Where To Begin With Endings?
SHARK: “Hope nobody blows me up before I can reveal I’m an undercover agent for the coastguard!”
Even as a fan of LOST, saying ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey‘ always sounds like a cop-out when it comes to defending endings. But, on the other hand, when I finish an enjoyable session of trampolining, I don’t then look around expectantly for a shocking twist or tear-jerking epilogue to the experience. In the recent wake of upset Mass Effect 3 fans raising money to raise awareness of how ‘bad’ the ending to the trilogy is (no spoilers please!), it can be difficult to gauge what audiences expect, want and actually need from an ending to find it rewarding.
With our own Nurse Quest: Love Hurts (in which you play as hapless Geoff Jefferson trying to contrive the perfect injury to impress the Nurse of your dreams) we received a few comments on the [adult swim] site that a couple of players felt let down by the ending. Without wanting to spoil how Geoff’s quest resolves itself, it’s fair to say that Geoff’s creators (our Tim and Russ) subscribe more to the British sitcom of your Basil Fawlty-esque hero sowing the seeds of their own downfall rather than when the Adam Sandler-style schlub who messes everything up but somehow ‘wins’ back his disproportionately better-than-him better half (probably Salma Hayek) in the final act.
Granted my own bias might be obvious in that last sentence but, in delivering a punchline, the secret is always going to be in a.) The Set-Up – so how do we ensure that the player is complicit in seeding Geoff’s downfall rather than genuinely trying to impress that Nurse? b.) The Timing – If we’re building towards a funny finish, how can we keep the player on track so you don’t get bored before the punchline but also not see it coming?
Whenever a script doctor is called into ‘fix the end’ on a film, they’ll usually say the problem with the end is the beginning and the middle. When crafting a story for any medium, you should never have to ‘come up with’ an ending, it should be the organic result of what has gone before – even in a story with multiple possible endings. Anyone can all tell when an ending feels tacked on. And, as a majority of games finish with cut-scenes once the game-play is over, maybe that’s the problem – that we’re getting too much information after the fact.
Looking at films like Jaws, Alien or Die Hard, it’s a matter of mere seconds between the final action of shark-detonation/airlock-blasting/Alan Rickman-shoving before the credits start to roll. The action is over = The film is over. So why is game storytelling any more complex? Perhaps because the end actions of a game aren’t currently satisfying enough so creators feel a need to throw some mud at the wall aftwards. Defeating a final big boss will only ever be satisfying on a game-play level unless you instigate its narrative significance earlier on. All it takes for us to know that Jaws is finished is that final shot of the sea rolling onto a beach looking all lovely and inviting instead of full of potential peril. It’s the same with Portal, you spend an entire game (spoiler!) trying to escape Aperture Science laboratories and being told one thing about a cake, then the closing shot (in the game’s only cut-scene) is of a lovely sunny outside world before you then see the truth about the aforementioned confectionery item.
Below is one of my favourite TED talks from 2007 by LOST‘s co-creator JJ Abrams (I warned you I was a fan). The whole talk is worth listening to, but in particular his section from ten minutes in discusses what films like Jaws and Die Hard are really about. In games (and, frankly, a lot of films) all the big beats like shark attacks and terrorist shootings are there – just not the little beats that make you care.
While the debate about whether stories belong in games at all rages on, I think there is an element to which audiences and game producers expect endings to magically either put everything into perspective or throw out some final shocking revelation that will subvert everything we know. But it’s very rare that one plot point can do this in isolation. The best endings – even the ones with big twists – are the ones that will have always felt inevitable.
So, if most games are about levelling up in some shape or form, how can we ensure our game stories escalate so that the final battle/cut-scene satisfies in the way that the blurb on the back of box made us buy it for? In the same way that movie car chases and fight scenes don’t work in isolation to character and theme, neither should game-play ever be separate from story. No one went to see Aliens because of the maternal subtext – and yet they are exactly why the final uber-showdown between Ripley in her power-loader (protecting surrogate-daughter Newt) and the Alien Queen (avenging her recently flame-throwered offspring) is so damn cool. And once the battle’s done, so is the story.
So now that Bioware have announced that they’re going to release a new ending for the much maligned Mass Effect 3, it’ll be interesting to see if directly giving people what they want/think they want will actually please anyone either.
(For Alternate Endings, perhaps read Gamasutra’s The Generational Shift in Interactive Storytelling and Edge’s Opinion: Your Play Brain And You :))