If you’re in the habit of playing video games to completion, you’ve probably been disappointed in at least one game’s ending. For all the memorable virtual worlds and fictional characters I’ve interacted with, I can count on one hand the number of titles I’ve played in which the game’s ending matched the quality of the rest of the title.
AOL-owned blog Joystiq has a great look at the phenomenon. In a piece titled, “Telling Stories: What’s Up With Lame Endings?” blogger Jason Dobson asks a number of game-industry types about why so many great narratives end with a whimper, not a bang. The answers — namely that developers often save the ending for last, when they’re under heavy pressure to hit a deadline — aren’t a surprise. But it’s nice to see the people who make games talk so candidly about one of their medium’s greatest shortcomings.
Looking back at my Xbox 360 “games played” list, I see only two titles, “Braid” and “Portal,” with conclusions that amazed me, and those were both very short titles, designed to be completed in a few hours’ time. There are a few longer titles (“BioShock,” “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” and “Dead Rising”) with competant endings that didn’t quite live up to the rest of the games’ writing.
“The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” is a bit tricky in that the game’s various factions each have an end quest, yet the open-world game never truly “ends” because you can keep playing even after you’ve finished the core story. In that sense, there are about six or seven different “endings” you can experience. The ending for the game’s core story is decent in the “BioShock” sense, but the quest that wraps up the Thieves Guild story can take its place among the best gaming stories ever told.
Reflecting back on the rest of the list (as well as the non-Xbox 360 titles I’ve played over the past few years), it’s dominated by endings that seemed poorly planned (“Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords”) or hastily put together (“Dead Space”). Even worse are cliffhanger endings that build toward an inevitable sequel (“Halo 2”), or, worst of all, tease sequels that never materialize due to poor sales (“Psychonauts” and, until a sequel was recently announced, 2003’s “Beyond Good & Evil”).
It’s nice to think that as the medium matures, game developers will take these common storytelling pitfalls to heart while crafting their narratives. Then again, as Tom Gaubatz of game publisher Mastiff says, many players will never reach a game’s ending. Why pour a bunch of resources into something nobody will see? We’ll just have to hope the satisfaction of a job well done is motiviation enough.