Endings are hard. Endings are weird. Our effects as humans, as entities and processes, will outlast our lives, never ending but blending instead seamlessly into each other, on and on, forever. Our stories will outlive the process of our bodies, our lives. Our stories will outlive our species, all species, the concurrent processes of all life on Earth. Our stories may outlive our universe. Each scar we leave on each other or on our world, each tree we plant, each lesson we teach, will outlive us in some capacity. The story of us is unending, but the stories we tell must end, because we cannot tell them forever.
Endings are artificial. They are a purely aesthetic contrivance, a delicately engraved cap we put on the grotesque stump where the long tale was amputated. We judge our art – harshly – on how well that ending covers up the intrinsic deformity of a story cut short.
What about death? Doesn’t everything come to an end, somehow, at some point? True, processes do end. The fire goes out, the rock rolls to the bottom of the hill, the heart ceases to beat. The process is never the story, though: Stories seldom begin with a life’s beginning and end alongside it, closely following that single process – and, even when they do, they tend to focus implicitly upon the long-term effects of that life, the changes wrought by a remarkable person. The ending is, generally, about how the end of the story is not the end of the effects this life has had.
We find it reassuring to think that our end is not the end. It doesn’t have to be an afterlife, it just has to be after our life. A surprising number seem to reject that reassurance in favor of hollow cynicism – while I and many others abjure belief in an afterlife, I sometimes I wonder just how many really believe that the world will continue on without them at all.
I think it’s useful here to define a distinction between the ‘ending’ of a story and the ‘end’ of a story: All of the stories we tell must come to an end. The end is the extent of the objective and definable scope of that story – that is, the period of time, whether real time or fictional time, that it contains. However, just because a story must end doesn’t mean that it must have an ending: If someone is interrupted in the middle of telling a story, their story ends, though they never reached the ending. The ending is the choice of a satisfactory conclusion, the choice of how to present that conclusion, the artistry of presenting an arbitrary point, at or near the end of a story, as being the logical resolution of everything that has come before.
The End is a fact: The Ending is an art.
Games take this delicate art and upend it. When you fail, when the ‘Game Over’ screen shows, it is an end but not an ending. When you reach the conclusion, defeat the world-devouring beast, watch the credits sequence, and then start a New Game+ it is an ending but not an end. Some games have many endings depending on your actions. Some have no ending, and are instead intended to be played perpetually, until you are no longer interested in engaging with the process of the game and instead wander off to do something else.
We have found a way to make one of the most excruciatingly difficult aspects of narrative art even harder. Good for us, I guess.
Is it possible to systematize a satisfying conclusion? To ensure that the end of the game, whenever it comes, brings closure to the ideas presented by the rest of the game?
It’s tricky with games with a strong narrative arc. One of the weakest aspects of The Walking Dead was its tendency to end unceremoniously when the player failed a quick-time event: Though these events, and the motions and emotions they require, are a powerful tool to draw the player into the game, the failure state they required introduced jarring and incongruous narrative dead ends – particularly into a game so thematically based around living with your choices and your failures. Only the final ending is an ending as such, one where the developers properly tie up all of the story threads they have crafted.
This may be a strange analogy, but what this problem reminds me of is jump animations. In order to jump, a human being must bend her legs and lower her center of gravity before tensing and pushing up to propel herself upwards. This takes a non-trivial amount of time, which we tend not to think about when actually jumping because we prepare for it subconsciously. However, most games demand instantaneous reactions when we input commands, and it would be very frustrating for most players to have a one second delay before jumping. It becomes impossible to have responsive controls without compromising the fidelity of the the jump animation or vice versa. In this way, tying the plot strings together to form an impromptu ending is extremely difficult: Either the player’s control must be delayed for the story to resolve, or the story resolution has to happen rapidly and without preamble and seem less realized. In order to shoehorn endings into most existing game designs, the developers would be required to write and create a series of special-case endings to provide resolution at arbitrary gameplay intervals – but, even if they did put in that effort, it will still seem like a weird and disjointed conclusion compared to the game’s ‘true’ ending. Worse still, it would delay the player’s progress in reaching that true ending!
That said, gameplay-focused games like Spelunky or FTL often have a quite satisfying narrative flow, where tiny mistakes congeal and snowball and overwhelm the player, creating a narrative thread that logically results in a narratively satisfying, if perhaps somewhat infuriating, conclusion. Now, admittedly, there’s not much of a narrative arc as such – it’s really more of a narrative line, with consistent tension throughout, and a sudden ending at an unspecified interval – but it is internally consistent and frequently surprising. It is an unusual narrative aesthetic: Interestingly, the recent film Gravity had a similarly flat narrative arc, wherein any of the many hazards could have plausibly ended the main character’s life and created a solid resolution to the film.
By establishing this flattened narrative arc, we do create a story where ending at any moment could be plausible – we feel that the rules that keep main characters alive, despite the odds, no matter what, may have been suspended. This ensures that, no matter the outcome, the narrative, such as it is, is consistent and satisfying. Another reason why these games tend to be narratively satisfying is because each play-through is discrete and self-contained: Each is its own story, similar but distinct from each other, rather than a single story drawn hesitantly with eraser marks and stray faded lines.
Is there a path to creating a story as multi-faceted and rich as The Walking Dead with an arbitrary ending point? Or to creating a surprising and satisfying experience like Spelunky with deeper and more resonant themes? I hope so. However, it will require that we rethink how we construct and integrate these stories into our games: It will require us to abandon arbitrary game-overs in favor of finding worlds where death still has meaning. It will require us to actually integrate plot elements into our game systems in ways which we have never thought to before.
This isn’t the end. This is a new beginning.