It won’t be long before we hit the full decade anniversary of Half-Life 2’s story being unfinished, and every year that goes by without our lust for another instalment being at long last satiated–be it Episode 3, or a full-on Half-Life 3, or a Three’s Company reunion starring Gordon Freeman alongside a holograph of John Ritter–I find myself appreciating the series’ complete lack of closure (or explanation for what the hell its story is even working towards) more and more. The reason for my new-found appreciation for unapologetic loose ends? Simple: Video game endings are so regularly horrible and incompetent that not having one at all is starting to sound like a decent option.
Let’s start by beating the most beaten dead horse in the history of bloated and beaten dead horses: Mass Effect 3. I wasn’t there, I don’t know, but by most accounts, a long silence where a defense should be has placed blame on Casey Hudson (the head of the Mass Effect franchise as we know it) and his leashless ego. Supposedly, he completely refused to have anyone peer review the “ending” he wrote for the saga, and if you’ve paid attention to big business or politics ever, you know that someone being in charge of something large or important doesn’t necessarily mean they know the respective locations of their head and ass. Hudson’s ego took the pretty pink bow that was supposed to conclude the epic and instead used it to choke the life out of it, leaving it bloated and semen-stained on the side of a country gravel road for us to find.
Here’s to you, Casey Hudson. You egomaniacal debacle. You sixth grade English failure.
Of course it isn’t the only time BioWare fell over dead right at the finish line. The second Knights of the Old Republic game has a vapid ending so confusing and idiotic that it makes later M. Night Shyamalan films look like The Sixth Sense. And of course, Dragon Age: Inquisition got away with an epilogue that only didn’t suck on the basis that you compared it to the Mass Effect 3 maelstrom. But yeah, it did suck. It was cheesy, it was melodramatic, it was atonal, it was vague, it was pointless. But Casey Hudson didn’t write it with his knob size, so it at least had that going for it.
Open plea to BioWare: Stop trying so hard at the end of your games. You don’t need a cliffhanger. We’re already going to buy the next game and all the DLC, and chances are most of the content in the next sequel won’t be dependent on what goes on in the other games anyway. You’re in the top one percent for 99% of the length of your game, then you close with all the finesse and dignity of a chronic bed wetter being eaten by a hippo. You’re like a golfer that hits a miraculous 500-yard drive, but instead of tapping the ball in and taking your albatross, you crap in the hole and then stick your fist in it.
Stop. Trying. So. Hard.
So who else sucks at endings? Well, mostly everyone.
I recall Halo 2 being disproportionately awkward in its abrupt ceasing, but then again it’s Halo, so it’s hard to distinguish ending missteps from all the other bland nonsense going on.
I can remember the exact moment that Deus Ex: Human Revolution lost me. The protagonist spends the entire game motivated to find his lover—and believe it or not, it’s not even that played out considering this is video games we’re talking about. So when Adam finally locates his Princess Peach, they have a brief domestic argument about nothing before pushing the Ending-O-Matic 3001 and providing you a selection of voice-overs that have sweet nothing to do with a majority of what you just played through. Sweet multiple endings, bro.
And how long has it been since anyone with a brain thought multiple endings were a selling point? If one video game ending usually sucks, why do we stand to benefit from having a half dozen of them? Here’s the problem: Multiple endings came about in the olden days from games that actually had reasons for having them. Chrono Trigger had tons of endings because its central theme was time travel; the characters changed outcomes and altered history. Games now have multiple endings because it’s industry standard (for no reason), and it gives them something else to play up on the back of the box. Imagine three different theatres are screening Star Wars. In one version, Luke blows up The Death Star. In another, Luke doesn’t succeed and blames himself, setting up a redemption and “overcoming the self” moment in a future title. In the other version, Luke confuses which switch does what and flies himself into a space bus or whatever the hell and dies. Now, based on the information in the film that came before these moments, there is one ending that fits better than the others. So why have multiple endings? And if we continue the comparison, let’s say that to see the other endings of the film—unnecessary as they may be—you have to sit through the entire rest of the movie again. Cut that garbage out. It’s old and nobody cares any more.
So what recent titles have had reasonably satisfying endings? I can think of two big ones: The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite. Both of these games worked with their conclusions on very different scales, but they both stood in line with what the rest of their respective games were doing. Infinite swings for the fences, sure, but it connects. The ending is tonally appropriate, its twists aren’t unfair or out of line with the themes presented in the rest of the game’s story, and most of all, it has heart. It’s trying to show and present something beautiful. It listens to its characters. The Last of Us may be the ending that I’ve been most impressed by over the last few years because of its extraordinary amount of restraint. The ending could’ve been a huge climactic action sequence or a maudlin scene of gory self-sacrifice and emotional torment. But for it to do those things (things that have been done to death and then some), the game would have to misunderstand itself as a game primarily about a million hungry zombies, rather than about two desperate humans.
Isn’t it also possible gamers themselves are responsible? The attention span is all but extinct now, so should developers and writers bother making the ending as good as it can be, knowing full well most of the people that play a given game won’t even see it? (The answer is yes, but I just wanted to chastise people for getting bored of games faster than they used to. Damn kids. Do your homework!)
You can look back at the retro days of fighting games, the Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat era of text-based endings with a random picture or two to storybook a character’s narrative closure. Nobody complained. Ryu goes off to seek his next challenge? Good luck, friend. Ken gets married. Mosel tov. If BioWare owned the rights to Street Fighter, these endings would be re-written so that Ryu blows up Argentina (or some other nation not represented or relevant to the events in the game to this point despite plenty of them being available) and Ken’s wife turns out to be an alien overlord that created M.Bison to keep the world of martial arts tournaments in balance. Then E.Honda’s sumo gut turns out to be the resting place of an enhanced fetal cyborg clone of Chun-Li’s reincarnated dead father. BECAUSE TWISTS.
Sorry, I have to go. Hideo Kojima is blowing my phone up. He wants to know how I got hold of the work up for his next project.