Falling at the Final Hurdle - Video Game Endings

I have tried to avoid spoilers but this post does contain some story details regarding the end of Killzone 3, which are highlighted well in advance.

Time and time again I have been left disappointed by games that fall short of a good ending. Underwhelming, premature, sudden, nonsensical, lazy, drawn-out, flawed; bad endings come in all shapes and sizes and hamper games across the full spectrum of genres. This malady rears its ugly head not just in bad games, but also middling, good and even great ones.

Much like Lebron James, video games have trouble closing. They may look beautiful, play the part and tell a great story for the first 95% of the way, but I have lost count of the number of otherwise well-crafted games that have disappeared in the clutch, almost as if the developer ran out of ideas and time. Killzone 3, a game which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed, is a perfect example of this.

A far more coherent experience than its predecessors, Killzone 3 offers some great Sci-Fi, FPS thrills and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it. The plot never makes the mistake of thinking its anything more than support for the non-stop action, but it does a good job of investing you in the well-being of the ISA forces and keeping the game honest, at least until it all goes pear in a closing five minutes which left me wondering aloud "that can’t be the end, can it?".

***Killzone 3 Spoilers***

Firstly, one of your two most vital allies, someone important enough that you spend half the game trying to rescue them, suddenly vanishes into thin air fifteen minutes from the end, leaving you none the wiser as to his fate. Then Killzone 3 manages to turn an earth-shattering event - the complete destruction of a colonized planet - into one of the most muted and badly cut endings in recent memory.

What should have been a humanitarian catastrophe that made you consider the cost of victory and the morality of your actions, is utterly wasted. Your decision to nuke a fleeing space ship, which in turn sets-off a blast which kills all life on the Helghast planet, is handled so badly that it is almost comical. Upon being informed that the entire planet has "gone dark", Sev, our likeable protagonist, reaches deep into his soul and contemplates the magnitude of killing millions of people. He does this for all of about three seconds, before being abruptly cut off by the credits.

As if it wasn't enough to allot such an insignificant amount of time to the destruction of the planet you have spent the last seven hours fighting on, the ending manages to get worse. We cut mid-credits to the sight of two enemy soldiers opening an escape pod – the only thing left standing on a barren wasteland - and addressing the hidden passenger with a "Welcome home sir", implying that the Helghast leader survived the blast in a moment reminiscent of Skeletor emerging from the lava at the end of the Masters of the Universe movie. Just in case you are unsure, that is not meant as a compliment. KZ3 had carefully crafted a solid story populated with interesting characters, only to piss it all away on a finale that even Uwe Boll would be ashamed of - an ending which will forever taint my recollection of an otherwise highly entertaining game.

***End of Spoilers***

Whilst Killzone 3 may have been the original inspiration for this post, LA Noire was the reason why I ultimately wrote this (for my full thoughts on LA Noire, go here). As the final credits rolled I realised that, much like the rest of the game, I appreciated the ending's sentiment but the execution was thoroughly lacking. I will avoid spoilers here, but suffice to say that the rather bleak closing is very much in keeping with its film noire influences, but it was so poorly done and finished so abruptly that it soured me even further on the whole game.

The finale was sudden, in contrast to the rest of the game which revelled in taking its time, as well as badly staged; ignoring the motivations and feelings of many of the established players. Its ham-fisted execution left me cold, which isn’t entirely out of keeping with my feelings towards the rest of LA Noire. Despite the excellent performances by an impressive cast of actors and ground-breaking facial animation, I found most of the game to be lacking in the script department, as the true culprits were often given away by lazy and heavy handed dialogue and the plot was littered with characters who flittered in and out without leaving any lasting mark or impression.

A slightly different cause of frustration is the nonsensical ending, which some series have actually embraced as a defining feature, such as the otherwise excellent Assassin’s Creed games. I’m not sure who had the bright idea of deciding that the shitty ending from the first game should become a running theme, as after pouring twenty hours into a game you are liable to feel cheated when there isn't at least some semblance of closure. The AC series constantly leaves you dangling, ensuring that there must be at least one more game in the franchise – that is until it has its Shenmue 2 moment and unintentionally ends on an everlasting question mark.

Of course it’s not all doom and gloom, as there are many games that have been lauded for their storytelling. Video game narrative has really come along over the last two generations, and when done right games can be an unparalleled medium for weaving an immersive and interactive yarn. Red Dead Redemption featured a truly memorable and engaging story along with a thought provoking and refreshing end. Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid series, with the exception of the babble which ruined the MGS2 finale, has come to define interactive story-telling and Heavy Rain succeeded in creating a filmic noir experience, where your actions mould the excellent narrative and cause you to truly care about the cast and the various fates that may befall them.

Whenever we get a defining video game narrative, we cant help but compare it to the medium to which so many gaming auteur aspire: film. Video games are entirely their own form of media and I don't think we really do them justice when we hold them up against the best of the silver screen, but I can understand why people make parallels between cinema and gaming. However, until video games can consistently nail narrative, get away from lazy storytelling and of course figure out how to wrap-up, the comparison is mute.

Unfortunately, the ending is the last thing we experience in a narrative driven game and is therefore likely to stay with us longer than an impressive beginning or middle. It continues to baffle me how little thought seems to be put into how best to close a video game, even when so much care has been lavished on the narrative elsewhere. I don't feel I'm alone in saying that when I invest tens of hours in a game, I expect it to end on a high note or at least offer a sense of closure to what has come before.

In conclusion then, bad endings are bad. Now wasn’t that disappointing.


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