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Fran Bow and the appeal of the ambiguous ending

Having an ambiguous or metaphorical ending can be risky business. But if it's done just right, players will be talking about your game for decades.

Joel Couture, Contributor

September 4, 2015

5 Min Read

Having an ambiguous or metaphorical ending can be risky business. A well-made metaphorical ending can give players something to toy with when the game's not even on, giving it new life online as people from all over the world come up with theories and ideas on what happened. Without the right amount of clues, though, this kind of ending can feel confused and thrown-together, as if the writer just didn't know how to wrap up.

The line between mystery and cobbled-together nonsense is very, very thin, but if it's done just right, players will be talking about your game for decades. Killmonday Games' Natalia Figueroa took such a risk with the macabre adventure game Fran Bow, delivering a surreal, dream-like finish to its narrative that left more questions than answers. Just a few days after it laucnhed, its forums are already alive with fan theories and discussions.

For Figueroa, part of the decision to write this kind of story came from the needs of the story itself. "I chose this because it's what I felt when I was younger," she says. "Many of the big questions of life were coming to me in a very unclear way."

"In a game about mysterious or supernatural events, a clear ending can break immersion in the final, most precious seconds of the game, leaving players unsatisfied with how things have ended."

Telling a story with such a young protagonist necessitated this kind of conclusion, as many important events in a child's life happen without a child necessarily understanding what's going on. Important things often occur without a child's input, leaving them confused and adrift on the choices of others.

In this, a clearcut conclusion would have run counter to the storyline that Figueroa was concocting. It would have felt as it was tacked on to provide clarity in a game about confusing horrors.

This can be especially important in certain game genres. In a game about mysterious or supernatural events, a clear ending can break immersion in the final, most precious seconds of the game, leaving players unsatisfied.

How many delicious mysteries have been ruined by a lackluster ending that tried to explain everything?

How many times has the answer to the mystery been far less interesting than the act of solving it?

The primary lure of these genres are the questions they draw you in with, so giving a straight answer at the end defeats their appeal. In a game of metaphors, why not leave one last big one for players to solve?

How much information do you give, though? Clues need to be sprinkled throughout your narrative in order for this kind of ending to work; the information has to be there for the players to put it together. If you put in too much, it's too easy to guess and the game loses its effectiveness to capture the imagination. Too little, and the ending feels like an incoherent mess.

"It's always difficult to maintain some balance, not giving too much or too little," says Figueroa. "Personally, I prefer to give the answers in a metaphorical way. That's a fun part -- to relate it to your own experiences, and be part of the story with your own points of view."

Fran Bow's answers were left quite unclear in that the game didn't make an effort to directly tell the player why the ending made sense, but rather strove to put all the pieces in place so that a player might see the metaphors when looking back over their experiences in the game. It was a difficult balance to which even Figueroa didn't have all the answers.

Even if you do it all right, it could feel like you're surrendering control of your story's conclusion to the audience, though. You're leaving it in their hands to discover, but theories and answers you don't expect can pop up out of this kind of storytelling.

The narrative, in this way, becomes a living thing outside of its creator's control, and for Figueroa, that was wonderful. "We already found a discussion online about the end of the game, and that's so beautiful and fun to read," she says. "The discussions are so complex and full of creativity! People's minds are so full of magic, and for me, giving too straightforward an answer won't start that spark of wonder."

The idea of handing your story over to player interpretation may sound terrifying, but it can also show you the amazing creativity of your audience.

But as Figueroa stated earlier, that's the fun part. Games are equal parts creator and player, with the player taking the driver's seat for getting through the gameplay and navigating the story you've made. A rigid, clear storyline may be a developer's means of keeping the player on track, but it doesn't allow that interactivity that many come to the medium for.

An ambiguous ending, with its opportunities for player creativity, involves the player in the storyline. It turns them into detectives and writers in their own right, allowing them to shape the storyline using personal experiences and their own imagination. It's not easy to do, and even those who've been successful with it don't have all the answers, but it is a powerful way of involving your player in the story itself.

An ambiguous ending can have a powerful impact on players, keeping the game in their minds for days after the game is technically over. It runs the risk of confusing them or being so easy to solve it's pointless, but when it's done well, it captures the imagination and is more in keeping with the mysterious nature of many genres.

For Fran Bow, it was the only choice, tying childhood confusion to the strange world of metaphor that Figueroa had been building. Not only that, but it made it feel more true to life. "My own perspective of life: it's pretty confusing!," she says. "I'm about to be 30 years old in December, but I still wonder about many, many things!"

Life doesn't give all the answers, and it's those questions that keep us thinking at night. A game can do the same, gaining a life far beyond the screen.

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