Today, the game’s often only over when you say it is. But it never used to be this way. Complete your latest purchase, picked up from Tandy or Woolworths, and that was it: credits, some kind of accompanying fanfare (if you were lucky, some music by someone as accomplished as Chris Hülsbeck or Yuzo Koshiro), and sometimes even a Game Over screen. Full stop. Begin again.
That games are expensive, and so consumers are after as much for their money as possible, is nothing new: when I was buying Sega games in the 1990s, their RRPs were frequently north of £40, and the SNES port of Street Fighter II was over £60. So seeing The Last Of Us in Tesco for £40, and Grand Theft Auto V retail on release at nearer £50, is perfectly in keeping with tradition.
But these new titles go further than the climax, beyond the endgame – both have online multiplayer options, one rather more developed than the other, and GTAV even dumps you, as one of its three playable characters, back into the environs of San Andreas immediately after you’ve sat through a what feels like a full weekend of credits.
Here’s your first spoiler warning. Don’t say you didn’t see it. What’s most striking about the ending of GTAV, compared to past Rockstar-developed titles where protagonists bite the bullets – or get swept away by a flood (below) – regardless of your choices, is how it gives the player the option to take one character completely out of the post-credits gameplay equation. Select A for him, B for him – or C for the certain-suicide-but-not-really option. Of course, most players opted for C (as this Giant Bomb poll makes clear).
SPOILERS Cole Phelps meets his maker, damply, in L.A. Noire
The final moments of GTAV are not dictated by how you’ve played the game to that point – you could have treated Trevor like a hero, despite his wildly insane ways, and still watch him burn. But the choice you make will be influenced by how you’ve played. How can it not be? You’ve just spent two days’ worth of gameplay in the company of these ‘men’. This is Rockstar breaking the proverbial fourth wall, shifting focus away from the triad of protagonists, looking the controller in the eyes and saying: “Hey, you, without giving it all that much thought, as the clock’s ticking, who dies?” It’s choose-your-own-adventure in its mechanics, with no turning back.
(Look, more spoilers.) So it’s closure, complete, yet not: the natural destination of a linear plotline for one, bypassed for further exploration, collectible-crunching and general larking for the others. And it’s just not particularly affecting due to its lack of commitment. What was most memorable about both Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire was the games’ happy-endings-gone-awry treatment of their main characters.
When John Marston got killed, we cried a little. (We did, right?) And even Cole Phelps earned our sympathy when he sacrificed himself to save his German singer love interest, Elsa. By steadfastly refusing to take action themselves in GTAV, Rockstar turns the attachment we feel with the game’s characters into a narrative barrier, a reason to not deliver the wicked plot turn witnessed in their previous titles.
By far the most emotionally engaging game endings of recent memory, to me, are those of the aforementioned The Last Of Us and the also-out-in-2013 BioShock Infinite. Credit where it’s due, too, to Metro: Last Light and The Darkness. These aren’t sandbox affairs, so their tunnel-funnelled designs are incompatible with post-credits replayability. But by sticking to the older-school ‘game over’ status once a playthrough is complete, they achieve an appealing finality.
This is all personal opinion, of course, but I don’t mind paying that £40 for a game like The Last Of Us, which keeps me entertained for the duration of a decent DVD boxset (I think I finished in just over 14 hours – the section in the tunnel, near the hospital, almost did me in) when the memory of the experience eclipses that of so many games completed after it.
Several other games of the ‘outgoing’ seventh console generation have featured thought-provoking endings. Indie titles like Journey and Limbo have closed out with such lump-in-the-throat beauty that I’ve been drawn back to them to undertake single-sitting playthroughs just to have that feeling again.
Year Walk’s dual endings are a revelation – when the second, ‘proper’ one is revealed, via a little detective work, it’s a real punch to the gut, turning what you’ve just seen on its head. Complete Fez with 32 cubes in place and it’s magical moment after magical moment, chiptune buzz and drone (courtesy of Rich Vreeland, aka Disasterpiece) and pixel art slamming against each other in glitch-rampant sensory overload. And it keeps going, keeps changing, until the credits hit you and finally there’s closure. Bananas, is what it is.
SPOILERS Fez’s fairly out-there 32 cubes ending
I don’t have the figures, but I’d guess that more people have played through Journey twice or more than have, say, the brief campaign of Call Of Duty: Ghosts, the big-budget FPS of 2013’s Q4 that failed to match the commercial performance of GTAV, perhaps partially due to its platform spread across current and ‘next-gen’ consoles. And the reason why isn’t because Call Of Duty isn’t exciting, because it is – it’s just that the game doesn’t completely deliver as a single-player proposition, the focus of its makers Infinity Ward long ago switching to online, multiplayer possibilities. Just like GTAV, it lacks a killer blow at its climax to warrant affection long after the credits have rolled.
I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that by concentrating on longevity for their product after the story’s been told, developers run the risk of actually derailing what could make said story so effective: how it wraps itself up. The multiplayer component of The Last Of Us feels bolted on – and that’s not a problem because there’s a wealth of multiplayer-friendly games out there if that’s your thing. It’s not mine, so I’m glad that the main focus of Naughty Dog was on the solo campaign, one that comes to a conclusion that left me in a state of gently moved silence, thus colouring what came before it in a wholly individual style. Infinite, too, deserves plenty of praise for its ending, less twist-based than the first game in the BioShock series but a lot more complex to unravel. Again, it allowed me to look back at what’d preceded it and attempt to connect the dots between seemingly disparate incidents, something that cannot be said for less-ambitious narratives – in games, television, theatre, movies or the printed word.
I haven’t gone back to GTAV since I decided to keep all three of its protagonists alive and kicking. Not because it’s not an amazing game, but because others have come along, massive open-world affairs like Assassin’s Creed IV (which I am still playing), and because I’ve taken the opportunity in this fallow period for new releases to explore a title I’d previously missed, Far Cry 3. (Amazing, by the way.) But I’m glad I did finish the GTAV story, as given the effort that goes into making games like it, it’s a massive shame that more people don’t see them through – less that 30% of those who bought Grand Theft Auto IV finished it, compared to over 70% for the much shorter Halo 3 (here be stats).
Downloadable expansions – like Infinite’s Burial At Sea, and new game ‘plus’ options grant these single-trajectory, plot-linear titles extended lifetimes – but, honestly, I’m okay with the initial products a lot of the time. These added-footage affairs can feel like director’s cut additions, not always benefiting what preceded them*, and they largely fail to capture the same atmosphere and emotions as the main game – or, in the case of Red Dead Redemption’s (admittedly very fun) Undead Nightmare, rewrite what was and subsequently take some of the shine off the game proper’s memorable climax. It’s not quite Hicks Is Alive (Gearbox, you shall never be forgiven), but edging Bouncer’s Dream territory in terms of shark-jumping ludicrousness.
(*There might be a case for Half-Life 2’s twin mini-sequels bringing more to the main game, given its originally underwhelming climax. Might be.)
So I say when the game is up, not the makers. But when I chose my ending, it’s regularly at 400, with no turn-to-page-X option immediately available. Pay your money, take your choice, but always side with satisfaction.
Savage Pixels’ Best Game Endings, Ever
(Subject to revision tomorrow – spoilers, obviously.)
The Last Of Us
It’s fair to say that this is entirely crushing, but that it won’t make too much sense unless you’ve the relevant context – why Ellie is unconscious, for a start, or who the Fireflies are, or just why Joel is so brutal here. Don’t watch if you’re yet to finish this… it will ruin things for you.
No real story spoilers to speak of here, as even without the preceding gameplay this sequence is incredibly beautiful. But, again, if you do want the surprise, don’t click this clip. Apparently some players turned off when the screen went white, thus missing the blue skies of the final mountain ascent – one of the most wonderful parts of any videogame, ever, made all the more amazing by Austin Wintory’s Real-Life Properly Grammy-Nominated score. How long did you pause for at the summit? I lost track…
While the ending to Journey is bright, colourful, and loud, this more contemplative climax is just as memorable. Playdead’s monochrome puzzle-platformer was a classic before its ending was reached – and the ambiguity of this sequence, complete with crackly ambient music and swirling wind, just nailed home its classiness. Snap to black. Beautiful.
It’s Rapture! (“A city, at the bottom of the ocean? Ridiculous.”) But why? Rarely has an ending tied together so many previously loose ends, but in doing so provoked so many different perspectives of analysis.
Another sad, and simple, one – but then, what comes before it is hardly the stuff of candyfloss and cuddles. If you need to know the significance of Jenny in this ending, then you’ve not played it – and for the couple of quid it’ll cost second hand today, you really should. Shame Mike Patton’s channelling Papa Lazarou, but you can’t have everything.
Dunno about you, but the vacuum of space is possibly too good for Stephen Merchant. Being told that you’ve “won” always feels nice, though. And coming after the original Portal, we always knew there’d be a special song at the end.
Red Dead Redemption
The way Bon Jovi told it, going out in a blaze of glory sounded pretty heroic. This just makes a man sad.
Shadow Of The Colossus
It’s more how you reach this point in Shadow Of The Colossus that matters, rather than its ending, which is fairly well telegraphed the closer you get to it. But by not switching tone to deliver a happy ending, it closes out a tremendously emotional game with yet more heavy feelings, albeit with a suggestion of hope in the ‘rebirth’ of Wander (20:00). And it’s entirely apt that, even at its end, a game of such few words says all that it needs to through Kow Otani’s sumptuous soundtrack. SOTC is still one of the most arresting games of all time, from start to finish.
The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker
So… we’re supposed to sympathise with Ganon? And isn’t this a tad violent for a game that, for a lot of its lengthy duration, is gorgeously cutesy? Yes, and yes. But this is probably the best ending of any of the excellent Zelda games.
Just getting to see all of the previous cut-scenes again was reward enough. One of the greatest 16-bit-era adventures, even if it did borrow rather blatantly from Alien right at the end.
Resident Evil 4
You’ve just played one of the most important videogames of any generation, a foundation stone for so many of today’s third-person shooter titles. And this is how it ends?
Yep, this is how it ends. Thanks for reading Savage Pixels these past few years. It’s been a treat.
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