Start Strong, End Strong

Pictured - A better ending than that of The Last of Us

Introduction

Regardless of the medium, a bad ending is one of the worst flaws a work can have. It’s one of the few mistakes that the author cannot recover from without resorting to sequels and extensive retconning. I am, and always have been, a stickler for endings. Indeed, I’ve made it a rule when critiquing that any work with a lackluster ending is not worthy of being deemed a classic and the highest score it could ever hope to get is a 6/10, which roughly translates to a B- in my book. While discussing the nature of story progression with my fellow games enthusiast, Aether, he perfectly illustrated why I insist on holding this belief.

“A weak ending is one of the few things that can retroactively lower the quality of a story, turning sour all the good memories of what you’ve been reading, watching, or playing.”

–Aether

This is especially crucial for video games; you want to reward your audience for overcoming a challenge and having the tenacity to see your work through to the end. Depriving them of a good ending is one of the worst insults any development team can dish out. In all of the games I’ve played over the years, three stand out as having endings so bad, the good memories I had of them were almost completely erased. They should be studied by writers as what to avoid when crafting and structuring their stories. In order to demonstrate my points, I will have to resort to spoilers, so if you are at all interested in playing the following games, feel free to skip those sections. Don’t worry though, should I mention other games in the following sections, I will be sure to include spoiler tags if needed.

Mother 3: The Dangers of Style Discordance

Mother 3 - Ending

Before we begin, I want to make one thing clear: unlike the next two titles I will mention, the ending of Mother 3 is not its main problem. The defining flaw of Mother 3 is that the story interferes with the gameplay, actively making it worse. I could tell when playing that the developers programmed their game around the story rather than seamlessly integrating the two entities. Rest assured, the ending is awful and factored into the heretical score I ultimately awarded it.

One of the most important things to remember when constructing the ending of your work is to make sure that it meshes well with your writing style. For example, the ambiguous ending of Shadow of the Colossus works because the rest of the story, including character motivations and morality, allowed for multiple interpretations. How does Mother 3 fare in this regard?

To start with, you learn in the final chapter that Mother 3 takes place after the end of human civilization. The Nowhere Islands, where a majority of the game is set, is the only inhabitable land left on Earth. Was the apocalypse caused by an alien invasion? No. It turns out that the end of the world was caused by good, old-fashioned human nature. The story already subjected us to many wan author tracts about the evils of modern society by having an outside force corrupt a utopia with the introduction of concepts such as money and science all while pulling every trick in the book in an attempt to make us cry, and with this last disclosure, we’ve reached something of a plateau.

This revelation alone would have been enough to make me think worse of this story, as it employs a very, very tired trope and, worse, retroactively nullifies the efforts of both Ninten and Ness, but little did I know that the worst was yet to come. To rewind just a little bit, in the penultimate chapter, Lucas and his friends learn of an entity known as the Dark Dragon. The Dark Dragon sleeps underneath the Nowhere Islands and only by pulling seven enchanted needles will it awaken. Its will depends on the heart of the person who pulls them – either erasing all of existence or washing away evil forever. By the end of the final chapter, six of the needles have been pulled: three by Lucas and three by a mysterious masked man who serves as second-in-command to the game’s primary antagonist. The final showdown pits the two against each other; the winner will have the honor of pulling the seventh needle, determining the fate of the world.

Unfortunately, the last battle is a total disappointment, especially considering how challenging the bosses were up until the final chapter. It turns out that the mysterious masked man is actually Lucas’s brother, Claus, resurrected from the dead with no memories or will of his own. The final confrontation involves standing your ground until the spirit of Lucas’s dead mother convinces her children to stop fighting. Yes, I know it’s meant to be a fight that’s emotionally taxing rather than mentally challenging, but it doesn’t prevent it from being one of the worst final bosses in JRPG history, and it exemplifies this game’s aforementioned signature flaw. From a story standpoint, it’s unique, but when it comes to actual gameplay, all you’re doing is defending every single turn, occasionally healing when your HP gets too low. When enough turns have passed, the battle ends with Claus electrocuting himself to death. Considering how inventive the final encounters were in the series’ previous two installments, saying that Claus was a step down is nothing short of an understatement.

As you may have surmised by now, Mother 3 is guilty of telling its story in a way that if you don’t get the message the first time, the author will repeat it twelve more times just so you’re not lost. Because Mother 3 was written in a way that completely abandoned all notions of subtlety and tact, it became discordant when both concepts were suddenly introduced in the ending.

After Lucas defeats his brother and pulls the final needle, the Dark Dragon awakens, ostensibly destroying the world. You’re then presented with a black screen that says, “END?” Moving the directional pad results in the cast addressing you directly, telling you that they all survived somehow. This leaves us to wonder if the apocalypse actually wiped out everything and the cast is in the afterlife or if everything turned out alright. It’s a question that will remain unanswered.

This is why the ending of Mother 3 fails; it does not complement the writing style that was prevalent throughout the rest of the game. It can get annoying when authors decide to write in a way that makes their message painfully obvious, but if the ending is equally unsubtle, I would at least have to applaud their consistency. As it stands, I liken Mother 3 to a person giving an hour-long speech only for them to lose their voice before they could finish, leaving listeners to wonder what their last point was going to be.

To be fair, Mother 3 also had quite the troubled production; its development cycle ended up lasting for twelve years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the team just wanted to truncate as much as possible by the end. The same couldn’t be said of the next game I wish to showcase.

System Shock 2: A Lesson in Story Structure

System Shock 2 - Ending

I maintain that Ken Levine is one of the medium’s better storytellers, and playing his three most well-known games has given me a grasp on his strengths and weaknesses. His greatest strength is that he is adept at implementing a plot twist that will shatter your perception of reality. They hit a perfect point of being skillfully foreshadowed and difficult to see coming. It doesn’t matter if you’re expecting a twist – you will be caught off guard.

The big twist of System Shock 2 was that the crew member who has been aiding you since you awoke from a cryogenic slumber is actually the monstrous A.I. SHODAN, the antagonist of the original game. What makes this a particularly brilliant development is that even after her true identity is revealed, you still have to do her bidding. It’s a situation that makes you feel truly alone; you’re light years away from Earth, and your only ally is someone you absolutely cannot depend on and have every reason to distrust. Yet the price of failure means getting absorbed into a malicious entity and surrendering your free will in the process.

Mr. Levine’s biggest weakness is that for two of his games, the Earth-shattering revelation occurs somewhere around the halfway point. This wouldn’t be so bad, except the quality of his games tend to drop after the twist, culminating in disappointing final levels, and, in the case of System Shock 2, an awful ending as well.

With the help of SHODAN, the main character is able to destroy the entity that took over his crewmates. Naturally, once he has done so, SHODAN swoops right in and takes control of the ship herself. When he confronts her, SHODAN makes him a deal: to rule over humanity together, citing their mutual dependence. He refuses and blasts her into oblivion. Alas, it did not work, for she transmuted her consciousness to an escape pod where she took control of a crew member. She has succeeded in her goals and humanity is doomed.

Why is the ending of System Shock 2 horrible? The reason is twofold. The first is that the ending is at odds with the game’s tone. Though many people sing praises about this title, I doubt many of them would say that the voice acting is spectacular. Because the final cutscene relied on its less-than-stellar voice acting, the oppressive atmosphere the designers had crafted melted away, leaving us with an ending right out of a cheesy B movie. Secondly, the ending let the antagonist win. Having the bad guy win is a difficult trope to pull off successfully because, if you’re not careful, it results in an anticlimactic ending. You’re basically giving away the ending of your story as soon as you introduce your villain.

While System Shock 2 is considered a classic in many circles, it could, quite possibly, have the worst structure of any game I’ve ever played. The RPG elements, though an innovate concept in theory, bog the game down in practice. As a direct result of this, it can be tricky to complete the game without a guide, especially if you’re second-guessing yourself, wondering if you chose the right abilities. In other words, not only is System Shock 2 a difficult game to get into, especially from a modern perspective, but your investment isn’t rewarded with a satisfying payoff.

This wouldn’t be the last time Mr. Levine would make this mistake either. For proof of this, one need not look further than the spiritual successor of System Shock 2, BioShock. You remember how the worst ending unfolds |with the main character taking over Rapture and unleashing the Splicers into the world, shedding the blood of countless innocents|? Here’s the thing: it was originally planned to be the only ending; it didn’t matter how you played through the rest of the game. Thankfully, the higher-ups vetoed this idea and talked Mr. Levine and his staff into creating a second, happier ending. This is what gave the game its simple, yet effective moral dilemma where you have to make personal sacrifices to get the best ending. It’s a shining example of beneficial executive meddling, for had BioShock limited itself to what would become the worst ending, it would have suffered the same fate as System Shock 2.

Fortunately, Mr. Levine eventually overcame his weakness with what I consider his best work, BioShock: Infinite, by opting to go for a twist ending instead. Because the game was over at that point, it couldn’t possibly go downhill from there. More importantly, the twist was amazing, taking all the tropes he had used to their logical destinations. Replaying the game with that knowledge in mind creates an entirely different experience – just as a good ending should.

The Last of Us: Having a Likable Protagonist Is a Good Idea

The Last of Us - Ending

For a while, I had a difficult time deciding which game had a worse ending: this one or System Shock 2. Both endings are absolutely abysmal and mar their respective games to the point where I thought much worse of them when I was finished. The ending of System Shock 2 managed to dash all of the goodwill the rest of the game had built up |by having the main antagonist win using a hitherto unknown ability|. The Last of Us had a far greater amount of problems with its story than System Shock 2 by the time I reached its final scenario, yet the ending still managed to stick out as the worst part about it by far.

In other words, my choice was between an ending that ruined a novel, genre-defying masterpiece and one that soured memories of a tired, by-the-book third-person shooter. I have very little doubt as to which one caused more damage, but I still have to give the nod to The Last of Us for one tiny detail: you’re forced to contribute to that game’s atrocious ending by gunning down innocent people. In the case of System Shock 2, everything that’s horrible about the ending is encapsulated within the last few seconds of the final cutscene, so you can simply opt to skip it |once the main character shoots SHODAN|. Meanwhile, the writers of The Last of Us railroad players into walking down a predetermined path all while calling them a monster for doing so. Because it missed out on a great opportunity to include multiple endings, the experience of The Last of Us is comparable to playing with a game master who throws tantrums whenever things don’t go their way.

The ending of The Last of Us fails for numerous reasons, but the issue which I feel is understated is that the final sequences turn Joel into an unlikable hypocrite. I’ve read at least one essay claiming that The Last of Us is a brilliant work of art because it turns out you were playing as the villain the whole time, but I remain unconvinced. The writers had Joel commit multiple acts of murder only for him to be retroactively justified with a piece of information that wasn’t even worked into the narrative. The Last of Us was completely blatant about its themes up until this point, thus making it jarring that the writers equivocated when asked to take a stance on the morality of their protagonist. It’s yet another case of an ending featuring a style that clashes horribly with the rest of the story.

Whatever the case may be, it’s a good idea to make sure the protagonist of your work is likable despite, and maybe even because of, their flaws. In no medium is this more important than in video games because you’re the one guiding the protagonist to success. If it turns out that the main character is unlikable, it just means that you could have died and turned off the game, knowing that it would unironically be a happier ending than the canonical one.

Drawing a Conclusion

Here’s a fun fact: a significant number of people never finish the games they play. It doesn’t matter how story-driven the game is, those players will never see the credits roll. I get the feeling a lot of development teams know this and, in an effort to garner as many accolades as possible, they seem to put the most amount of effort into creating the beginning and middle portions of their games, leaving no good ideas left for the endgame. I think many critics function similarly; either they’re willing to overlook weak endings if the rest of the game was great or their assessment is not based on the work as a cohesive whole. I personally do not abide by that mentality. One of my rules is that I can only review games I have finished. Therefore, my scoring system is an evaluation of the entire work as opposed an embellishment of the one or two good ideas the author had.

Whenever people say that a work is great, but has a weak ending, I am reminded of a lesson I learned all the way back in grade school. We were learning how to write persuasive essays, and I knew going into the lesson that persuasive essays relied on three main arguments. At the time, I thought it was more important to begin with your strongest argument and then follow up with your progressively weaker ones. The order my teacher suggested we arrange them in was very different; we were told to start with our second-strongest argument, follow up with our weakest argument, and finally end with our strongest argument.

This lesson has stuck with me this entire time because it forever changed my approach to writing. I also feel that fiction writers could learn from this, for a story constructed in a way that begins with its best ideas and ends with its worst ones only works if the audience stops reading after the prologue. You want to have a strong ending, as it’s the last memory your audience will have of your work. Stories with bad endings cease being good as soon as they conclude. Stories with great endings are good forever. Likewise, if you don’t provide your audience with an incentive to see how your story develops, you may as well not have created any content in the first place.

To put it another way, start strong, end strong.

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6 thoughts on “Start Strong, End Strong

  1. Endings are hard. They require a completely different style of writing than the rest of the work, they can require handling as much complexity as the rest of the story put together, and if they hadn’t been planned for, they tend to come about when the authors are at their weakest creatively for a variety of reasons. It’s easy to see why a lot of writers don’t put the thought they should into it. And yet the ending’s the part that sticks with people the most, after it’s all said and done. I had much different problems with the ending of the Last of Us than I think most people did, but it still really soured the enjoyment I’d gotten up to that point. I have never watched a second of the Sopranos, yet I know exactly how it ends because people just won’t stop talking about how poorly it worked. No matter how good the Half-Life series may be, every time I think about them I just can’t get past how the most recent entry just ended with an absolute whimper.

    I’ve played a lot of games where the ending didn’t live up the rest of it, and to some degree, that’s fine, but it’s hard for me to truly consider a game great when its ending just falls apart. Story-based games in particular, the ending is where you should have one of the highest moments of the game, where the energy should be reaching its peak, where you get all the myriad story strands finally coming together. When that doesn’t happen, the whole work just feels incomplete.

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    • I would have to agree that the ending is the most difficult part of the story to craft. I tend to like stories where you can tell that the author knows how it’s all going to end and is simply working to get to that point. It’s especially important if it’s a twist ending because then they can foreshadow it properly. I’d say that the only time a game can get away with a weak ending is if the story had very little presence to begin with. In those cases, it’s easy to dismiss the story as unimportant and just have fun with the game. Granted, if an ending is sufficiently awful, even the fact that the title is gameplay-heavy won’t save it from mediocrity.

      I think the fact that the series is in limbo prevents me from declaring the ending of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 to be one of the worst I’ve ever seen. I do have to say that if Half-Life 2 didn’t have sequels, it likely would have suffered the same fate as System Shock 2. Because it got two sequels, the weak ending of Half-Life 2 is no longer an issue, and I can safely say that it’s a game that actually lives up to the hype.

      I didn’t really get a chance to talk about it too much in the article proper, but the reason I’m confident with my assessment of the quality of the endings of Mother 3 and System Shock 2 is because they end their respective series, not just the individual games, on a low note. In the case of the Mother series, Mr. Itoi flat-out stated that he doesn’t intend to create a fourth game. Meanwhile, with System Shock 2, the ending comes across as a sequel hook, but due to the vague copyright laws that surround the game, the series is effectively stopped, and the final development remains unresolved (assuming a resolution was ever planned to begin with). If a sequel to The Last of Us ever gets made, then it might end up invalidating my criticisms if the folks at Naughty Dog realize the unfortunate implications that plague their masterwork’s ending and address them. Having said that, I think they should focus more on gameplay than story with their future titles. As it stands, I just don’t think they have the writing talent required to pull off a story-heavy game – especially not with such glaring weaknesses.

      Actually, if I may ask, what were your problems with the conclusion of The Last of Us?

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      • That is an interesting point, that the quality of the ending can change depending on the presence of a sequel and how the sequel uses it. Aside from when games are explicitly built as part of a series that tells a complete story, such as Golden Sun or the Mass Effect trilogy, I’m usually of the opinion that a game needs to stand on it’s own storywise, but you’re right. Thinking back, I’m a lot more forgiving of Borderland’s cruddy ending than I would be with standalone games, largely because it already had a sequel by the time I got around to it. At the same time, though, you have to work with what you’re given. For a time, your only experience with a finale of that particular storyline is going to be the ending to the original, and even if sequels may create a new , farther off, more satisfying conclusion for the OG game’s plot, they can’t really erase the experience.

        As far as the Last of Us goes, I think I’ve got a different perspective on the ending because I was focused on a different drive for the story. For me, the Last of Us was very much a character-driven game rather than a plot-driven game; the story was about the relationship and personal growth of Joel and Ellie so much more than it was about the quest to deliver the mushroom messiah to the Fireflies. So with that in mind, I had two main problems with the denouement: A) The whole twist that the Fireflies were going to kill Ellie for the cure was absolutely backwards and moronic, yet still drove all the action of the finale, and B) The final scene undoes a lot of the character development and conclusion that had already been established.

        To me, Joel turning against the Fireflies to rescue Ellie was quite fitting. The game started with him being a complete and total selfish bastard, little more than the type of thug you gun down by the thousand in any other game. He started changing through his relationship with Ellie, gaining a sense of purpose and a little more of a gentler outlook, then, in the end game, he actually does something costly and dangerous, that doesn’t carry any personal benefit for him, all for the person he came to love. That’s growth, and development, and I found it very satisfying. But the situation shouldn’t have come about in the first place. From the start, the Fireflies whole scheme seemed hasty and ridiculous, that they were handed the miracle cure and within whatever short time you were out concluded that it had to be destroyed. The idea that they immediately decided they had to kill Ellie to get to her magic fungi, even when some of it was just poking out of her skin, ran counter to the scant bits of medical knowledge I have, and while I usually try to maintain my suspension of disbelief as much as I can, given that writers tend to have no understanding of medicine, that one was just too much for me. That they seemed to have made that decision almost immediately, with no time given for actual thought and analysis, painted the Fireflies as irresponsible and dangerous at best. Which, if that was the point, could actually be effective. But then I came across the audiolog pointing out they’d done this before and still failed to get anything productive out of it, and that painted the Fireflies as outright evil. But it was obvious that was not the impression I was supposed to be getting of them, and I carried that dissonance with me all through the ending.

        Then the final scene ruined what conclusion that had offered. Joel lied to Ellie about what that happened, and Ellie knew it. Joel lying proves that he hadn’t really grown enough, and kind of cut short his development arc. That was a very self-focused lie, intended to make things easier for himself than to salve things for Ellie, so his newfound purpose and maturity is shut right back down after making a brief appearance in the Firefly issue. Ellie knowing that he lies opens up way too many questions for their immediate future to adequately close on, and really makes the story feel incomplete to me.

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        • The Last of Us is indeed more character-driven than it is plot-driven. If one analyzes the plot with a fine-toothed comb, it doesn’t take long to find glaring contradictions. It doesn’t make sense why the people presented in the game are so quick to resort to killing, yet apparently lasted twenty years after the outbreak of a horrible zombie virus without driving each other to extinction. It’s a very rookie mistake I’ve seen many authors make when writing serious fiction; they use every cynical trope in the book without making sure the ideas can actually work when implemented at the same time. Moreover, The Last of Us is a great example of a game that has two different, mutually-exclusive stories: one told by the gameplay, the other told by the cutscenes. In this case, either the zombie virus isn’t the threat the narrative makes it out to be or Joel is an absolute monster for thoughtlessly gunning down what little remains of his species. It demonstrates why this method of storytelling doesn’t work so well for games.

          Speaking of which, this is why I do not like Joel as a character; he despises humanity for taking his child away, yet has no qualms about taking away the children of others, thus making him not one iota better than those for whom he holds contempt. Those are traits I look for in a villain, as they tend to be similarly myopic. Though looking back, making this game a third-person shooter may have been a bad idea. Or at least it wouldn’t have been so bad if Naughty Dog decided to get creative by including a better array of zombies. Most enemies in Resident Evil 4 were incapable of shooting back, and that’s one of the best games in the genre.

          In fact, when we were discussing the nature of story progression and I remarked that one of the pyramids reminded me that some stories have unsatisfying arcs for their characters, this was the game I was alluding to. The idea for an interesting character study is present, but Naughty Dog was too hasty and a majority of Joel’s transformation occurs within that twenty-year time skip (in hindsight, this one decision created a lot of narrative problems, didn’t it?). It seemed like he changed a little by the end, but as we’ve both pointed out, the ending dashed whatever goodwill that established.

          My main problem with the audiolog is that it’s not worked into the narrative, so the information effectively exists in separate dimension from the story. It also doesn’t make sense why Joel doesn’t have Ellie listen to the log after they make their escape. Why wouldn’t he show her a piece of information that proves that the Fireflies had no idea what they were doing? It’s possible he lost it during the escape, but that just raises the question of why he didn’t make the extra effort to preserve the valuable, damning information. What doesn’t change is that the journey to find them in the first place was rendered completely pointless, so I feel like my time was wasted.

          Though as I said, I had a lot of problems with this game even before I reached the ending. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Really? This is the game that got perfect scores across the board?” more than once while playing it (don’t include one-hit kill enemies unless you can make dealing with them tolerable). Indeed, I doubt even fans of the game would say that the gameplay is exceptional, so having ruled out that and the actual plot, that just leaves us with the characters. The Last of Us hinges entirely on how much you like them. If you do, it’s a good, possibly even great, experience. If you don’t, everything falls apart; there is no fallback plan. It looks like we had markedly different thought processes, yet there was quite a lot of overlap and we arrived at largely the same conclusion. It’s interesting how that worked out.

          By the way, you have some medical knowledge? That’s awesome!

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          • I agree so hard on that point about the one-hit kill enemies. Actually killing the player is often one of the worst outcomes for a story-based game, as it kills any sense of momentum the story’s been building up, ruins immersion by presenting the player with the most gamey function of the medium, and irritates or frustrates players to the point of either distraction or of dropping the story entirely. Some games are able to get around it, such as Dark Souls providing an opaque story that the player discovers at their own pace anyways, but the Last of Us is not one of those games. That they would have so many enemies that can kill you after just a moment’s mistake or distraction is just bonkers to me. And yeah, they definitely needed some more variety in enemies. Having only four real enemies, of which one you rarely ever saw, led to a lot of samey gameplay.

            That freakin’ audiolog. The moral ambiguity was the strongest point the ending had going for it, yet that audiolog ruined even that, while making that whole exchange between Joel and Ellie nonsensical. Like you said, it gives him what should be an easy, reasonable solution to Ellie’s questions, yet it never makes its way in there. The ending would still be bad, but it’d be at least a little better without it.

            And eh, I’ve got the kind of medical knowledge you get from having an enthusiastic MD student housemate, and some things gleaned from CPR class and a few medical-based events I’ve managed from work, but nothing too impressive. It is kind of fun to explain things at parties like why exactly you’re not supposed to drink while taking certain medicines, though.

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            • When done poorly, one-hit-kill enemies are nothing more than the developers breaking their own rules just to stick it to the player. If you’ve memorized where all of the dangerous enemies are going to pop out due to having died often enough, the in-universe implication that the protagonist is precognizant (or divinely favored), which ruins immersion. One of the cool things about Dark Souls is that the death of the character is incorporated into the story, thus explaining why the protagonist would know of every deadly obstacle in advance – (s)he has lived the experience of having fallen victim to them. I couldn’t help but notice that I died about as frequently in Dark Souls as I did in The Last of Us. Despite this, I don’t consider the latter a difficult game. It’s because the challenge of Dark Souls feels real; I can attribute a majority of my deaths in that game to being reckless or shortsighted. With The Last of Us, I felt most of my deaths were the result of me not conforming to Naughty Dog’s arbitrary standards.

              An off-the-wall theory I came up with for the audiolog’s absence in the final cutscene was that it doesn’t actually exist – it was a figment of Joel’s imagination in order to justify his actions to himself and place all of the blame onto the Fireflies. Then again, I don’t think the way The Last of Us was written really lends itself well to such an interpretation; this isn’t exactly Memento we’re talking about here.

              Also, if it’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that while a bad ending can only be fixed with a good sequel, the opposite has a much easier solution. If a story has a happy or good ending, but is ruined by the next installment, it’s easy to ignore it completely.

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