophy for the best ending, hands-down. Another graduate of the Gilliam school.
  • Starflight 1 and 2: Both of these classic games have very minimalist endings. The ending of 1 is quite powerful, even though the game continues to be playable. That was the first time I had to make a tortured ethical choice, in true Ender’s Game fashion, in a game (and if you decide to destroy the Uhlek homeworld as well, two). The sheer difficulty of SF2 makes up for the sudden and weird ending screen that kicks immediately back to DOS.
  • Metroid: Most NES games had trouble with effective endings. This one did not.
  • Dragon Wars: That guy at the end was TOUGH. I don’t think anyone in my party had more than a few scraps of tissue left on their bones after, but that was ok, because we beat the bastard to death with our femurs.

Some of the worst endings I can think of:

  • Final Fantasy 7: Great game, but a terrifically obscure ending, reminiscent of Akira.
  • Knights of the Old Republic 2: Extremely disappointing, to say the least. The letdown from such high expectations was tremendous. The game never should have shipped in that state.
  • Morrowind: Dull, almost tediously so – the plot was flawed from the beginning and suffers often from who-cares disease despite the attention to detail. Oblivion’s ending is much more dramatic and fitting, even though the guild plots are more interesting than the main plot.
  • Boiling Point: An intriguing, GTA-influenced game right up to the ending, where it got completely ridiculous.
  • Half-Life 1 and 2: In the first game, the pacing is fantastic, but the aliens never did it for me, and especially the giant floating infant that failed to kick my ass in the end – all in all, a big downer. The X-Files vibe redeems it slightly. 2 is similar, a great game up to the frustrating, bizarre cliffhanger.
  • Planescape Torment: I anticipate most people that have played this game would disagree with me on this one. It’s a great game, certainly, one of the best CRPGs ever made. It’s tight. But the ending has never done it for me. Frankly, it makes me think of the ‘Dream Bobby’ ending to Dallas – a forced copout. I suppose I am a believer in redemption and it annoyed me that my character decided, after a great struggle NOT to just accept the decrees of fate, to just accept his fate. Dammit. It’s been years and I’m still upset.
  • All the Total War games: I love these games, but the endings of all the campaigns are tacked on. A little more effort to show, for example, the fate of the empire you’ve just created would be fantastic, as in Sword of the Samurai.
  • The Longest Journey 1 and 2: All those puzzles got me only watered-down mythology.
  • Wasteland: Another tough entry for me. Wasteland is the forerunner of many a PC game, and I’ve played it through more than once; but the ending is tedious, as the delightful human element of say, the armed-to-the-teeth monks, is replaced by cyborg this and cyborg that, and lasers replace AK-47s.
  • Interstate ’76 and ’82 – The first is a cool game with a bizarre ending; the second is a so-so game with a bizarre ending.

I could add dozens more to either list. I tried to avoid arcade-ish games because GAME OVER, while technically an ending, is not the kind of formal A WINNER IS YOU! sequence that I had in mind.

Games form contracts with me, whether they want to or not. I play the game, and in return, the game offers a story. If the story isn’t there, or it dies stillborn, then I insert my own; if there is not enough structure to hold my story, or the original “bad” story is too deeply embedded to ignore, then the game collapses. Dark Messiah did exactly that. I concocted much more interesting plotlines and whatnot in my head as I played, as the storyline was wanting. When the plot insisted on being present, even though it was silly and ultimately unnecessary (the levels themselves, absent of plot, were neat enough) then I became annoyed. Therefore, the ending, coming after many such moments of annoyance, blew.

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