Fear the worst: The importance of bad endings

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This thought has been rattling around in my infernal brain machine for some time, and surprisingly not just as a side effect of playing far too many games that have arbitrary moral choices that end as you become an ethereal spirit of light, or Satan with a hangover. However, since this is a games blog-type-thing, it does deserve some exploration.

Quality bad endings have been something that have never really caught on, at least not in the majority of mainstream cinema. It’s something that, whenever brought up, people will react with distaste and argue that they would be disappointed if a movie didn’t end in a rainshower of roses and sunshine, and this pisses me off. It’s really a matter of institutionalisation through passive influence – a sequence of expectations and results that have been ingrained into our being through extensive exposure to the Hollywood Machine. See, Hollywood in itself has become the definition of high production value and satisfaction, so it comes as no surprise that when they tell you to bark like a chicken, you goddamn well better.

I hate to say it, but I too have been institutionalised by Hollywood’s ways of thinking and have only realised how much of an impact their style has pervaded the minds of the movie going demographic, and this leads to a certain expectation. The good guys prevail over insurmountable odds. If you look at it closely, it’s almost as if a movie was written, then acted backwards – beginning in some kind of horrible disaster, and following the heroes’ stiff upper lip campaign against the odds until he finds an appropriate sunset to make out with the heroine in front of. Credits roll. Everybody is happy. A lesson goes unlearnt. So just how could an ending be devised in which the viewer, or gamer, was satisfied if the hero died, or the world succumbed to horrible consequences? It would definitely have to end with a resounding message, and something that had been emphasised strongly throughout the film. Take The Day The Earth Stood Still for instance – regardless of some of the annoying acting, the contrived plot devices and facepalmingly stupid decisions made on behalf of the characters – I think it had an interesting thing going on. Behind the cardboard movie decisions lay a more interesting message, one that both reflected the destruction of the world scenario in the 1958 original, but with the addition of the cleansing scenario in when the storm rages across the earth, turning all structures to atoms. Although I thought they ruined what could be powerful undertone by having the storm kill the people as well, I thought it was an interesting choice to have an ending that resulted in such a nihilistic way, the need for mankind to be stripped of its conveniences and technology, and once again returns to the imposing confusion of natures purity, something that had been thrust aside for the last century. However, games do not have this so easy.

A game can really work in two ways, in this situation – it either inevitably results in player wrought calamity through the moral system, or it ends in a linear scenario. Some time ago I wrote about the implications of moral choices in games , and spoke of how it is necessary to explore more alternative, morally challenging scenarios in order to elevate the writing standards and player experience of a game. What I’d neglected to mention is how this could be achieved.

The first scenario is really dependent upon a linear story since the steady progression of events and characters provides a wider scope for twists and surprises. Much like the movie example, this kind of story would rely heavily on the writer to create the appropriate subtext, narrative and character strength in order to justify an ending that could be accepted as undesirable and negative, yet meaningful. The reason why this is a good place to start is because it is a relatively straightforward process, however it has its limitations since the player is removed as a variable, incidentally distancing them or even alienating them from what could have been a fantastic narrative.

The second scenario is reliant on player autonomy to make informed, and morally impacting choices as to the plots’ progression. This is arguably the most popular method which, in turn has become borderline gimmicky in most cases, but it still reserves its credibility in pockets. The issue here is that, as outlined in Black and White: The evolution of the moral choice in games, the plot needs radically more than just a simple good/ evil scenario. Sure, there’s not necessarily a problem if the game moves into this territory, but I think the path that is taken to achieve this outcome should be fraught with difficulties, challenges and decisions that do a little more than just provide a realism shattering binary outcome. The overpowering problem here is really centred upon “Just how much freedom do we provide the player with?” and “How will we control variables in order to have a coherent ending”. All of these issues I believe where addressed marvellously within Mass Effect.

Mass Effect’s system managed to maintain integrity on both fronts by managing to maintain what was a strictly linear narrative, but by allowing the player to toggle good/ evil variables without a huge deal of instantaneous, explicit choices. In fact, right up until the endgame sequence, your influences upon the game have actually appeared to be quite subtle, however plot development is clever enough to let you know of just how much of an impact you’ve made upon the story, and the characters around you without the instant realisation of “Decision #A did this, and Decision #B did that…”. The outcome: an incredibly satisfying player influenced narrative that made your decisions feel important and valued, which in turn means that your choices that may be perceived as negative where most probably driven by ulterior motives, or fears (strong character-centric stuff) as opposed to blind wrath and credibility mulching character developments.

Who is to say just where plot growth is headed. The games industry seems fairly divided on the issue, in amongst the demand for hardware optimisation and gameplay. Yet there are definitely those who have tried, and created some classic, memorable experiences that will, with any luck, be a divine motivation for the transcendence of the story. Poorly done bad endings have always left the reader/ gamer/ viewer with a scar of disappointment, but the growth of the plot’s importance may just remedy this old war wound whether it be the result of the independent developer, or a bold and important step for mainstream media.

Miles Newton – The Machination, creative director.

Oh, on a side note, I’m trying to regulate how often I release articles, so expect something new roughly every weekend.

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