Friday, September 25, 2009

Life is a Series of Down Endings

Lately I've been thinking a lot about game endings and how they aren't living up to expectations. I'm the type of gamer who goes out of his way to beat a game if I start it. I want to know how the story goes, no matter how insipid it is. However, I find myself being more and more frustrated with video game endings. Most of them end predictably. Or they end with a horrible cliffhanger that has no closure, all in the name of the all-mighty sequel.

Why don't we see more ambiguous or downer endings in games? These sorts of endings are prevalent in film and novels. Blade Runner spawned the debate on whether Deckard was a replicant or not for many years. 2001: A Space Odyssey's surreal ending has confused generations of people. 12 Monkeys and Se7en have two of my favorite endings in film history, both with protagonist "losing" in the end.

So why not games? Does player agency mean that players are unwilling to accept that their actions could still not save the day? Or are we, as an industry, too immature to know how to pull off a sad ending? Or do we just lack a set of balls?

We need to explore concepts further such as sacrifice, symbolism, tragedy, fate, inevitability, and failure in our games. We should be willing to do something outlandish that will cause players to talk about the game and consider the ramifications of what they just experienced. We shouldn't be scared to incite outcry in players, just to sell sequels. We don't do these things to anger and piss off players, but rather to push players to new levels of understanding. Life, after all, is a series of down endings if you believe Dante from Clerks.

Of course downer endings can also backfire. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld.

12 comments:

  1. Braid.
    Starcraft.
    Portal. (I think Chell dies)
    Shadow of the Colossus.

    There are probably more, but if I can name that many good games with sad/unclear endings off the top of my head it seems to me like you can't really claim that "the industry" is too immature or timid.

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  2. You named 4 out of how many THOUSANDS of games? Look at the grand scheme. 90+% of games are happy endings or "set up the sequel" endings. We need to mature from a storytelling perspective and stop setting things up so blatantly.

    Also Portal wasn't a downer. Chell was not dead.

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  3. I couldn't agree more, M.

    I was positively surprised when reaching the final pages of the Dragon Age: Origins-novel, The Stolen Throne, by David Gaider. It was a whole lot messier than I'd expect from a fantasy novel, and it wasn't either black or white, but a blurry, weird grey - in a good sence that is. I'm rather excited to see how BioWare will handle the ending(s) of that game.

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  4. What about Wolfenstein?

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  5. "You named 4 out of how many THOUSANDS of games?"

    But, to be fair to games, you named 4 films out of how many thousand of films that end happily. I think the reason is, most people prefer happy endings. I agree that many video game endings are stupid, but as a gamer, I would find it frustrating that no matter how well I play, I still fail.

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  6. In any multiplayer game, one side generally wins, the other loses. You could argue that every multi-player game has a downer ending. The big difference between downer endings in games and downer endings in movies is that in movies, downer endings result in despair. In games, they result in learning.

    One major problem with downer endings is that it takes away the player's volition. To list an exception, imagine that the Andrew Ryan golf club bit was the ending to Bioshock. This would be a downer ending, and it kind of makes sense because you're not in control of your character. However, I don't know how many games can do the whole "yeah as it turns out you're being controlled by someone else" and not have it turn out to be as cheap as a "And then I woke up" ending in books.

    Unless you force a player to take an unfavourable action (bad) or give them an unexpected twist as a consequence of their actions (also bad) or just hope that they'll give themselves a bad ending (err... yeah) you can't actually give a player a bad ending. Case in point: the game you mentioned where you have to escort a ship and work your butt off to ensure it doesn't get blown up, and it gets blown up in the cinematic anyway. You know what they say, you can lead a gamer to a bad ending but you can't make them press X.

    Another thing to think about is, in a movie, there's only one ending. In a game, any time a player does something to die is a downer ending. After a lot of dying and then learning NOT to die, a player would probably be fairly pissed off if they DIDN'T have a happy ending.

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  7. I think you just set yourself a goal for your next game.

    Also I think comments may need a spoiler warning. I haven't finished Braid or Shadow of the Colossus.

    And yes Chell is alive at the end. Valve stated that she just passes out from sheer exhaustion at the end.

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  8. While cliffhangers get no quarter, 'good endings' are simply the consequence of victory-based mechanics. If I'm running around some game as a guy with a gun, and the game validates me every time I blow someone up, and punishes me every time I get blown up, then I can draw only one reasonable conclusion about how the game -should- end: I blow everyone up and don't get blown up. Typical "happy" ending.

    Show me a game where the hero's failure is interesting and enjoyable on a mechanical level, and I'll show you a game that can -afford- to have a satisfying downer ending.

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  10. It is totally true; life is series of down endings and we must learn to get over situations and continue with our lives.

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