Spoony Bard is a biweekly column by James Bishop that looks at narrative within video games, celebrating the stories that make games special, but also scribbling red marks across the scripts that need a revision. This column is a direct follow-up to the last one, which you can find here. NB: Some minor spoilers for Fallout 3.
You did it! You finally managed to kill the diabolical villain who had been plotting against the government in secret. Or you found out that you were the one who infected yourself and then caused the plague. Or perhaps you’ve finally realized that you’re actually a genetic experiment bred to follow commands triggered by certain phrases. Or any number of things, really. Then the credits roll.
Wait, what? It seems that a lot of games are unable to provide adequate epilogues to their otherwise decent narrative experiences. All games (excluding persistent worlds) must come to some sort of ending. So the question is: if they don’t have traditional epilogues, what exactly do game endings do?
Most narratives fall within two different categories: traditional narrative structures and what many refer to as nonlinear narrative structures. Traditional narrative follows the dramatic plot structure of inciting act, rising action, climax, falling action and conclusion. Nonlinear narrative, on the other hand, is more analogous to a great circus tent. There are a predetermined number of major events that give the narrative a general shape and tone, contrastingly the smaller events are fluid and sometimes completely avoided.
Both kinds of narrative do have an ending but a traditional narrative is more likely to end the game with a climax and then a couple minutes of cut scenes providing dénouement or closure to the storyline. Unlike a traditional narrative, a nonlinear narrative will sometimes opt for open-ended conclusions that allow the player to continue playing past the resolution. Grand Theft Auto games, among others, are notorious for this type of psuedo-ending. Even with the villain defeated or disaster averted, you can still continue to slaughter as you please. Often, as is the case with Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV, these sort of nonlinear experiences have the most replay value because completion does not require each portion of the game world to be explored.
Oddly enough, Fallout 3 wasn’t always an open-ended conclusion. When it was first released, Fallout 3 actually ended. You saved the world either through self-sacrifice or the cost of another major character’s life. There was an epilogue that showcased the different areas you had visited, but very little actually differed from player to player. Though the world was massive and filled with characters, you would only view a handful of differences.
After such a long adventure, Fallout 3’s sudden ending was quite unsettling.
Part of the problem with Fallout 3’s ending was that the rest of the game had certainly been a more nonlinear experience, not forgetting that the original ending was generally quite poor anyway (and full of loopholes – Ed). In a way, the original ending’s narrative was actually contradictory to the gameplay prior to it. But it was definitely more of a straightforward traditional narrative wrapped in the packaging of a nonlinear experience. Which goes to show that the lines aren’t all that clear; the two sides intermingle.
After the ending was changed through an update, Fallout 3 instead provided an epilogue involving the distribution of clean water to the citizens of the Wasteland. So, the structure stayed the same but the epilogue extended into something that actually dealt with the game’s climax in a meaningful way.
Though I’ve classified two different types of narrative structures, they have both dabbled in any manner of ending imaginable. Though the nonlinear narrative experience tends to more often lead to an open- ended game, it doesn’t preclude traditional narrative from going down that route. This is why it’s difficult to nail down any particular type of epilogue.
I’ve chosen instead to list some of the more stereotypical epilogues and explore how they represent the medium as a whole. Which may sound a bit odd since the list begins with Braid.
There is so much depth to Braid’s ending that it’s still causing debate many months on.
Braid’s epilogue is crafted through the nature of the game it’s in – let me explain. The time mechanic allows for the epilogue to be told in full by showing rather than telling. During the course of the game, you’re required to go back and forth in time in order to solve puzzles. In the end, you solve a puzzle and reach the princess only to realize that you weren’t saving the princess. She was actually running from you. The meaning of this and the short puzzle afterward has been discussed in length, but many believe it to be a game about the Manhattan Project. This type of epilogue utilizes an aspect of gameplay to conclude rather than just relying on traditional storytelling elements. Though these are the most rare of epilogues, they can be the most satisfying.
Fallout 3, prior to the Broken Steel downloadable content, is typical of a climax immediately followed by a short recapping epilogue that leads finally to the credits. In the end, you defeat the general and have to decide what to do about the suddenly unstable lab you’re in. Regardless of your decision, the game ends then and there once you make it. This is, more or less, a huge no-no for traditional narrative as this produces absolutely zero true closure. You see and feel none of it. You’re told about it. This is typical of many games, especially those without open-ended gameplay, and might have something to do with the small percentage of people who actually complete games of this length. BioShock also offers an example of this poor type of ending.
The third major and arguably most widely used epilogue involves directly setting the stage for a sequel. Though it may not have anything to do with Reapers, Mass Effect 2 was certainly predicted by the first game’s ending, even without the knowledge of BioWare’s plan for a trilogy. Though the major dramatic arcs may achieve closure or resolution, some new piece of the puzzle will be tantalizingly waved in the face of the player before the credits begin. In this way, video games from a series function much like the campaign of a pen and paper role-playing game. Though the major elements within one adventure may have been settled, there is still a much larger overarching narrative in place. Another notable RPG that ends with a setup for a sequel is Final Fantasy X.
It’s easy to see that many games fall under the same types of epilogues. And with the medium growing and expanding in a burgeoning number of directions, why should we expect games to stick to so few ways to end? With games like Heavy Rain pushing the envelope of how games deal with the relationship between narrative and gameplay, it’s viable to say that 2010 might just be the year that we begin to see growth in how developers approach epilogues. Hopefully, some of them are good.