When Good Games End Poorly
As I write this, I am not yet a full day removed from completing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat, the third and final entry in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise. Right now I should be feeling a sense of accomplishment, thinking back on the amazing gameplay and atmosphere, and I also should be perusing my ever-expanding game collection to see which game I’m going to tackle next. I would usually feel these things, but today I am not, because Call of Pripyat doesn’t have an ending.
Technically, it does – the game’s story does come to an end, and the player can even choose to keep playing past that end, to complete any unfinished quests. But to call what happens at the end of the game an actual ending is to misunderstand how narratives work. Call of Pripyat ends, but there is no falling action, no denouement, no resolution. The game moves along, introducing new mysteries and plot threads, and then it all abruptly ends with a series of postcard-style images that remind the player of everything they did in the game, similar to the ending of Fallout 3.
As frustrating as this is, Call of Pripyat isn’t the first video game to have a less-than-stellar ending (it’s not even the first game I’ve played this year to suffer from this). Many games, even some considered classics, have endings that come out of nowhere, or endings that fail to deliver the emotional payoff they have been building up to. It’s not an easy task to perfectly wrap up a story – every narrative-driven medium suffers from rushed endings or emotionally flat ones, but in video games it is commonplace. But the even bigger problem is that it seems to be tolerated – a quick Google search shows that fans of Call of Pripyat have a mostly negative reaction to the ending, but shrug it off, almost as if that’s the price gamers have to pay in order to get a game that plays well and has great atmosphere. But this shouldn’t be accepted, and gamers should demand more.
Finite Time and Money
In a more ideal world (at least more ideal for video game development), time and money would be infinite resources. Games would be released only when everyone on the development team agreed the game was finished, and publishers wouldn’t worry about recouping their investments. Of course, for better and for worse, video game development is guided by these two finite resources, which also happen to be the biggest contributors to the abrupt ending.
When I think of abrupt endings, as in endings that seem to end mid-scene, that abandon plot threads and characters with a sort of demented glee, I think of three sequels – Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, Halo 2 and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that sequels often suffer the most from this – publishers are eager to capitalize on the success of the first game, and developers can be pressured into rushing out unfinished games to meet a holiday deadline. This is exactly what happened to Knights of the Old Republic II – after defeating the final boss, and with the fate of many characters still unknown, this was the final scene gamers witnessed:
There are no shots of the characters, no voiceovers explaining what has happened. The above video is one minute and forty seconds long, but the cutscene only lasts for the first minute, before the credits roll. Of those sixty seconds, twenty of them are spent watching the player’s ship fly away, heading toward nothing of note. Twenty seconds of flying, which is something all ships do, and then fade to credits.
But what can be done? If publishers demand a release (as was the case with Halo 2), or if resources run thin (The Witcher 2’s problem), how can developers make sure their games stay in development long enough to ensure a proper ending?
The biggest obstacle for developers and publishers seems to be that they feel the need to provide enough content to justify the purchase of their game, and as a result many side-quests and collectibles are included to help pad the length. But these elements take up resources and shift the focus away from the narrative and ending. Much of this content can, generously, be called filler, and it exists simply to ensure games meet some random requirement for playtime. Trying to obtain an ideal game length is taking resources away from areas that are far more important. After all, there are numerous side-quests in both The Witcher 2 and Knights of the Old Republic II, but the lasting impression each game has had on millions of gamers is how abrupt their endings were.
This problem is especially frustrating because there are games that do not offer filler or extra padding that are memorable and successful because of their stories, especially their endings. Spec Ops: The Line can be completed in five hours, but every second of that game worked toward building up an intense, allegory-laden story that paid off with a dynamite conclusion. There are a few collectibles the player can obtain along the way, but developer Yager Development put most of them out in the open, and many of these items provide background information that enhances the story. There was no filler – it’s total playtime was indeed very short, but it avoided all of the backlash an abrupt ending can have and the negative connotations that come along with it. Because resources were allocated toward story and not toward unnecessary distractions, Spec Ops: The Line ended up being better than any of the three games listed above.
Sometimes the issue with an ending isn’t that it suddenly ends, but rather that is builds up to a proper ending that simply fails to connect to audiences. One could argue that this is often due to the same reasons discussed above with abrupt endings, but there are specific games that seem to have been given the right amount of funding, and properly build up to a conclusion, only to have the ending come and go just long enough to leave players scratching their heads. One of those endings, and one of the most baffling endings I’ve ever seen, is the ending to Far Cry 3. There are many issues with how the story and characters are presented, which we have covered in-depth before, but at least the game tried to stay tonally consistent throughout – players took on the role of Jason Brody, a spoiled rich kid on a permanent vacation, who gets stranded on an island caught up in a war. Throughout the game, there are two stories at work – the first is Jason desperately trying to save his friends, and the second is Jason unlocking his inner strength and embracing his role as a warrior in order to save his friends. When the game comes to its end, the player has to make a choice, but both choices betray the entire point of the game:
To summarize, the leader of the resistance on the island, a woman named Citra, has captured all of Jason’s friends, the same ones he spent rescuing throughout the entire game, and makes the player decide – stay with Citra and kill your friends, or rescue your friends and leave the island. It’s never made clear why Jason has to kill his friends in order to embrace being a true warrior, and rescuing his friends has been his goal from the beginning. To further disconnect the ending from the story, if for some reason the player chooses to kill Jason’s friends, the next shot is a first-person view of Jason having sex with Citra, who promptly kills him when they are finished. After watching the ending multiple times, it still doesn’t connect to the themes of the story.
Even some games I hold in high regard feature endings that left me wondering if the developers had even played their own game. Deus Ex: Human Revolution weaves a tale of conspiracy theories, espionage, lies and betrayal, all playing out in front of a high-tech, science fiction future. An emphasis is placed on player choices – throughout the game, the player makes decisions big and small that have a direct impact on the world, and even the smallest side-quests have resolutions. Every little choice leading up to the game’s climax matters, but the final choice players must make (of which there are four options) once again betrays the style, tone and narrative:
To begin, none of these endings provide resolution to the characters – they each give a very top-level overview of how each choice affected the entire planet. It’s difficult to feel an emotional connection to a decision when the player cannot see how it impacted characters they grew to know over the twenty hours the game takes to complete. Secondly, each ending is so similar that it betrays the game’s very own notion that player choice matters – in the end, we all get nearly identical looking cutscenes (literally reusing the same images over all four endings). Finally, even the style of the ending cutscenes betrays the neo-noir sci-fi style used throughout the rest of the game – at no point did the game resort to using generic shots of real life, such as a fly-over of a glacier or a setting sun, yet all endings use this style, increasing that disconnect.
A game’s ending should not only reward the player, but stay tonally consistent. Both of these examples abandoned the formula established in their very own game. The problem isn’t that they are abrupt – the problem is that, within their own worlds, they make little sense.
The best solution to this is to view and understand an ending that stayed consistent and provided resolution to the characters and story elements that mattered. On paper, the ending to Alan Wake may seem to fit the criteria of a bad ending – it’s short, abrupt and raises more questions than it provides answers. Yet the ending works because it’s tonally consistent with the themes, style and narrative established in the game, and most importantly it provides resolution to key characters – the player spends the whole game trying to rescue Alan’s wife Alice, and the player succeeds in doing this by the end. Not only that, the final cutscene shows how Alan’s actions impacted the town of Bright Falls, which plays host to many characters gamers grew to love over the course of the game, especially the Old Gods of Asgard:
Alan Wake’s ending works because of its resolution, which provides enough answers to satisfy, yet still leaves plenty mystery for a potential sequel. In doing so, the ending keeps its emotional payoff, while games like Far Cry 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are marred by their flat, inconsistent endings.
Better Gaming Through Planning
With better planning and attention to detail, games can have endings that live up to the potential of the medium, endings that stick with the player and demonstrate what makes video games truly unique. Poor, rushed endings are not something gamers should have to tolerate to get good gameplay – they should be able to expect both.
When an ending fails, the lasting impact it leaves on the game (and potentially the entire franchise) may be too much for any developer to overcome. I know that when I’m looking to start up a new game down the road, and I browse through my Steam library and reach the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, I’m going to have mixed emotions. On the one hand, the gameplay and atmosphere is incredible. But then I’ll think about Call of Pripyat, and how thirty-four hours of my time was spent exploring secret, abandoned laboratories, building toward a reveal two games in the making, only to have the game come to a sudden and anti-climactic ending. And, sadly, that will probably be enough for me to pass on experiencing what was otherwise a great game, and move on to something else.