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The Punctuation Mark: How a Game’s Ending Affects Our Perception of the Experience

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Imagine this: you are two hours into a movie, one which has gripped you with compelling narrative and beautiful cinematography. You have already placed this film among your favorites, mentally picking out the spot on your shelf where the collector’s edition Blu-Ray will be displayed. You are on the edge of your seat, sweating in anticipation of the climax. Suddenly, the plot twists. The movie’s narrative takes a sudden turn into a non sequitur. The final scenes don’t release any of the anticipation which was so carefully built up over the preceding two hours. The credits roll. You turn to the person next to you and say “what a horrible movie!”

I think we have all experienced this sensation to some degree, whether it was a novel that failed to deliver or even a vacation that was cut short by illness. Our experiences are often defined by a culminating event, positive or negative. I would contend that videogames are affected by this phenomenon to an even greater extent due to their inherent work > reward structure. Almost always “one more turn” or “one more level” is intended to produce a capstone experience: a rare piece of loot, a particularly interesting boss fight, or an improved skill. Whether on the macro or micro level, videogames must pay off their debt to us in an appropriate way in order for us to feel satisfied. I have roughly categorized some of my experiences here in the hopes of generating some discussion around the topic of game endings.

Before I dive into the categories, I want to clarify what I mean by “the end” of a game. This is an extremely fluid term: in some games the final story arc can be 2-10 hours. In others, a single scene or battle can make or break the game. Don’t read too literally and think that “conclusion” means “just the very last 5 minutes of a game.” Instead, consider the moments of a game that felt conclusive, however long or short that segment might be.

1. The Exclamation Point: the apex of enjoyment is at the end.

For a game like Dark Souls, this means an epic boss fight followed by a tragic choice. For Phoenix Wright, a fiendishly complex case where the main characters’ arcs are neatly resolved. A game which takes its best parts and cranks them up to maximum for the conclusion will be fondly remembered. Even a mediocre or outright terrible opening sequence may be forgiven if the ending uses the game’s mechanisms in an exemplary way. For me most of the Pokemon games fall into this category. Despite a lackluster opening, the process of unlocking abilities, building a better party, and eventually challenging the Elite 4/Champion is a smooth quality increase from mediocre to fantastic.

2. The Period: the apex of enjoyment is not at the end.

Maybe you were too overleveled to enjoy the final boss. Maybe you feel like the narrative was tied up too neatly. Whatever the reason, the ending was not as good as the middle. I most often have this experience in ARPGs like Path of Exile or Grim Dawn, where I find the process of leveling and class-building much more enjoyable than overcoming the final boss and seeing an ending cutscene. Still, this type of ending doesn’t always cast a long shadow over a game. Players get to the end of a game like this because they are still chasing the high that the beginning or middle of the game provided, and as such will be more likely to remember the good than the bad.

3. The Question Mark: the game just ends.

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“That’s it?” When an ending feels underdeveloped, players will feel cheated to the extent that they may not look back with fondness, even on a game that was great up to that point. This is the feeling which inspired this post. I looked back through my 3DS library recently and saw that I have over 40 hours in Bravely Default, despite the fact that when I reached the “end” I was so aggravated I immediately sold the game. I almost never sell physical games unless I am absolutely certain that I will never want to play them again, but how could I put 40 hours into a game that was that miserable? The answer is simple: in my eyes, the game wasted its potential with an ending that completely subverted all the fun I had up to that point. What started as minor gripes in an otherwise fantastic game ended up being amplified tenfold by the final arc: difficulty spikes, massive amounts of grinding, min-maxing, etc. So, despite the fact that I had 40 hours of fun, I felt at the time like much of the fun was undone.

4. The Ellipsis: aka “the peter-out”

Sometimes a game ends with “attention attrition.” In games like Skyrim, Spelunky, or Minecraft, being “done” is not always clear-cut. Yes there may be a story-quest or hardest boss to defeat, but there’s almost always more to do. For non-completionists like myself, this ending is even more subjective than the other three. What I end up asking myself is: “would I have more fun playing something else right now?” As soon as I’m willing to gamble that the next new game will be better than the one I’m currently playing, I move on. This type of ending is even possible in linear games provided that they have content which is lengthier than the player’s commitment level.

Another 40 hour game I have in my collection is Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. This series is notorious for requiring a high commitment level from the player: learning the crafting and combat systems is quite time-consuming, and is probably the closest to real work that I’ve done in a videogame. For that reason, the beginning for me was slow, grindy, and difficult, but the middle portion was incredibly gratifying and fun. Unfortunately, that fun-feeling slowly wore down to the point that less than halfway through the game, I just quit. My perception of this particular game is heavily colored by that experience – do I really want to jump into another Monster Hunter game for a few hours of fun if it’s slowly going to get blander and blander without my noticing? Or is it worth it to try again, provided that I am prepared to cut my losses at the first sign of diminishing returns?

It’s important to note that all of these categories are highly subjective, given that they rely heavily on player expectations. That’s not to say that developers shouldn’t be held responsible for the way their endings are received. A well-made game sets the player’s expectations with its opening sequences, its mechanisms, and its marketing. It’s also up to the player to have reasonable expectations, to “speak the language” that the game is communicating in. Many players were upset about Firewatch’s ending because they felt that they were set up for something different than what they got. For me, Firewatch ended with an exclamation point – it was the perfect climax to the narrative. For others, it was a question mark and majorly killed their appreciation for the preceding narrative. While either experience is valid, expecting Firewatch to end with an epic boss battle would be very silly, and any criticism based on that expectation would be disingenuous.

I’m interested to hear how a game’s conclusion affected your perception of it. Have you revisited any games where you realized that your memory was massively colored by the ending? Is there a game that redeemed itself in the end? Do you have another category of ending that you’ve experienced? Thanks for reading, I look forward to seeing any discussion that this post prompts!

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