Reaching a conclusion: Endings
As some of you may recall, a while ago I made an entry regarding how to continue and end a series' of games, from a storyline perspective.
As I stated there, a story is a self contain medium which can either be stretched upon more than one iteration of the same story, but most of the times, we can see standalone stories within their own series'.
What I mean is, most of the times, a series' of games or movies, books or any other media is not just one long story being told in different acts throughout. The vast majority of the times, an iteration of a series' are its own self-contained story within another story. That's actually pretty meta.
It's a very common practice, the sequel will always lead the way to the ending, or another sequel, and otherwise there wouldn't be a story to be told in the first place. Sometimes, the whole overarching storyline and every arc within it are planned out from the beginning, which is fine, though some other times, the story in question is made up on the move. One such example, is the X-COM franchise, where every game was made in its own, without necessarily leading to a major overarching plotline, and every game told its own story through its own series' of events, except for the last one, but I'll get back to that on a moment.
A good ending is the one that gives the story closure, that's a given. While open endings are a common artistic resource, unless it's handled carefully, it doesn't quite work the way it was originally intended. Look at Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, where the whole game boasted a post-modern style of narration, reaching a climax where almost no questions are answered regarding the plot (and, in fact, some more questions were raised). My point is that this ending works in every way, contrary to what many fans may believe. The ending for the game leaves enough questions unanswered to lead up to a sequel (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of The Patriots) that retconned and explained the entirety of the plot (and, as I've stated earlier, it's the greatest way to end a series' as convoluted and often stupid as Metal Gear), while at the same time giving the character's own personal arc a sense of closure, regardless of how things turn out. Because that's what life is, in the end, some things are just not answered. Granted, his arc was brutally deconstructed in the sequel, but for what it's worth, the game stands as an experience that you can just pick up and play at any moment without necessarily knowing the rest of the series'. Something only the PSX along with this one game can boast in this series'.
A.N: I can't seem to make a post without mentioning Metal Gear, now can I?
That's a good ending; it provides closure to its own story arc, and leads the way to a sequel. However, the presentation aspect of it is also a very important factor to be considered when making an ending. The plot, ultimately, is just a series' of events that lead up to a conclusion. As such, the player is expected to have invested himself to it and eventually expect a climax of the events, the stakes to be higher and to reach some sense of accomplishment towards the goal the characters had been striving to achieve. An Anti-Climax can be a good resource to be used some times, for shock and artistic effect, depending on the pacing of the story. However, just like loose ends in the plot, most of the times this leads to a poorly executed ending, such as the following example.
Recently, I decided to play Splinter Cell: Double Agent, in an attempt at finding a good stealth game besides Metal Gear, so naturally I decided to pick this one up from a trade-in shop I frequent (the same one from my entry about piracy). I've fallen out of touch with the Tom Clancy series' (and so has Tom himself, since he doesn't seem to be involved in these games in the slightest), but I had played the old Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell games, so it couldn't really be that bad.
Other than the extremely glitchy and wonky engine the game was running on, I had no complaints up until the final section of the game. When the difficulty skyrockets like this was Half -Life and one shot will kill you instantly for no good reason.
The premise of the games is that the daughter of Sam Fisher, the series' main protagonist, is killed, leaving Fisher in an emotional wreck (for reasons not explored upon until the sequel), which prompts him to take a mission as a double agent in the JBA: James Brown Army, an American based terrorist group trying to reach control of the White House via infiltration, sabotage and acquiring Red Mercury, a nuclear component that could level Manhattan if used in a bomb. The idea was that fisher had to remain in the good sides of both the terrorists and his agency, since this was an extremely top-secret black op.
The last act of the game has the player go back to the JSA's headquarters to find Sam's CO and friend captive, and he's ordered to kill him. If you do, the JSA will not suspect of your treason and you can go back to stopping the launch of the nuclear device. I didn't kill him and was presented with an insanely hard situation where outside the door I was in, there were two armed guards ready to kill me. And they did, plenty of times, in fact.
The illumination system, which is implemented to let the player know of Sam's visibility is toned up so that it's virtually impossible to reach anywhere without being caught, and to top it all off you're stripped of your equipment.
After the terrorist's leader decides to blow the installation up with them inside (sort of counter-productive towards their goal of reaching control of the white house, but whatever), you have to stop him, get to the bomb, disable the nuclear device (which Sam can apparently do), all within a small, highly illuminated series' of corridors riddled with cameras and guards (although, if I'm not mistaken, you can take out the camera crew in the base and the cameras will not launch an alarm state when they see you), all without most of your gadgets that you've learned to rely on throughout the game.
Then, the credits roll with the game's trailer in the background and a very vague narration of what happened after the ending. Then there's an epilogue (if you can call it that) where Sam SOMEHOW manages to get aboard a boat that contains the second bomb in Manhattan, so you need to kill the remaining character, defuse the bomb and leave. Which I did (and, due to shoddy programming, one of the enemies that wasn't dead managed to shoot me ONCE during the scripted event of Sam jumping off the boat while it explodes, and that counted as a game over) and then, the boat explodes, Same gets out and we're greeted with the same black-on-green screen that you get during a Game Over that reads "To be Continued". Then you have to reset your console to get it to work.
I can't stress enough how absolutely hideous this ending is. I felt, for the first time ever, that I wasted my time and money with this game. The thing is though, there's a technical reason why this ending is so bad.
You see, the rest of the game is good, if not for plenty of flaws that can be overlooked, but having a climax that reaches such a high difficulty, that requires to memorize the whole map twice, to end with the trailer playing over the credits and a black screen reading "TO BE CONTINUED" is just lazy design, and I'm calling the creative team for it. Their work was shit. Their ending was so utterly shit that it tainted the whole game, making it even more of an unplayable mess every time I tried to replay it than it already was. It is, quite literally, the worst ending ever, of all time. I've seen NES games that give more closure to their stories. Like fucking Contra. This game is the reason I started playing more Japanese games.
The excuse was mostly "there's a sequel", but having a sequel doesn't mean you can put less effort into the previous game. As I stated in my Metal Gear Solid 2 example, it is very possible to have an ending tie in to almost nothing, yet be utterly genius. Double Agent's ending was a spit in the face of every gamer who bought it. Ironically enough, there was a second version of the game, incredibly superior, released to the PS2 and Wii.
Let's go back to that X-COM example I provided earlier. This is another god way to end your games, when your series' isn't made with the idea that there will invariably be a sequel in the future.
The first X-COM, named X-COM: UFO Defense game revolved around an Alien Invasion on earth, the idea was that the player had to manage X-COM, the eXtraterrestrial COMbat force, to combat the aliens, investigate their origins, their biology, their technology and eventually take the fight to them. It's truly unique in the way the plot will move. It's not about how many missions you complete or how many alien crafts you capture; it's about how much you can learn from the aliens until you're ready to strike against them. The game ends, without needing a sequel. The aliens are defeated, and the earth is now safe and boasts a whole lot of new technology, courtesy of the invaders.
There were four sequels to this game, Terror From The Deep, a more Lovercraftian approach to the plot, where the an ancient alien civilization surges from the bottom of the ocean, Interceptor, set in the future when X-COM has become defense contractors for Earth's off world mining and living facilities, the game kept the base building, research and development and managerial aspects of the earlier games, but instead of being a strategy game, Missions would be fought in space flying simulator, a la Wing Commander, but not nearly as good; Apocalypse, set in the future, when earth's surface is almost uninhabitable, save for the city of Mega-Primus, where X-COM has to deal with an invasion from a new and unknown enemy from another dimension, And then there was Enforcer.
Every game in this series' is almost completely unrelated in terms of its own plot (with the exception of Interceptor, which is an Interquel set between UFO Defense and Terror From The Deep), and it works well enough that no game conflicts with each other, since every plot is entirely self-contained within itself, and as such it works for what it is, just the plot, no tying in loose ends, no retcons (well, a few, but nothing vastly important), every game was fresh, plot wise.
However, as it is with every series', there was a Black Sheep, which was Enforcer, an arcadey shoot 'em up set during the first invasion on earth that contradicts plenty of plot points from the previous games, but that's an issue for another day.
The point I'm making is that, the X-COM games need not to worry about insignificant details, so every game's plot and conclusion feels equally good, every game feels rewarding towards the end, because of how the plot moves, and how well made the endings for each game are.
Sometimes, however, an ending can be not as fulfilling as because of the lore behind it. Let's take, for example, the game Command & Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight released on the PC a few years ago.
Tiberium Twilight is Electronic Arts' final attempt at showing people that they don't give a fuck. Some background, first. If you're already familiar with the series', skip the next paragraph.
Command & Conquer is a series' of Real Time Strategy games originally made by Westwood Studios. The series' is divided into two main sub-series'. The one we'll focus at is the Tiberium saga, set from 1990 onwards and based around the plot that an alien meteor crashes on earth containing a rare self-duplicating hydrocarbon that works as a clean, efficient renewable energy source that revolutionizes every aspect of our society. The first game, Tiberian Dawn, introduces Tiberium into the series', and the villain, Kane, an immortal leader of an international group named the Brotherhood of NOD, while the main protagonists are the UN's Global Defense Initiative, or GDI for short. GDI starts off by taking active control in NOD insurgencies all around the world, beginning the first Tiberium War which ended with Kane getting shot in the face with an orbiting laser. The Sequel, Tiberian Sun, takes place almost a century later, and deals with how Tiberium has almost destroyed the whole world's ecosystems, by polluting and spreading itself. As Kane reveals himself to be still alive and kicking, NOD once again launches its attacks towards GDI (which is now a de facto peacekeeping force in the whole world, almost to the point of governing it), starting the Second Tiberium War, and ending with Kane being impaled through the chest. After this, the series' was meant to end as a trilogy, however, due to Electronic Arts' desire to cash in from the franchise as much as possible, and thus, after 2 games and 2 expansion packs, we got Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, which was an admittedly good game, that retconned the origins of Tiberium as a meteor sent by an alien race to turn the world into a giant harvesting ground for Tiberium. The main plot is, Kane is alive, NOD blows up GDI's base satellite, the Philadelphia, then Scrin arrives to harvest the Tiberium and kill everyone on the planet to make way for more Tiberium. Easy enough, and to be honest, the game wasn't bad in the slightest. Worth mentioning is that the idea behind Kane as a villain comes from Cain and Abel, being heavily hinted in the games that Kane was, in fact, the first murderer. Sort of confirmed in Renegade, where the player can find Abel's sarcophagus in Kane's temple. Then came Command & Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight.
Tiberium Twilight reaches a new low for the franchise by basically spitting on everything it ever stood for, and every aspect of its plot. Again, we'll focus on the ending. The plot is basically, that GDI and NOD have reached a truce in order for Kane to help build the Tiberium Control Network, in order to restore the earth to a functional state. And it works, however, within the ranks of GDI and NOD, civil war erupts over various unimportant issues. Skip to the ending, where invariably, no matter what faction you play as, it ends with Kane revealing himself to be actually an Alien stranded on earth for thousands of years in his search to lead humanity into creating the technology to help him ascend... Ascend where or how, it's never explained. This contradicts the entirety of the series’ up until then, in absolutely every fashion possible. Kane was meant to be working to use Tiberium as a means to reach a higher evolutionary position for all of humanity, via mutation, infestation, exposition, and all that. His goal was to bring down oppressive governments in the world and have humanity ascend to a higher evolutionary plane. Instead, they took the "ascend" part literally and had him go somewhere somehow for no good reason. It completely mutilates every single aspect of the franchise up to that point. You might be wondering why I didn't bring it up when I talked about finishing franchises, that's because the series' is far from over, for better or for worse.
Alright, I've rambled long enough, here's my Thesis for today: An ending in any game can be artsy, open ended or leading up to a sequel so long as it reaches fulfillment of its own story. A game has to make you feel like you've accomplished something within the game itself in order to be a successful story told, you can't give the excuse that it's an ongoing story to have half-baked resolution. You need to feel the closure after you've ended the story, even if, like in Metal Gear Solid 2, you only feel emotionally fulfilled and the plot has more holes in it than a cheddar cheese factory. Because, in the end, a story is only as good as its conclusion.