What's in a game ending?
It’s pretty fair to say that many games mess up their endings far more than they should do. “Let down by the ending” is a common complaint, and the recent Mass Effect 3 controversy shows it’s an area in which even the best games can falter. It’s unfortunate that Mass Effect 3 has been targeted in such a way, as its ending is considerably more fleshed out than most. We’re often left with little more than a text box, or an ill-conceived cliffhanger which crudely sets up a never-to-be-seen sequel.
So why do games so often get it wrong? Are game writers just untalented, or is there another reason?
Mass Effect 3
Certainly compared to other narrative forms such as films or books, games seem more likely to fall at the last hurdle. That being said, there is a fundamental different between games and these other mediums. The primary objective of a book or a film is to tell a story. A beautiful turn of phrase or exhilarating car chase can add immersion, but without a semblance of a central narrative none of it would matter. To tell a story is not the primary objective of a game. Instead, a game first and foremost offers gameplay. You can have a great game with zero plot, but a game with terrible, frustrating gameplay is simply bad no matter how enthralling the story is.
Therefore from most developers’ points of view the narrative in a game will always take second place to the gameplay. John Carmack famously stated: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important.” Most would dismiss that a gross generalisation, but then most would also agree that the story should never take precedence over the gameplay.
Bioware writer Jennifer Helper found this out the hard way when comments she made in 2006, on preferring the story to the gameplay, re-surfaced recently on Reddit. She was subjected to a campaign of harassment from angry gamers who accused her of missing the point of games entirely. The treatment she received was rightly condemned by the majority of the gaming community, but very few people actually sided with her point of view. Despite this, the main objection to the Mass Effect 3 ending (a game which Helper contributed to), was about the conclusion of the story itself. The actual gameplay of the ending, whilst undeniably lacklustre, was a footnote compared to the reaction to the narrative problems.
This highlights the two reasons that developers face particular difficulties when creating an ending for their game. Firstly, any story that is present has to be nearly concluded. The issue is that to have a truly great narrative conclusion you need a great story building up to it. However a great story isn’t usually necessary for the preceding 99% of the game to work, a relatively simple plot is usually all that is required to keep the gameplay ticking along. Developing the very best of endings therefore requires intense additional work throughout the whole of the game, even though it only benefits the last 1%.
The second issue is the ending is the one bit of the game where both the story and the gameplay have to happen together.
Throughout most of a game, developers usually avoid combining the two: bouts of gameplay interspersed with sections of story. However the final boss (or equivalent) is the one challenge that is only truly satisfying to defeat if it has been suitably set up by both the narrative and the gameplay. The problem is that great gameplay and great stories are very hard to combine. Progression through gameplay is necessarily at a speed dictated by the player and their ability to play the game. A great story is the opposite: it is tightly woven, carefully timed and minutely orchestrated to guarantee maximum emotional impact when it concludes. To perfectly tie the two together requires compromise to one or the other: either more limited gameplay or a less tightly written story.
These are large barriers any developer must overcome when designing an ending. One option is undoubtedly to go down the Carmack route: if you don’t have a story, then you can’t have an unsatisfactory conclusion. That’s probably why no-one minded that the ending to Quake was a paragraph of text that essentially said “you beat the game, well done!”
That this technique so utterly failed in Rage is case in point: the game was beginning to have an actual semblance of a story when it abruptly ended. If id Software had stuck to their guns and had literally no story in Rage other than the basic premise, it probably would have been better off for it.
As it happens, most developers do integrate at least an aspect of plot into their Triple-A titles, so some sort of ending is a requirement. The problem is that creating the very best of endings requires a huge amount of work, and only benefits the last 1% of the experience. Compared to all the other things a developer needs to get right, creating a great ending is therefore typically a long way down the list. Far more important is the beginning and everything else that happens in-between, and it’s these that any developer is more likely to spend time and effort on perfecting.
Clearly a few games do manage to strike that perfect balance between gameplay and story, but such games will always be the exception. If a developer has spare resources, it’s quite right that they should spend them on improving the first 99% rather than the last 1%. Because of this I feel rather sorry for Mass Effect 3; it’s only because the preceding three games were so good that the ending was so criticized. The alternative may have been a game that had a more conclusive ending, but was a worse experience to play through. I know which I’d prefer.
So, I propose we are grateful for the good endings and try to forgive the average ones. Obviously in an ideal world every part of a game would be faultless. But failing that, there are so many other things which are genuinely more important to the game than the narrative conclusion. I, for one, would always choose a great game with a good-enough ending, rather than an average game with a great ending.