In the age of sequels, spin-offs and re-releases we find ourselves in true endings to games are becoming increasingly rare. AAA titles will always have an eye towards a sequel or another instalment, often at the cost of a succinct narrative that ends satisfactorily. Story-first games have gone some way to alleviate this problem, focusing on narrative elements rather than gameplay, however they are still mostly in the minority. More interestingly though are the games which don’t have the Hollywood ending that many have come to expect and are incorrectly labelled as ending poorly. It’s these kinds of games which challenge our preconceived ideas about what it means for something to end well versus it ending nicely.
To illustrate my point I want to show you two examples of games where the ending wasn’t Hollywoodized but one was well executed whilst the other was not (and there will be MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS for both). The first being probably one of the most lamented endings in recent gaming history: Mass Effect 3. The second being one of the more sleeper hits of its time, well known as being a standout IP among story-first gamers: Red Dead Redemption. Both of these games share a commonality in that their ending was tragic, leaving you feel like you were done a great injustice by the eventual outcome, however the former did so in a way that was incongruent to the rest of the story whilst the latter was the bitter conclusion that was built up over the entire game.
Mass Effect’s story, and the effect you could have on it, was the selling point that attracted many gamers to the franchise. You could sculpt Shepard, both literally and figuratively, into the character that you wanted them to be. Decisions you made echoed throughout the whole storyline and you had to bear the weight of their outcomes whether they were what you intended or not. The ultimate (and original, I won’t talk about the DLC’s efforts to remedy the issues) ending however threw all of this away, that burden you carried through the entire game cast aside in favour of an endotron 3000 deus ex machina that asked you to choose one of three possible outcomes. Fans of the series weren’t upset at the fact that the Mass Effect trilogy was coming to an end, we all knew what we were in for from the start, we were upset that so much of what we built up meant nothing in the end.
Shepard was also not built up to be a tragic hero. Sure there are many tough decisions you had to make along the way, many of which resulted in dire consequences, however central to this was the fact that Shepard was able to overcome them all. His untimely end (or weirdly lack thereof for one ending which made little sense) was completely out of line with the character that had been built up to that point. There was every chance to start moulding Shepard for such a fate from the first title, heck even the final instalment had ample opportunity to do so, but the Starchild ending fell flat because it was a round hole solution to the square peg of Shepard.
John Marston, on the other hand, is a tragic hero character who’s incredibly sad story was built up from the opening scene. From the very beginning you know that Marston has a past that he’s trying to escape from but it’s catching up to him faster than he can run. There are moments where you think everything is going to work out, small glimmers of hope that this next thing will set him free, but they all come back around eventually. The entire story is one of struggle against himself, his past and the future he’s trying to build for his family and the sacrifices he needs to make in order for this to happen.
The ultimate ending, one which I replayed several times over in the hopes that there was some way I could overcome the odds, is the end the ultimate conclusion that had been built up over the course of the entire game. It’s not the ending I wanted (as the anger I felt at the end will attest) but it was the ending the story needed. Should they have strayed away from it, instead allowing Marston to live on with his past no longer bearing over him, that would be completely ruin him as a character. I might not have felt great after it happened but it was one of those endings that stuck with me long after the console was off and made me question how I felt about the whole story and not just its conclusion.
As you’ve likely picked up on the crux of what makes an ending good or bad, regardless of what emotional state it leaves you in, is whether or not the story has been built up to service its conclusion. This isn’t something that’s unique to video games either but its something that’s been given new light with the medium. As the medium matures we will increasingly see titles that buck the Hollywood happy ending trend and we’ll have to continually ask ourselves what it means for a game to end well. One thing will remain certain though; the conclusion to a story must be supported by all that preceded it.