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Videogame endings are terrible. There are exceptions, but I'd hardly call them numerous enough to uphold a statement to the contrary. Here are some of the things games often provide:

A. A final boss difficulty spike,
B. An unsatisfying plot resolution,
C. No plot resolution (the cliff hanger),
D. An underwhelming final boss (‘is that it?’).

One – or a combination – of these occurs for several reasons. The most apparent is that there simply is not the talent available to pen a satisfactory conclusion. It takes skill to orchestrate a well-paced storyline: riveting, winding, unnoticeably and rhythmically rousing to a fitting endgame designed to leave the player watching the credits with fulfilment. Games are, after all, interactive experiences. Time and money is invested in the pursuit of something enjoyable to play, making the mechanics solid, the levels intuitive to navigate, the physics pleasingly malleable. Script-writing is pretty far down the list of priorities.

This is the first glaring oversight the games industry is guilty of:

GLARING OVERSIGHT #1: GOOD STORYTELLING MAKES MORE ENJOYABLE GAMEPLAY.

Though we are all by no means incapable of having fun saving the planet from the evil, ugly invading space armadas of the lizard people of Überia IV, emotional investment in a story (be it likeable characters, an intriguing situation and plight, eagerness to see how it turns out) would only heighten the enjoyment of blasting through the toughest Überia has to offer .

This isn’t simply theory – ample proof is provided through games that are of the rare breed composed of good storytellers. You may be able to count their number on your digits were you willing to remove your socks, but a decent number of those titles on your fingers and piggies are gosh darn excellent games, and even the underachievers are often fondly remembered among gamers for their excellent writing.

It's a visual metaphor.The process that guides games through their creation is also possibly somewhat to blame. Let’s look at this by first checking off the steps that go towards a movie reaching the wrap party-stage. Numero uno: pitch a script. Okay, that’s far enough. Let’s contrast that with the steps that go towards a game reaching completion. Number one: number ooooone.... nummmmberrr... oh, sod it, I don’t know. That’s my own ignorance. I’ve seen interviews and heard commentaries, and more often than not it involves a person saying something along the lines of, ‘I had an idea for a game that took place on/in/at...’ or ‘I wanted to do something that would take advantage of...’

I have never heard a game developer profess to starting production on a title because he wanted to tell a story. Why would he? He’d be in the wrong industry. Get him writing movie scripts already.

I admit, this is speculation, but I think that the intentions of developers generally deviate from the ambition to grab an audience based on their game’s story, which is why the blurb on the back of boxes often says things like:

• Fight through [a big number of] thrilling missions!
• Shoot things with [a vast sum of] noisy guns!
• Kill enemies using [a relatively large amount of] bone-crunching moves!
• GRAPHICS!

The closest we normally come to seeing a game plug its plotting is when the latest Japanese RPG’s box witters excitedly over its redundant, painfully long pre-rendered cut scenes wherein the under-nourished pre-pubescent characters woodenly gibber at one another.

Another one.So, often, assuming a game possesses any plot whatsoever, it’s likely to be shoehorned in at a late stage to wrap a narrative around an already largely-laid out game, the linear progression of which has already been decided in an environment devoid of context (and in extreme instances, such as Mirror's Edge, after the levels had already been built¹). At the very least, the script’s first priority (ahead of actually being any good) is to allow the developers to take players to locations and through game elements and set pieces that are enjoyable to experience. So you may, as a writer, be tasked with penning something that takes the game to, for example, a jungle environment even though there is no necessary narrative reason to do so, but the artists and programmers really want to show off their engine’s impressive lighting and foliage effects.

GLARING OVERSIGHT #2: BEING SOMEWHERE BECAUSE IT’S NARRATIVELY COMPELLING TO BE THERE IMPROVES THE ATMOSPHERE.

There is also, historically, a tendency for games to degenerate as they near their coda. This isn’t purely a storytelling issue but one that affects multiple aspects of development. There are two ways I see this manifesting:

1. Fewer resources are devoted to the later levels of the game.
2. The game has out-stayed its welcome.

More metaphors! MOOOORE! MUAHAHAHA!The latter is very straightforward. The game’s makers have run out of new and exciting ways to entertain the player, and so as the play-time increases the introduction of new monsters, weaponry and environments dries up. Alternatively, the perception has arisen that the game is too short to the point where it will be noticed and pointed out by critics and consumers, and some artificial lengthening takes place to add an hour or two to the clock; drop in a vehicle section, wedge a few extra corridors between set pieces, and, possibly, if the developers are particularly malevolent or stupid, we may even get a bit of delightful back-tracking. Regardless of the methods, as time goes by the experience stops being fun and becomes a despairing grind.

The former way has repercussions on all aspects of development, not simply the standard of writing. The logic is this: 100% of players will see the game’s opening, but as the game progresses that percentage starts to fall until it reaches a curiously low number of people who’ll be around for the credits (see figures released by BioWare²ᵃ and Valve²ᵇ). From a corporate standpoint devoting more energy to the front-end (the part every purchaser will definitely see) makes infinitely more sense than spreading development costs evenly throughout the game.

Unfortunately, from a storytelling perspective, this makes things more difficult.

GLARING OVERSIGHT #3: MORE PEOPLE WILL FINISH YOUR GAME IF THEY WANT TO SEE HOW IT ENDS.
(It’s those guys who buy the DLC.)

So those are a few of the explanations for why game endings are generally so poor. How this poor quality manifests is laid out in four general points. If it pleases the court, I would like to present:

EXHIBIT A: Why My Blood Pressure Is So Dangerously High (also known as The Final Boss Difficulty Spike).

This one is pure evil.

But is it evil wrought from good intentions? Perhaps the developers were honestly kind but worrisome people, losing sleep over any possibility of their audience feeling robbed of an intense enough climax to fittingly close their time spent playing. A sense that the last snippet of game needed to out-do all that had come before it, or be perceived as a let-down.

Alternatively, it could be that they're a bunch of lazy bastards who know the cheapest way to tie up a game before the credits is to give the player a challenge several levels more difficult than anything faced beforehand.

I don't honestly know, there's probably a third way here, because it's been the nasty aftertaste of so many otherwise fantastic games.

Screw you, Lazarevic.A recent example is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. This is an exceptional game, possibly the best of 2009, which manages to expertly maintain its pacing with breathtaking finesse throughout, until you get to the finale, the big mean Serbian man glugs some magic juice in a cut scene, and the player is forced to run around in circles for fifteen minutes shooting backwards and awkwardly twisting the camera to make fiddly jumps. You miss one or two, your pursuer catches you and you get killed.

Some games are hard. This I accept. They're designed that way. It's the whole idea. But you know what you're getting into, it's a specific gaming experience, overcoming insane challenges in order to feel a lovely sense of achievement, that you beat the horrible, beautiful bastard. But Uncharted 2 was a triple-A joyride of slick cover-shooting, luscious landscapes and thrilling set-pieces. The old-school pad-smasher of a final boss fight jarred completely with the rest of the game, it just didn't fit, and it was unfair. If I had been less persistent when playing I would have missed the ending, and it wouldn't have been my fault.

EXHIBIT B: Why You Shouldn't Ask Your Five-Year-Old To Come Up With An Ending (also known as The Awful, Awful Ending).

Generally, that header applies to all writers, but specifically I'm addressing David Cage, whose signature style is presumably making his toddling offspring put crayon to paper to finish his work. I'm unable to conjure any other explanation for Fahrenheit's cheesy dream-like third act³.

Turns out the old lady is the internet or something and she brings a corpse back to life, the corpse has sex with a cop and the world ends and the Mayans did it.Fahrenheit's an extreme example; most games are content with letting us down with plain simple dullness rather than reams of batshit crazy. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault shoved you on a freight train, made an NPC chat with you for a few seconds and then exploded an area roughly the size of a small shed, like back garden fireworks on a damp night. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II eschewed more traditional forms of plot resolution in favour of methodically talking you to death. A janitor at Ubisoft Montreal's offices accidentally erased the awesome ending of Assassin's Creed with some over-enthusiastic keyboard dusting, forcing the team to knock something up in five minutes.

EXHIBIT C: Why Are The Credits Rolling? Did I Black Out For A Few Minutes There? (also known as The Cliff-Hanger).

Sequels are great. I love them. I want each of my favourite games to have one. But if I'm not already convinced I like your game enough to spend grandma's heart medicine money on a follow-up, I am not going to be swayed by a cut-to-black halfway through a plot with a metaphorical question mark unsubtly placed immediately afterwards.

You: Talking about endings, when's this article going to stop? Me: You cheeky twat.Cliff-hangers are not a problem exclusive to videogames, and their faults are well-documented, so I'm not going to go through them here. But considering how small a role narrative already plays in the majority of games why would anyone in the industry seriously think that a stab at a suspenseful ending would leave any gamer hanging on the edge of their seat? The best response they'll ever get with that sort of attitude is a full-body slouch.

Take, for example, Star Wars: Republic Commando. With no impending sense that the end is at hand, you hear one of your three AI squad members scuffling with bad guys over the radio. Your squad is ready to go back in to rescue him and you suddenly hear orders to retreat. FIN. Even the player character doesn't seem to know the game's over (link: YouTube video). Why even bother? Let us all hop onto a ship together and roll credits, clone troopers high-fiving merrily in the background. What happened was pointless and all it did was confuse and irritate the players.

EXHIBIT D: Why Are You Dead? I Hardly Touched You! (also known as The Boss With 1 Hit Point).

We're a million miles away from The Final Boss Difficulty Spike here. This isn't so much a spike as a foam sword covered in bubble wrap. It's never a comfortable sight to see a tough-looking boss roll over so easily; like watching a Hell's Angel bawling, the thought makes me squirm with disquiet. Look, I can come back later if this is a bad time for you to fight me, I know it must be tough being evil and trying to destroy the world, and I wouldn't want to just be a dick and stop you without even pretending like you're worth the effort.

I'm going to have to give a shout-out to the Gears of War franchise here because the first game is a nominee for Hardest Bastard Boss of All Time in the form of General RAAM and his insta-kill bat hordes, yet its successor is a prime candidate for Damp Weakling of the Year, in you can best it by sitting on your controller and farting. It involves circling a giant brown blob in a helicopter and shooting it for about twenty seconds until it pops. Really. Go look (link: YouTube video). How many millions of dollars did they spend making this game? Astonishing.

IT'S NOT ALL BAD, YOU KNOW.

So there's an abundance of rubbish out there snuggling up to credits sequences, so what? It's not universal. Some games do it right. Modern Warfare 2 was the best-selling videogame of all time not just for one reason, but for many. One of those was, for at least a few buyers, the explosive excitement its predecessor generated through its narrative. There was no boss in Call of Duty 4, at least not in the traditional sense. Despite that, my heart pounded louder in its final moments than I thought possible whilst sitting down quietly in front of a monitor.

Shoot him! SHOOT HIM!

Mass Effect 2 successfully tied its multiple possible endings to player choices to create a feeling of responsibility for whatever outcome befell Shepard and his or her crew. Diligent, thorough and skilful players saw their achievements enshrined in a crescendo of fist-pumping explosions, bad guy death and rousing orchestral music; sloppy play and bad leadership led to fitting tragedy, all superbly executed thanks to BioWare's talent for voice work and its ever-improving interactive storytelling. (Of course, it still garnered complaints with its clichéd final boss. Baby steps.)

Saving the universe, one cross-species sexual encounter at a time.

I wish I had more examples, especially of anything made more than five years ago, but my long-term memory is dreadful. There are more games out there worthy of being put on a pedestal for their services to interactive storytelling. Some of them are noteworthy by being genuinely well-written in a reassuringly old-fashioned way. Others find new and interesting ways to show us a story thanks to the new creative freedom videogames offer. All achieve in proving that great videogames should be about more than '30 seconds of fun'⁴ repeated ad nauseum.


¹Nutt, Christian. Vital Game Narrative: A Conversation With Rhianna Pratchett. Gamasutra.com, 7 August 2009. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4104/vital_game_narrative_a_.php
²ᵃBrudvig, Erik. Crazy Mass Effect 2 Stats and What They're Used For. IGN.com, 6 September 2010. http://uk.pc.ign.com/articles/111/1118657p1.html
²ᵇValve. Half-Life 2: Episode 1 Gameplay Stats. Valve Corporation, 24 January 2007. http://www.steampowered.com/status/ep1/
³Young, Shamus. Indigo Prophecy: Plot. ShamusYoung.com, 26 May 2008. http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1670
Thompson, Clive. Halo 3: How Microsoft Labs Invented a New Science of Play. Wired.com, 21 August 2007. http://www.wired.com/gaming/virtualworlds/magazine/15-09/ff_halo?currentPage=all

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