Let’s talk about endings!
“But Melissa,” you say, “it’s January! Surely we should be talking about beginnings.”
Nola gave us some delightful wordplay with “resolutions,” and now we’re different than everybody else! So let’s talk about endings.
What game ending have you found most satisfying?
Melissa Brinks: I’ve actually written about endings here before, but rather than going on and on about how perfect Gone Home and Firewatch are to me, I’ll instead talk about Uncharted 4.
For those who haven’t played the series, Nathan Drake is basically Indiana Jones with a tragic backstory and an aspiration to greatness (his motto, like his supposed ancestor Sir Francis Drake, is sic parvus magna, translated as “greatness from small beginnings”). Without going too much into spoiler territory, over the course of the series he gets great things, chases more great things, loses the best thing, and realizes that maybe the real treasure was the wife he lied to along the way.
It’s standard adventure genre stuff. But the ending is different: instead of playing Nathan on another adventure, you play his daughter as she powers through Crash Bandicoot, just as he and her mother did earlier in the game. You wander through their house on the beach, browsing through knickknacks and discovering, by solving a puzzle, that maybe her parents are a little cooler than she gave them credit for. The best part is Elena’s little background smile as Nathan discovers, with exasperation, that his daughter is at least as clever as he is.
But what I really love about it isn’t just the implied passing of the torch. It’s the way it’s the end to a story about misplaced wanting—Nathan has sought treasure his entire life, but also history, greatness, glory—and ultimately satisfaction. More important than all the stolen relics (I’ll be real, this game does not go out of its way to correct the colonialism angle) is the story he and Elena can tell their daughter, not for the sake of a story, but for the sake of having a child, of being a parent, of finding a new definition for greatness. Yeah, it’s kind of a trashy AAA mess with an uneven narrative and cringe-inducing politics, but the ending reaches right into my chest and lights a fire in my heart.
Tia Kalla: There are two definitions of satisfying you can go with. If you think of satisfying in terms of fulfilling the promises of the narrative—sticking to the overall themes and resolving the major plot points consistent with those themes—I think Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology (the 3DS remake) did a good job at that. Better than the original, actually! Because of that, it’s one of the ones I found personally satisfying as well.
The other satisfying is the one that I just like, even if it’s not necessarily the strongest or most fulfilling. From an analytical point of view, Final Fantasy VI had difficulties really hammering an ending home because you’re not required to re-recruit more than four of your fourteen party members in the back half of the game. This makes the narration and party interaction, which has been so strong at this point, much more hit and miss because you don’t know who’s going to be available to deliver that counterpoint or quip. The end plan turns out to be rather simplistic and the final scenes don’t really do anything unexpected. But damn, I still just love how that simple, expected ending tied up Terra’s arc and brought her character around full circle. Her entire character revolves around trying to figure out who she is and how to be “normal,” and the end of the game has her making a deliberate choice as to who she is—a normal human. Would that all of the major characters could’ve gotten that sort of completeness!
Wendy Browne: I am fond of inconclusive and even painful endings. I don’t want a Disney story. I dislike the concept of an all-out suicide mission where, if you play your cards just right, everyone gets to survive anyway and you get a trophy for it. I will forever live with the consequences of my Mass Effect 2 decisions because I felt it made my playthrough of Mass Effect 3 that much stronger because I had to deal with those losses. Unfortunately, the subsequent ending of Mass Effect 3 did not follow through on everything I had worked for, so clearly that is not the answer to this question.
Instead, I will go with The Walking Dead game. Like many, this was the first Telltale game I had ever played, so I got to learn about their style of narrative play as I worked my way through the game, meeting and working with or against various characters. And all the while, I was falling in love with Lee and Clementine such that, when I was finally forced to choose their fate, I was truly torn apart by it for daaaays.
Naseem Jamnia: My only knowledge of Telltale is through Tales from the Borderlands, which is one of the best games I’ve ever played, and the ending of that is *kisses fingers*. But it’s been a while since I’ve played it, so instead, I’m going to turn to a game that was (to no one’s surprise, if you know me) practically made for me. The Sidequest team knows my obsession, so I’ll keep it short on this front: while certainly not for everyone, Persona 5 is incredible, and the ending is PERFECT.
In brief, the story is about a nameless protagonist (the manga calls him Akira and the anime calls him Ren), nicknamed Joker/”that guy,” who moves to Tokyo on a probationary year after punching a guy in the face, only to create a band of misfits who want to “steal the hearts of rotten adults” through a parallel dimension called the Metaverse. Also, there’s a talking cat/not-cat. Anyway, the game alternates between your adventures stealing hearts in the Metaverse with your everyday life in Tokyo, where you have balance your time; do you study, spend time with friends, go on a date, or level up stats for your next Metaverse adventure? What makes the ending so perfect is it really centers the core of the story, social outcasts finding solace and friendship in each other, which left me feeling super satisfied but also hungry for an immediate sequel.
Oh! And the Undertale True Pacifist route ending is also fantastic. I’m still not sure why Toriel can become your mom if you possibly already have one, but whatever.
Have you written or played through a satisfying roleplaying campaign ending? What did that look like? Did you feel fulfilled or sad to leave your characters behind?
Tia: The vast majority of the roleplaying I’ve done has been the collective story-writing type (play-by-email, Livejournal, etc.) which tends to be less of a neat plot and more of a clump of arcs with in-between stories, more similar to the format of a long-running manga than a movie or book. So there isn’t the same sort of finality—even when we reach the end of an arc and defeat the Big Bad or solve the problem, there’s always another problem to be solved. Or another 3AM thread with the bestie where our characters discuss the local sports teams. I’m a fan of those more open-ended arcs, just because they’re how life works, too.
Wendy: I didn’t properly understand roleplaying until about five years ago when I met my main gaming squad who explained to me that every character I play should have a backstory, whether I create that character myself, or the game gives them to me. This sound advice was solidified with BioWare games, which is also where I discovered the joy of headcanon, either to fix things for myself that I felt were done poorly in the game, or to continue on after the credits rolled. This is all important now that I’ve started dabbling in tabletop RPGs. As a result, while there is some sadness and sense of loss when a game ends, I never feel like I have left them behind. They are all a part of me and I can continue their story however I want.
Melissa: Aside from one-shots, I’ve never played through an ending! As a DM, I’m trying to write a story arc that’s satisfying for all the players; they’ll get their glory and strength, and hopefully the characters will come away wiser (and less prone to random murder and thievery) than they started. But if they don’t, I think the best thing I can hope for as a DM is that the players have fond memories of what happened, even if not everybody gets a happily-ever-after.
Do you feel that fanworks or supplemental material (fanfiction, fanart, comics, novels) can clip the wings of a satisfying ending for you?
Tia: No, that’s a weird concept to me, actually. Fanworks aren’t canon, so there’s nothing that says you have to accept a fanwork that doesn’t mesh with your own headcanon. Heck, there’s nothing that really says you have to accept canon as-is either. There’s a whole subgenre of fanfic, fix-it, that is entirely about rejecting their reality and substituting it with your own. I used to think the concept itself was conceited. I mean, how are you supposed to top what a published, professional author/director/artist/etc. did? But diving into critique and analysis more heavily in the past few years made me notice that even professionals can make narrative mistakes that are actually bad and not just things I don’t like. And endings are particularly easy to mess up or drop the ball on, because unlike the beginning of a story, the audience has developed expectations they’re now expecting to be met.
As for supplemental material, it’s similar in that it is canon, but it’s often also not. For example, it’s fairly rare that the canon of the Pokémon games, the Pokémon anime, and the Pokémon manga (of which there are a number) agree as to some part of characterization or worldbuilding. So again, you can take it or leave it as you please.
Wendy: It’s no secret that auxiliary game lore is my jam. There are most certainly times when what I read or watch outside of the game can colour my perceptions of the game itself, or even disappoint me with how something has been dealt with in canonical work, but I have to respect that I’m not the boss of the games I play and have to let the writers tell the story they presumably intended. If their decisions truly pain me, then, see above re: headcanon. See also, fanfic.
Melissa: It depends. Fanworks are an entirely separate beast; they have no negative impact on canon whatsoever, and can in fact be a nice bandaid to things I don’t like about it. But I do think that supplemental canon material can impact my enjoyment of something, particularly when it enforces a story choice I didn’t follow in my game—because there are so many BioWare supplemental materials, for example, it makes sense that not all of them are going to match up with my playthroughs. I’m always going to find the idea of King Alistair weird, even as I understand that “hardening” him fixes some of his major flaws (though I will, of course, disagree with the way that concept is implemented, harumph). It doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of my game, but it does mean I sit there kind of baffled the whole time, trying to make these two visions of the world connect when they just won’t do that.
Naseem: I love fanworks, especially fanfiction. Like the others have said, they’re a totally separate entity that, on finding the right ones, can only enhance my enjoyment of the original game (or anime or whatever). But while I go after supplemental materials/whatevers released by the creators—Persona 5 dancing game, anyone?—I am also very wary of the things creators do to change the original material. I look at the bullshit retconning J.K. Rowling has done over the past few years, and I worry creators will go back to material I love and do that. This, clearly, isn’t solely a game problem, and it’s less about endings in particular and more about the general lore, but I think they’re still related. If something great has finished, let it live its glorious victory. Don’t make me want to stab it into the ground.
What do you expect from a game ending? How should it leave you feeling?
Tia: The biggest things about endings (and the thing I feel most “bad” endings fail at) is consistency. An ending needs to be consistent with the tone and themes of the rest of the storyline and resolve the major (though not necessarily all) problems of the plot. For example, if your main theme is the power of friendship, having the player character leave said friends behind to face the final boss alone would be a disappointing ending. Or if you’re telling a cheery story but kill off several characters at the end, players are going to feel cheated. I feel like a lot of storytellers think they have to surprise the player with a twist at the end, but want it to be so surprising that they don’t invest in proper foreshadowing or keeping up the internal logic.
When I finished Bravely Default, a game whose entire story I loved to bits (even the more repetitive parts) and got the “true” ending… well, it’s not really a happy ending. But the ending felt like a natural conclusion in terms of things that happened, either in resolving its storyline or leaving itself an opening for Bravely Second. I can respect it as a good ending, even as it made me mad enough to write 50k words of supplemental ending.
Wendy: I want a game ending to leave me feeling conflicted, having to sort out a myriad of emotions that haunt me for days to come. A solid game ending should have me flying to Twitter or chats to summon my gamer friends to cry on their shoulders about this, or ponder the mean of that, or scream about the WTF? of is all. And then, weeks, months, years later, still return to those conversations, finding new angles to see things from.
Melissa: I don’t crave fulfillment, necessarily, but I do like some degree of closure and some degree of openness. What Tia said is dead-on—I want consistency. I’ll use Firewatch as an example here, even though I’ve written about it before, because I think the throughline is perfect. The ending isn’t satisfying because Henry and Delilah finally meet and Henry says, “Boy howdy, am I sure glad that I learned this valuable lesson about personal responsibility!” It’s satisfying because to do anything else—to add in a grand conspiracy, to let him and Delilah connect, to have him truly save the day—would be to betray the game’s themes. It’s what we want from a game narrative because we want to feel like the hero, but it’s not what the story needs. I’d rather end a game like that feeling more sad but wiser than end it feeling powerful but hollow.
Naseem: Can we talk about an ending that left me ???ing hardcore? One that might be perfect but, as of right now, is kind of questionable? Deltarune. As you might know, I am very much an Undertale fan, and generally, the first chapter of Deltarune made me relive the magical feeling Undertale gave me. But WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THE LAST FIVE SECONDS?? That moved Deltarune from a complete, satisfying 3-hour-ish game to the first chapter of something larger. Which is great, because I will throw Toby Fox my money for the rest of his career and he does intend it to be part of a larger game, but also made me feel a little cheated.
I guess that’s the thing about endings, for me—like Melissa, I want some kind of closure. I guess consistency is a part of that—in a Toby Fox game, I expect things to throw me (at least, to some extent—the problem with Deltarune was that it didn’t feel AT ALL like the rest of the game), whereas Night in the Woods, which I otherwise loved, lost me at the end. (I haven’t played the side games, which apparently helps make it feel less out of left field.) And Breath of the Wild has an okay story ending, but a very, very unsatisfying Ganon fight. So I guess what I’m saying is I look for endings that give me closure, are consistent, and are earned. In a phrase: endings should be emotionally satisfying.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.