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Not so happily ever after…

March 29, 2012 7 comments

There are most definitely spoilers in this post. If you’ve somehow time travelled here from 2007 (we don’t have lightsabers yet, so you may wish to keep right on going) and haven’t played Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption or Halo: Reach, consider yourself forewarned. 

You know what I’d like to see more of? Not-so-happy endings. We’re inundated with games that close with the hero riding off into the sunset, enemy vanquished and glory won (or the contextually appropriate equivalent) – what we don’t have a lot of are games whose endings are ambiguous, sad, concerning or frightening. This is a shame, because these tend to be the endings that provoke thought, evoke emotion and result in interesting discussion. Granted, they’re less immediately gratifying, more challenging and require more thought to appreciate, but thats definitely a trade I’m in favour of. Having played through countless ‘hero saves the day’ stories, I’ve had enough of knowing from the outset how everything’s going to turn out, with only the resolution of some nebulous details to keep me engaged. Don’t you get greater engagement and enjoyment from games with some measure of real risk in the story, without the safety net of a guaranteed fairy tale conclusion?

Red Dead Redemption

You know what isn't going to end well? This.

This is not, of course, an issue confined to video games (if the uproar over the ending of The Sopranos is anything to go by), although as a medium it does have a couple of characteristics that serve to make devastating twist endings less palatable. There are the positive emotions associated with besting challenges, defeating evil and powerful heroes, each a strong influence on storytelling, and relatedly, the idea that challenges require the anticipation of reward to motivate a player’s desire to overcome them. Unique to the gaming format however is the player’s involvement in driving the story, and the subsequent need to foster a sense of personal achievement when the story concludes. (I would also speculate that the majority of multiplayer gaming is strongly pushing the message that only victory is valuable, and losers are to be taunted, booed and teabagged in a manner befitting their station as, well, losers.)

The combination of these things has resulted in a lot of under-explored potential in certain areas of gaming – areas that aren’t necessarily about short term gratification, or that challenge some of our comfortable expectations – and I’d really like to see more happen with them. Dark Souls showed us that a confronting level of difficulty can result in an immensely rewarding experience. Heavy Rain proved that a confronting story line focusing on deeply flawed characters and relationships can make an impressive game, even if the action is infrequent and awkward. Alongside these, what I’d really like to see is more games confronting us with complex, layered, and not necessarily positive endings. As the medium, the content and the storytelling matures, shouldn’t we have more games that explore the effects of all the mayhem games take us through, rather than solely concentrating on ever more inventive ways to make that mayhem more fun?

Not that its rainbows and maypole dancing across the board – there are a few recent examples of endings that, even if the good guys ultimately triumphed, at least went out ensuring that the protagonist (and the player) didn’t get off scott free, and provoked a thought or two in the process. There is however, enormous room to expand on and experiment in this space, and these are a few examples that suggest there’s at least a willingness to do so, and an appetite for the results.

I know a few people who hated the end of Halo: Reach. Not the poignant ‘series-comes-full-circle-while-heroic-music-swells’ part, but the epilogue where you live out Noble 6’s futile final moments against a vengeful Covenant horde. I loved it. I mean, I didn’t enjoy it – as a gaming experience, its very frustrating to fight battles you can’t win, and more so to see the permanent death of a character you’ve inhabited for a dozen hours – but it was an extremely relevant way to end an uncharacteristically dark story, and a satisfying conclusion to Reach’s grim story. Too often do we see characters make a noble sacrifice of themselves (Reach does not represent Bungie’s subtler name choices, I’ll grant you), but we’re only exposed to the stirring, heroic gesture, shown as a few seconds as the person in question bravely readies themselves for death with a macho roar or stoic, defiant silence.

Gears of War

Heroic sacrifice is something these gentlemen are very familiar with.

What we don’t often see is that this sacrifice, presented so positively and so cleanly, must actually result in a desperate, panicked final struggle, ending with the hero overwhelmed and dying alone. Rarer still is the opportunity to actually play out this futile demise from the character’s perspective. By this stage of most games we’ve already moved on with the protagonist, our minds focused on finishing the job enabled by our companions death, shielded from the unpleasant details. This is fine – some of the time – but Reach did a great job of showing that by forcing on the player the harsh, lonely final moments of Noble 6, a much more emotionally impactful ending is created. Clever though it was to tie the final seconds of reach to the opening seconds of the original, it wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact had we not been forced to live out Noble 6’s death, but instead had a last glimpse of him standing victorious at the shipyard as the Pillar of Autumn fled the planet, his eventual fate only implied.

Though effective, the Reach example is still a sort of ‘happy ending by proxy’ – dovetailing as it does into the beginning of the Halo story, what should be a wrenchingly desolate conclusion is diluted by the knowledge that we know the story of the larger series turns out all right in the end.

There was no such assured future for John Marston – indeed, the amazing final conclusion to Red Dead Redemption can’t exist without the betrayal and death of the protagonist, culminating in one of the most surprising and emotionally deflating pseudo-endings in gaming. Further, the impact of this is largely created by the lengthy, out of character (and lets face it, anticlimactic) final missions – the exploration of the changing nature of his relationship with his wife and son, capping off the titular redemption you’ve been progressing towards for so long. Yes, this pedestrian errand running and son-raising, culminating in the death of the hero is challenging as a gamer – we expect final game missions to be bigger, crazier and more explosion-filled than anything thats gone before. And yes, it does feel unfair after your many (many) hours of adventuring, and the misdirecting tone set by the game that indeed, everything was going to turn out alright. Importantly though, it feels unfair within the world of the story – unfair on the characters, not on the player – this distinction is important in delivering the sense of emotional importance that elevates Red Dead Redemption above being merely an impeccably executed GTA: Cowboys. Even this example is still a happy ending of sorts though – Marston dies redeemed, and his death is avenged shortly afterwards – the loose ends are tied up, the questions are answered. So how would a game take this concept further?

The obvious answer is through the use of multiple endings. Heavy Rain is a good example – in addition to the ‘super amazing’ ending where everyone lives happily ever after, there is an alternative which sees the bad guy win, and several other variations in which a mixture of good and terrible things happen as well. These evoke varying levels of sadness or disappointment, and leave different threads of the story unresolved, but all are thought provoking, guilt inducing and frustrating experiences. Importantly, Heavy Rain doesn’t hold your hand overmuch and lead you towards the good ending – although it isn’t difficult to achieve, as a general rule the game doesn’t go out of its way avoid giving you one of the bittersweet or openly depressing endings, if thats what you’ve earned. That’s one of the key things that could be taken further by other such games, in my mind – each ending needs to be treated as legitimate and canonical, as far as possible. The major issue with most multiple endings right now is that there’s usually a clear ‘real’ ending which the game does its utmost to steer you towards, with the other endings seemingly added to bolster the illusion of permanent choice for the player.

Heavy Rain

When your story contains this scene as well as killing off most of the principal characters, there's a limit to how happily everything can turn out.

Beyond augmenting the ‘real’ ending with a few sad or ambiguous ones, I think even games that employ a single ending could take a lesson from all this – the more story driven the game is, the more likely I am to be interested in and satisfied with a conclusion thats bittersweet, or outright bitter. The caveat to this is that however the story ends, it needs to be in keeping with the game world and the  established tone (I’m not suggesting the next Mario game take its plot conclusion cues from Hamlet, but I’d love to play a game that does), which is why Reach and Heavy Rain are great vehicles for a grim denouement. So many stories I’ve played have these big uplifting finales because the leader of the bad guys is dead, despite the fact that the world is still in flames, the protagonist should be devastatingly traumatised, and the piled corpses of my allies block out the sun. Plot based games are almost always better when they have a point and a meaning beyond the action, and the ending should be one of the most powerful places to explore this. Sadly consequence, reality and the meaning attached to them often trail off in the final act in favour of the happy ending, as if that is required as a reward to the gamer for completion.

Where do you stand? Do you like your endings to resolve all the conflicts, answer all the questions and shower you in glory? Do you feel the ‘good’ ending is your reward for besting challenges and overcoming everything the game’s thrown at you, or is an engaging, challenging (or just different) story sufficient reward in itself, even if it ends in tears?

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