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.”
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
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
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
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.