While narrative has taken on a larger role, time and again we end up being left unsatisfied in the final moments with endings that fail to wrap up stories in interesting or compelling ways. In our continuing week-long feature, we asked our diverse collection of industry personalities why so many endings in the games we play leave us cold.
Endings can be difficult. On the one hand, the expectations that the players are building can be difficult if not outright impossible to resolve in a satisfying way. I've seen many players disappointed that an ending "cut them off" from continuing to play, even without a guiding story or further changes to the world. While I doubt that would be as satisfying as they think it might be, I suspect that the feeling comes from a desire to see their personal narrative continue even if the story's narrative ends. They're involved in their character's fate and they don't want to see it end. Endings suck.
On the other hand, endings also tend to get the shaft when it comes to development time. It would be nice if we could go and do the ending earlier in development so that it's as complete and polished as every other part of the game, but that just never happens. As much as you might plan something out, things are always going to change as development goes on.
"The most unsatisfying case is when games leave resolution of major conflicts to the ending. I'm talking about Final Fantasy VII."
There are, no doubt, other reasons as well. Sometimes there is a desire to leave things open-ended for a sequel. Sometimes you provide the player with choices that are cool for them to make but don't actually lead to satisfying conclusions. Heck, sometimes it's just a case of forgetting that good stories don't end at the climax – a book doesn't just stop when the heroes slay the dragon, with a quick one-page summary of the celebration. I think there is a need for some denouement, some wrapping up of the other narrative elements. Not every player was there just to kill the dragon, after all. They had relationships and smaller plots that engaged them, and those need in-game resolution too even if there isn't an exciting combat around every corner any more.
Endings are tough for any writer, no matter the format. The root problem is usually lack of talent, time, or imagination, and/or the impossibility of resolving audience expectations. If someone sits through an entire movie, years of a television series, hundreds of pages of a novel, or a game through its completion, it's near impossible to meet all of their expectations.
Telling stories in games are hard. Consider that a game is an 8-24 hours experience. When did you see a interesting and compelling 8-24 hour movie last? Games have to finds its own way of telling stories, instead of relying on old methods from other mediums. The problem is that movies are so standard it's a hard thing to change.
It could be a couple of reasons, each game is different. The most honest one, that I'm sure players don't want to hear, is that the developers ran out of time/money to pull of the ending to the same level or excellence as the rest of the game. We often build games in a linear fashion. This means the majority of time and energy is spent up front and the later levels gain the benefit of developer experience with the tools, assets and gameplay, but lose out on the polish time.
A more highbrow reason might be that the final moments are meant as a catharsis for the players. In other traditional forms of media (books, movies, tv) this is a very passive act. You're a viewer, not a player. The experience is meant to wash over you and draw out all of the emotions you've kept bottled up. It's something that happens to you. This is completely contradictory to the media of games. In games, you're greatest cathartic moments are from doing something amazing. This may be something that the game industry struggles with in order to find the balance between the player experiencing catharsis in their final moments while still participating in those moments.
The biggest challenge of telling story with a game is that the game merges participant with protagonist. Within fiction, the failure of the protagonist is something to build on, bringing along the reader in the process. In games, the options you can present are a lot more limited. As a result, a lot of potential plot lines are not available, and it is difficult to break away from traditional endings.
It's a lot easier to build something up than to conclude it whether this be in a book, a movie or a game. How often have we read a story where the villain is built up to be unstoppable only to be brought low by some piddly gimmick at the very end? That's one of the reasons why I tend to prefer epic-driven stories rather than character-driven stories.
Sometimes it's just being overly ambitious with the story. There's a minefield that a story has to go through to reach the end of a project that has nothing to do with how well it's written. Technical challenges, schedule, budget, contracts, and a host of other things can sometimes reach out from nowhere and effectively gobble up a chunk of your story. Sometimes it happens because you've written yourself in a corner, allowing you no flexibility to roll with the punches that come during development. Sometimes story hasn't been enough of a priority.
Development of a game is not simple. Things change constantly throughout the development process, even with the best of planning and intentions. Changes to the levels and characters mean changes to the script and then consequently the Voice Over. Change is expensive. Games reach a point in the process where there is no going back for more time or more money. This is one reason why endings suffer. Another would be lack of creativity or the desire to come up with something compelling. Some think there is nothing new under the sun, so why bother. I don't agree with that but from a financial standpoint I can understand why some people would not want to fund such attempts.
I think for the most part it is due to inexperienced writers creating the stories for games. A lot of game designers may be good story tellers, but may not be good writers or have the ability to effectively implement the details of the story from their head into the game experience as well as a professional writer. It is important for the narrative and gameplay to meld as one, but the craft of writing should be trusted to those who have chosen writing as their dedicated field.
This is how we approached the story with Moon; the Renegade Kid team created the story concept - and identified the key moments of the player's journey - and took a first stab at the story. We then handed it over to professional writers James McDonough and Adam Patyk (Hellboy, Transformers and much more) of THE ENEMY to give it some professional love and experience.
Tom Gaubatz, producer for publisher Mastiff
It's as much commercially driven as anything else. Most games go unfinished by most people, and as a developer you want to spend your resources on the parts of the game that the most people will see. That usually means polishing the gameplay instead of tightening the ending. When schedules get tight, endings are the first to suffer. It's a shame, but it's much better that way than the other way around.
It's also inherent to the medium. The core conflicts should be resolved by the player's agency, and that doesn't leave much for the ending to do. The most unsatisfying case is when games leave resolution of major conflicts to the ending. I'm talking about Final Fantasy VII.
That's exactly the kind of thing we wanted to avoid with Moon. The game provides good closure, and by the time you defeat the final boss, all you need to do is sit back and consider yourself a hero. Of course, we went out of our way in the ending to leave players hanging on a few loose ends...
Put differently, I don't think that the ending should bear the responsibility of tying up the story. That should be a part of the gameplay experience. The best endings to me have almost no narrative content. They provide an aesthetic reward that lets you reflect back on your experience with the game. Mega Man 2 is probably the best ending of any game, period.