The Underwhelming Ending Conundrum
Trevor | March 1, 2016
The better a game starts, the more I worry about how it will end. With the help of Joseph Campbell and his studies on narratology, I'll finally address one of the biggest problems I've had with storytelling in games.
Author’s note: Here’s a list of games. By using the title of the article, I will trust you to discern their reason for being here.
- Dying Light
- Red Dead Redemption
- Fallout 2
- Fallout 3
- Fallout: New Vegas
- Mass Effect 1
- Mass Effect 2
- Mass Effect 3
- Metal Gear Solid
- Wolf Among Us
- Mega Man X
- Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution
If there’s one trend I’ve noticed in the past few months, years, maybe the whole decade, it's that games have had a tendency to start strong and finish weak.
You can see this sentiment all over the internet. Four years ago, the original ending of Mass Effect 3 became a cautionary tale, a meme, and a meme about the cautionary tale of slapping together an ending after a one-hundred and forty hour interstellar adventure.
Both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, despite recieving praise from critics everywhere upon their release, still received flak for lackluster conclusions.
I go into detail on the Fallout series itself in a seperate article, one I will link at the end of this one, as I think the series has excellent examples of both great and poor conclusions. Before we address the consistent and specific shortcomings in recent and not--so--recent releases, though, I thought perhaps it’d be productive to ask myself a question designed to frame this article, one I've asked myself a million times before, and then answer it.
What makes for a satisfying conclusion?
To answer this, I think perhaps it's best to defer to narratologists who know far more than me, and whose works I've studied for many years.
I've tried to avoid references to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero of Thousand Faces,” around here. I've written, re-written, and ultimately edited out many such references in the past. There’s a good chance if you're fascinated by analyzing storytelling, you’ve already heard everything I'm about to say, and if you’re not, well... let’s just say I don’t think this next section is likely to bring you around. But, if you fall into my niche audience of someone who didn't know they like narratology and are about to find out they do, you're in for a treat!
Either way, when it comes to discussing the arc of a story in detail, there's no more well respected breakdown than The Hero's Journey. If there was ever a time to get all this narratology talk out of my system, it's right here.
Next I’m going to go through each step of the Hero’s Journey, and then re-examine how these steps apply to a game's mechanical pacing.
(Note: Joseph Campbell proposed seventeen steps in his original Hero’s Journey. In the interest of time, we’ll be using Christopher Vogler’s 2007 adaptation which condenses it to twelve).
The Hero’s Journey
1. The Ordinary World
This is where we’re introduced to our character and their everyday life. A personal goal or character flaw, which will become part of our protagonists’ arc, is often seen here. This becomes the driving motivation for future events.
2. The Call to Adventure
This is it. the Kick-off. The starting gun. Something happens to our hero and shit gets real. Way real.
3. Refusal of the Call
This is a step most games ignore, but it still shows up from time to time. This is the moment the hero tries to turn their back on the problems they’ve seen, but it can't last. Something, either their own personal resolve or an external pressure, will force them back into the thick of the conflict they’re trying to avoid.
4. Meeting with the Mentor
This is your Deckard Cain’s, Auron’s, and Mia Fey’s of the world. The adventurer who’s seen this mess before and has some knowledge on how to fix it. Sometimes they help the player out of their “I don’t wanna” rut, and occasionally provide a necessary tool the hero lacked until now to combat evil.
5. Crossing the Threshold
Welp, this is it. The hero’s fully committed and there’s no looking back. Often the way back to the Ordinary World is impossible beyond here.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Time to find out who your friends and foes are! The bulk of the gameplay takes place here.
The tests near their end. It’s time to confront the ultimate adversary, be it Ganondorf, Reapers, or Handsome Jack.
8. The Ordeal
This is the moment where everything seems lost. It’s the step where people die, where the hero must confront their greatest fear, and the toughest obstacle.
9. The Reward
The hero wins and takes hold of the earned item. Sometimes it’s a physical object, meant to fix something in the world. This can also be a more abstract concept as well, like the conquering of the character flaw seen earlier.
Okay, quick breather.
I interrupted after number nine because this is where a large number of games seem to think the ending should be. The object’s won! What’s left to tell?
Well, there’s still three more steps. So a lot.
10. The Road Back
Time to head back with the won object. Maybe it saves the world, or maybe it’s a concept that makes the hero a stronger person, better able to fix what's wrong in the world they left behind.
11. The Resurrection
Oh no! Another test! Just when it seemed everything was clear, the hero is hit with their greatest challenge. They obtained the reward earlier -- now it’s time to find out if they have the strength to embrace it, and perhaps become someone new in the process.
12. Return with the Elixir
The hero’s back! Woo-hoo! They brought the treasure home, too! It's here where we see how the hero has changed the world through their actions.
There’s a variation on step twelve worth mentioning -- maybe the hero didn’t survive until the end. They bit the dust somewhere along the line during The Ordeal, or maybe they didn't quite nail the "ressurection" part of step eleven.
In that case, step twelve is still the return of the elixir, but someone else does the delivering, someone the hero inspired along the way who finishes their work.
This concludes our rough-and-tumble analysis of The Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey and Game Design
When it comes to games, I think we need to expand our definition of “narrative” to also include mechanics, atmosphere, and player agency. How does the game ask you to live in its world? What actions does it have you perform?
Since games are inherently interactive, it’s you, not just the character you're controlling, who should feel the weight of each step. So, we'll take one more quick journey, this time looking purely at how it all affects the person at the controller. Or Keyboard and mouse.
We aren't particular around here.
1. The Ordinary World -- The Basics
This is where the player gets on opportunity to experience the basic mechanics with little to no threat.
2. The Call to Adventure -- The Objective
The introduction of the core dilemma facing the player, and a preview of the ultimate goal they're being asked to achieve in the end.
3. Refusal of the Call -- Up to the Player
This step is left entirely in the player's hands. Far Cry 4's hidden ending is an excellent example of a developer taking the refusal to answer the call into consideration.
4. Meeting with the Mentor -- A New Tool
It's entirely possible the player's already met their mentor figure, but this is the step where they act as active encouragement, or perhaps introduce a new weapon or tool into the player's kit.
5. Crossing the Threshold -- Fewer Safe Areas
It's here where any remaining training wheels come off. The player's left to their own devices to solve future problems.
No going back to Midgar now.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies -- The Rest of The Game
By now, the player's been introduced to most of their toolset. This is where the core of the gameplay takes place.
7. The Approach -- Challenge Intensifies
This is where the game begins ramping up towards the end, introducing the hardest challenges so far and preparing the player for endgame.
8. The Ordeal --The Challenge Plateaus
This is where the player is forced to use everything they've learned to conquer the biggest problems yet. All the obstacles from previous levels comes together for one last challenge.
(In games, the next few steps will likely happen in quick succession, all the pieces blending together. After The Ordeal, the bulk of the gameplay is over and we head into our resolution.)
9. The Reward -- The Ultimate Weapon
After conquering The Ordeal, the player ought to get a chance to enjoy their accomplishment, usually on the heels of a tough boss fight against the biggest adversary.
10. The Road Back -- Seeing the Change
Now the player gets to see some hint of the changes they've made in the world, how far they've come, or maybe gets one small segment of gameplay where they get to use The Reward earned after The Ordeal.
This one's a little harder to pinpoint. This little glimpse into the future sometimes happens before the final boss fight instead of after.
11. The Resurrection -- A New Hero, a Final Villain
Surprise final boss fight? Surprise final boss fight. This one is rarely a challenge though, and usually acts as a capstone to help the player feel how far they've come.
This can also be achieved with a segment of non-challenging gameplay. If you've played anything by Clover Studios or Platinum Games, you can probably think of an exact sequence like this. A rocket launcher dropping from on high to end every Resident Evil game also counts, though this particular concept goes by another name anyone who was forced to read greek mythology in high school is familiar with.
12. Return with the Elixir -- Here's your Results
This is the big one. Now the player gets to see everything they've accomplished laid bare. Cutscenes can do this well enough, but my favorite examples are games where the player gets to explore an end-game world state, even if it's just a temporary one.
And now, we've reached the end. Again. Make no mistake, I do think some games end incredibly well. I've included such examples along the way, in fact. But what prompted me to write this article was not the ones who do it well, but the ones I've felt fell short in recent -- and not so recent -- years.
Let's get to those.
Recent and Not--So--Recent Offenders
The most egregious examples of poor final tests almost always occur in the first person shooter genre. For reasons beyond my understanding, this genre loves to conclude without any shooting at all.
Here’s Bulletstorm, an underrated (It’s an opinion article and I will stand by that) shooter where the player is rewarded for finding creative ways to murder lots of dudes.
And how does this game, with core mechanics built on laser lassoing, shooting big guns, and making use of environmental hazards end?
A quick time event, of course.
Perhaps even worse is Dying Light, a game about surviving in an abanonded city overrun by zombies. Again, how do we end our game about survival, running, and athletic parkouring across rooftops?
How’s another quick time even sound?
The frustrating thing about Dying Light is there were no quick time events at any other point in the game. At least Bulletstorm had a few other “mash buttons” sequences. The Borderlands series might be lacking in ingenuity when the finale arrives, but you are at least shooting to end your game about shooting. Dying Light introduced an entirely new and unnecessary concept just for their final cutscene.
And the real bummer is, prior to this underwhelming gauntlet of button presses, Dying Light seemed poised to deliver an impressive finale.
First there’s a sequence that tests your speed and quick decision making, where you’re required to escape from hordes of the strongest zombies around...
And then, in order to confront the final boss, you’re required to climb this massive, under construction, hard-hat-zone tower, which tests all your parkour abilities.
Everything is cleverly designed right up until the final seconds. What happened? Did someone give up? Did the money run out? I may never know the real answer.
These are only two egregious, specific, examples, but this issue has been consistent for the past few months. Years. Forever.
2014's Shadow of Mordor? QTE ending. Halo 4? QTE ending. Mad Max? Awesome car chase, followed by lazily chucking a few spears into Scrotus's windshield, which triggers an ending cutscene.
If you'd like to read a more detailed analysis of poor endings, endings in a series I otherwise hold in high regard, you can check out this article about the difference between past and present fallout games.
The Conclusion to an article about Conclusions
I want to make it clear that not every ending needs to be long enough to include everyone's life story. What I think endings are currently lacking is this glimpse of life beyond the boundaries of the gameplay alone.
All these games I’ve criticized -- games I still thoroughly enjoyed giving my time to -- seem to consider the final choice or final boss the ending, while I think it is only the start of an ending.
For me, an ending feels most complete when I can feel the effect of the choice as well.
So, here is my humble request -- If your game has a story, put as much effort into your conclusion as you have into your opening. If your goal with the opening is to hurry up and get to the gameplay, or likewise, if your game has no story at all, it’d be unreasonable of me to expect the conclusion to be some Magnum Opus that forever changes the course of games.
But, if you’re going to present me with a cast of characters I’m meant to care about, and make choices that will have life-altering consequences for the entire world you’ve created, give me a chance to see the impact I’ve had. Give me a small taste of how life continues beyond the final boss and the final decision.
But if that's not going to happen and we're doomed to endure another decade of lackluster conclusions, then please create more heroes to protect us from The End.