All Good Things —————— The Dying Art of the Video Game Ending
When Alan Moore tells us via the god-like superbeing Dr. Manhattan “Nothing ever ends.” at the end of Watchmen, he's forming a hub at which all of the various plot lines of his immensely complex book briefly converge. Such a verdict on endings may seem disingenuous coming from a superbeing whose girlfriend recently left him, who reduced one of his fellow superheroes to his constituent elements less than a minute ago, and is in the process of teleporting to another galaxy as he speaks the very words, but it's probably the only way a story as obsessed with the unity of the microcosmic and macrocosmic as Watchmen could ever conclude. It's a given that we mere humans will forever lack the perspective Dr. Manhattan gained by restructuring himself after being atomized in the Intrinsic Field Subtracter. To humans the fact that a live body and a dead one contain the same number of particles is irrelevant, and Dr. Manhattan's wisdom, no matter how semantically accurate or cosmically wise, is cold comfort to those of us who must make do with the meager input of our natural senses within the chartered context of linear time. Manhattan's answer clearly isn't the assurance Adrian Veidt is seeking when he asks if it all worked out in the end, his response seeming to imply that any solution Adrian's massacre effected will be a temporary one, but any problems that arise will prove temporary in turn—this too shall pass, in other words. From the perspective the scene is depicted in by Moore's collaborator Dave Gibbons, it's clear that Dr. Manhattan isn't just addressing Adrian Veidt but us, the readers, as well, assuring us that all endings are illusory and the story we've been reading will go on, though hopefully not as a markedly inferior film adapted by a director who doesn't understand the source material and will go on to sacrilege many other beloved franchises. (Spoiler Alert: That's totally what happened.)
It's a sentiment Watchmen's final panel would seem to confirm, with the curmudgeonly Seymour's hand poised forebodingly over the journal that will reveal Adrian's scheme. The best endings hint at the possibility—indeed, the inevitably—of the story continuing, but are gracious enough to let such promise fade off into the haze of imagination, like Rick and Louie strolling off into the evening fog at the end of Casablanca. The dynamics of capitalism's ever-hungering maw being what they are means that gamers are seldom afforded the luxury of such tasteful ambiguity as the last few lumbering behemoths of AAA game development desperately jockey for control of our steadily diminishing wallets and minds. Definitive conclusions are simply too unprofitable to build into video games. By disregarding hard stops games have skewed much further toward Dr. Manhattan's perspective on things. In doing so they've gained a grander awareness, but lost a significant portion of their humanity, blithely informing us nothing ever really ends as they spin off into open worlds and DLC.
I like endings. I like them a lot. In fact, I dearly wish I liked them less. The oft-repeated advice to “Enjoy the journey, don't worry about the ending.” is wasted on me, and a bad ending is capable of retroactively ruining my entire experience, whether I like it or not. I can't change. I've always been like this. One of the formative experiences of my relationship with art was being outraged by the ending of 1993's Welcome To Camp Nightmare, a book in R.L. Stine's ubiquitous Goosebumps series. As I recall, the story was pretty much what you'd presume it to be, the tale of a summer camp where evil councilors and camper-eating monsters constantly threatened to disrupt the normal camp activities of canoeing and getting molested. Welcome To Camp Nightmare's steadily intensifying atmosphere of mystery and menace had me in its thrall right up to the very end when, after refusing to hunt down one of his fellow campers (who had “blown”, in Scientology nomenclature) it's revealed that the entire evil camp was a test, engineered to see if the hero was ready to accompany his parents on their next mission to a hostile planet. The revelation so outraged me that I didn't give two $#!ts about the crappy twist that the dangerous place they were visiting next was earth. I felt insulted, manipulated, used, and though I was too young to articulate the precise origins of my outrage, I was certain I hadn't just gotten stuck with a crappy ending by an overworked writer who had to churn out a dozen YA horror books a year, the transgression was more personal than that. I'd been betrayed. Some unspoken covenant between artist and audience had been violated. This wasn't a story, it was a confidence trick, my willing suspension of disbelief had been abused, my investment of time and brainpower had been squandered, the writer had cheated. As I matured and my relationship with popular and unpopular culture steadily mutated I absorbed more than my fair share of trauma from endings that ranged from the mediocre to the baffling to the atrocious to the just plain sad, and have developed a much more discerning approach to the part of stories I continue to reluctantly love.
For a long time video games were safe from my peccadillo regarding endings because I was barely ever skilled enough to finish the bloody things. That changed with the advent of the fifth generation of video game consoles, a period when my enjoyment of and proficiency with video games went through a period of massive growth. I would replay certain games and certain levels with the deliberate focus of a medieval monk chanting the same handful of gospel verses every day, and memories of Goldeneye's ending, Starfox 64's ending, Rogue Squadron's ending, and Ocarina of Time's ending are burned into my mind where things like Junior High School Spanish and Proper Methods Of Human Interaction should be. The Playstation managed to bring a touch of cinematic grandeur to the proceedings, and with games like Resident Evil 2, Silent Hill 2, and Fear Effect multiple endings became the point, justifying the multiple playthroughs I probably would have performed anyway. The conclusions to story-heavy games like Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver were always tantalizing, bittersweet experiences and often tinged with shades of disappointment, but they had the reassuring finality of closing a good book. Sequels were as ubiquitous then as they are now, but in between there were all the dramatic trappings of conclusion and cliffhanger. The one-two punch of open world sandbox designs and DLC have largely brought that era to a close, and the gamer now often relates to video games less as a challenge to complete and more as a creative work of art they make themselves, which is never truly finished, only abandoned.
Admittedly, endings had been floundering for a long time before things reached this point. There are only so many times one can start the evil fortress' self destruct sequence and run away before it begins feeling contrived. (Though try telling the developers at Resident Evil that. You can't! They don't speak English.) For a long time endings suffered from the natural proclivities of video game design, which dictated that the ending was the thing you worked on when everything else was done, and mechanics always took precedence over story. Even on those rare occasions when a game's story is given its due, there's seldom any truly satisfying way to end something that the player has spent 30-50 hours of cumulative intimacy with. Every ending represents a challenge to the audience to reconcile the events of the story with their conclusion, a challenge many gamers don't want to face and many designers are loathe to poise. Open-world games like Grand Theft Auto V and Assassin's Creed IV don't end so much as they opt to run the credits after one particularly long mission. Other games, like Skyrim, opt to never run the credits in-game at all. Since they have to react to player input, video games tend to struggle with characterization while excelling at world building. These portrayals lead us to identify less with characters and more with the worlds they inhabit, encouraging us to explore and quest while the main quest, the game's presumed raison d'être, fades into the background. Video game companies have good reason to wean us off characters and onto worlds. The public has been notoriously hostile to endings when they're fond of a character. Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect Sherlock Holmes after killing him off, and Miguel de Cervantes was forced to write a sequel to Don Quixote when other authors proved more than willing to sate the public's appetite for tales of chivalrous lunatics. If the Metal Gear Solid 2 Solid Snake/Raiden bait-and-switch happened today, the reaction would probably be far more muted, and Konami would likely make a mint off some hastily assembled Solid Snake DLC. If endings and characters were always as bad as those featured in Metal Gear Solid 2 no one would miss them, but it's worth noting what we loose when we loose the end.
What is an ending supposed to do? What is its purpose in story? Was it just invented so people could stop relating their anecdotes before they passed out, or is it a more fundamental reflection of what we are as humans? If so, what parts of ourselves are we giving up when conclusive endings are jettisoned in favor of a world whose existence waxes and wanes in accordance with our interest?
Endings serve to reassure us that the characters are still human, drawing the fantastic events of the story down to a human level. Sagas like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings depict cataclysmic upheavals, but their endings offer the simple reassurance of friendship and robot hands. Committing to a conclusion requires courage, the kind of courage someone like George Lucas has come to conspicuously lack. Brave endings aren't necessarily good endings, but all endings require the author to display the courage necessary to abandon the thing they've created, push it out of the nest and let it fly or fall in the eyes of their audience. Not everyone can do it. Robert Jordan based his Wheel of Time series around a final apocalyptic battle he could never bring himself to pull the trigger on, and the series had to be completed posthumously by Brandon Sanderson. Even when games end now, they don't. Kratos dies at the end of God of War 3, except he doesn't. Isaac Clarke dies at the end of Dead Space 3, except he doesn't. Commander Shepard dies at the end of Mass Effect 3, but what the hell, let's make another one anyway. Bioshock Infinite ends with the story throwing a tantrum, outraged that it can't get absolutely everything it wants at the same time, and your character both is and isn't dead/alive/the villain/coming soon via DLC. To quote Doc Hammer via Brock Samson in an episode of The Venture Brothers: This is getting stupid.
Every ending is accomplished by a kind of letting go, a tacit admission that nothing lasts forever and we are all infinitesimal components of an unfathomably vast and obscure mechanism that will go on without us. The ending of Witcher 2 isn't necessarily a great one, but its courage in embracing this proposition is incredible, provided that's what CD Projekt actually intended, and the designers didn't just run out of time. When Witcher 2 ends Geralt of Rivia has become embroiled in a huge international conspiracy that will throw the land into turmoil and have profound consequences for his life, yet as he moves to open a gate and leave the city, he pauses to avoid crushing a ladybug, which skitters across his glove and flits away. After the carnage of Witcher 2's finale, it reminded me of the poem The Fly by William Blake.
Little fly, Thy summer’s play My thoughtless hand Has brushed away. Am not I A fly like thee? Or art not thou A man like me? For I dance And drink and sing, Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing. If thought is life And strength and breath, And the want Of thought is death, Then am I A happy fly, If I live, Or if I die.
Sure, it's pretentious, but to me it felt earned, it felt like an ending. I miss moments like these, the moment where the antihero stands poised over the ruins their actions have wrought and let the sum of what's transpired wash over them. Skyrim has a moment somewhat like that, when Alduin is defeated and the player is reunited with Paarthurnax (unless you killed Paarthurnax, in which case, shame on you) and there's something like a dragon intervention with the winged beasts appearing en masse to silently take your measure, but it's less a human moment and more a glimpse of the infinite. Less Adrian Veidt, more Dr. Manhattan.
Like the good doctor, as video games become more expansive and powerful, their humanity will naturally diminish. Perhaps it's inevitable to the medium. The gamification of killing that's present in most major titles means it's impossible to make ourselves feel every death, the way Adrian says he does in Watchmen's final pages. Video games also come prepackaged with the comfort of being able to quit at any time, cashing in our chips and moving on to greener galactic pastures as Dr. Manhattan does, while Adrian is left alone in his orrery, condemned to grapple with the consequences of what he's done for the rest of his life. Games like Spec Ops The Line have shown incredible courage in depicting the consequences of moral bankruptcy and they deserve all the praise we can bestow, but every game can't have a human conscience, nor would I want them to. Every time I begin a game, like Adrian Veidt, I am fully cognizant of the consequences of what I've set in motion. Like Dr. Manhattan, game designers aloofly refuse to provide it.