Short stories are, in my mind, more challenging to write than novels. I think it takes a certain special kind of talent to write them well, to create a concise beginning, middle, and end in 30 pages or less. Creative nonfiction journalism achieves this, and I have the Byliner Originals website to thank for my addiction to that particular form of short story. I also have them to thank for a few incredibly good short fiction pieces by some of my favorite writers.
Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm, Fire, War) is one of my favorite writers, and when I got my hands on his short story ‘A World Made of Blood’, I was hooked. It had a strong beginning, a tense, nail-biting middle, and then the ending came up and I was disappointed. That’s how you chose to end your story? I nearly shouted at the pages. That’s what you were building up to? That’s not how the story’s supposed to end!
Once my irritation leveled, I realized the arrogance of my status as reader suggesting that I knew better than the writer, and gave the story a second read through. While I wasn’t as disappointed the second time, I still don’t think the ending works as well as it ought to have. That said, you should still go out and read it, because Junger is a great writer. I just wish he’d taken as much time with his ending as with his story proper.
There are some games where stories fuel their game play, representing as big of and as important a role as the player interaction. Running and gunning for the ending, players ride an adrenaline wave to reach the conclusion and congratulate themselves on getting there. The narrative’s body twists and turns in every direction in favor of the best possible ending, the good ending, and sometimes the worst possible ending. The importance of getting to the end dominates all other aspects.
In reading ‘A World Made of Blood’, I felt that I was getting to the end without taking in the body of the story, racing to meet a conclusion I hadn’t earned. Earning the conclusion of a video game usually means watching the credits roll, not turning that last page.
Endings are critical to stories, regardless of the medium, and some of the best narrative endings I’ve seen are in video games. I couldn’t pick a favorite ending, but I could pick the endings that have stuck with me enough that I want to play through games again in order to see what might have been.
That still begs the question: In creating a best, good, and bad ending, and offering those options to players, have games run the risk of sacrificing the meaning of the actions that led to those outcomes?
(Spoilers ahead, do be warned).
Pushing for that ultimate good ending takes a lot of time, energy, and devotion on the part of the player. I’ve been known to criticize the fact that games seem to average out to between 6 and 8 hours these days for their campaigns, but sometimes that’s all the time and attention a gamer can devote to something. So, in order to justify a game’s length, regardless of what it is, there has to be a suitably epic ending, or at least a satisfying one.
Persona 4 on the Playstation 2 had a hidden, ‘perfect’ ending. It was a nightmare to achieve it. I would never have known it existed except a friend told me that an additional two to three hours could be achieved by talking to one character before the game was fully over, thereby learning the truth behind the Inaba murders. I wasn’t about to say no to more Persona 4 and so I pursued that perfect ending, learned the truth, defeated the real villain of the story, and gave myself (and my friend who told me the secret) a pat on the back, because I got the ‘real’ ending. Then I saw my timestamp and decided that seventy hours to reach a truly ‘perfect’ ending might have been a bit on the ridiculous side.
Dishonored suffered the problem of people knowing there was a good ending or a bad ending, and nothing in between the two, and that was even before they started playing. When I first saw the game in action, the person playing it was trying to have main character Corvo stay as much on the side of ‘good’ as possible, causing minimal death and chaos. However, by staying on the lighter side of things, a player is not allowed access to some of Corvo’s more interesting abilities. Embracing a bit of the dark side lets a player in on commanding armies of rats and other unpleasant abilities, while still helping you achieve the ‘good’ ending.
Bad endings come in two flavors: ‘bad’ in that the player has made a decision that leads to a less than desirable outcome, and ‘bad’ in the sense that it’s simply a poorly written conclusion.
Jade Empire technically has two bad endings, one where your character lives as a god, along with one or two other party members, and forces change upon the world at the cost of your humanity, and the other ending wherein every party member, including your character, dies, and the villain forces that same change, only in his way. Both endings make the story more powerful, but they are ultimately the ‘bad’ ending.
Games like Dragon Age 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II don’t have the problem of a good or bad ending, because those two games simply ended after their final boss battles. The former ended with a somewhat ominous cutscene setting up its inevitable sequel, and the latter with a series of dialogue trees. If I’ve ever felt cheated by an ending, it was with Knights of the Old Republic II; Dragon Age 2 just had me scratching my head and wondering if I had done something wrong. It turned out I had; I don’t live in the future, and thus can’t play the sequel.
With as much as I go on about the importance of narratives and now endings, it’s interesting that the game holding my attention of late has a shallow story. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier has had me hooked with its mix of stealth and third-person cover-shooter action, and while I know there’s a story in there, I don’t have the foggiest idea why it matters. The missions themselves are more interesting and tense than anything the narrative can throw at me. As to the ending, I don’t know what’s in store for me, but I know I’ll enjoy the ride there.
While adrenaline-fueling gameplay is a nice respite every now and then, I’ll take a good story over it any day. Ultimately, I want a story to make me work for the ending, and I want the ending to be worth the time I put into the game. A video game is an interactive experience, but I need intellectual stimulation in addition to gameplay; I need a reason to keep pushing the buttons, just like I need a reason to keep turning pages.
With each playthrough, the ending’s the ultimate reward … most of the time.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.
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