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Storytelling: Climax is God

Five stories made and broken by their climactic moments, and why we need to get it right.
(SPOILER ALERT! The following is about the importance of endings, and thus will involve heavy spoilers. Specifically, spoilers for the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and the games Psychonauts, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, Sonic Adventure 2, and Portal.)


There is nothing, absolutely nothing more important in a story than its ending. Endings are sacred. Endings are powerful. I've started this blog post with a spoiler tag because endings are just that precious to people.

But, for some reason, people still seem to underestimate the power of endings, and specifically a story's emotionally charged climax. Either that, or - as Robert McKee admits in his book Story - a story's climax is one of the most difficult things to create.

The climax of a story does several things. It expresses the meaning and emotion of the story in its purest form. It settles the state of the story's world once and for all, and puts the protagonist and everything else in a place where there's no going back. But most importantly, the story's climax will shed light or cast shadows over everything else in the story.

As audience members, we're trained to expect this. We sit there in front of our TVs or in the theaters waiting for this grand meaningful climax that great stories give us. And when we're done, the quality of the story's ending will determine its memorability. If so, that final image will permanently stick in our minds, ready to remind us of the whole story when we recall it.

This applies to everything that tells a story, whether it be movies or games. A high-quality climax will make bad stories perfectly memorable, while a lackluster climax can put a sour taste on an otherwise excellent experience.

Climax is everything. Climax is God.


Sherlock Holmes

The latest Sherlock Holmes film.

The recent movie Sherlock Holmes was an interesting experience. The story itself was nothing too special, but the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Watson as played by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law created an irresistible chemistry that's a joy to watch over and over again.

But the film is let down by its climactic image. At the very end, Sherlock Holmes explains the mysterious events of the last 100 minutes while Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) hangs at the edge of a bridge under construction. Finally, Lord Blackwood falls, gets tangled up in a bunch of chains on the way down, and ends up hung by the neck.

"But hold on!" the entire audience is thinking. "He was hung before at the beginning of the movie, and he survived that! How do we know he won't survive this too? How do we know??"

And so that final mystery is explained in the film's denouement, assuring the audience that the antagonist is well and truly dead, but the damage is already done. The final, most meaningful moment of the movie is tainted by overwhelming uncertainty. And when we remember that movie, we remember that painful sensation. Thus, a rather interesting story is reduced to mild entertainment.



Raz, the main character of Psychonauts.

On that note, let's talk about a game. How about Double Fine's Psychonauts?

I bought Psychonauts because it's been talked about everywhere as a shining example of Tim Schafer's sheer creativity that didn't sell very well. And to its credit, it deserves almost every bit of praise. The gameplay is engaging because of its ties to the story, which is told extremely well. Characters are well-defined and enjoyable, and the game's aesthetic matches its tone and mood in everything.

The story is told with impressive intricacy. There's mystery, suspense, danger, betrayal, and humor all along the way. The main character, Raz, has an interesting backstory that is almost brought up in full force in the story's climax. For one, he ran away from the circus and his psychic-hating father, and two, his family was cursed by gypsies to die in water.

The water curse is used to great effect throughout the game. If you fall in water, a big watery hand jumps out at you and tries to grab you. Whether you automatically escape or not depends on how close you are to shore. But one boss sends you deep underwater within an air bubble while you fight a mutant lungfish. The curse hands would appear just outside the bubble when you got close to the edge, reminding you how close you were to death and emotionally tying you to Raz's fear of water. It was insanely effective.

But then, the ending... The final level is called "Meat Circus," where Raz's memories of the circus merge with the antagonist's memories of his butcher father. Raz ends up in a confrontation with his father, who hates him and what the psychics have done to his circus. There's even a sequence where you have to ascend a platforming sequence while water rises up from below, battling both Raz's father and the water curse at the same time.

But right after that, do you know what the final dramatic shift is? Raz's real father breaks into his mind, and it turns out he doesn't hate Raz and just wanted the best for him, and together they defeat the twisted nightmare father boss and finish the game...

Not exactly the mind-blowing climax I'd been set up to expect, was it? I had been expecting something big, something intricate, something ultimately meaningful that pitted me against the full might of the antagonism that defined my player character... and instead, I got a rather weird sort of deus ex machina.

The storytelling up to this point was wonderful, even within the final level. But this moment, where tensions were running highest and emotion was instantaneous, fell short with less meaning than I needed. It wasn't horrible, it just wasn't enough.

And now I can't gloriously praise Psychonauts like everyone else. The game was excellent, but the final moment taints everything else that came before.

Perhaps it's a testament to how difficult endings are to make.


Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core

Zack Fair in FF7 Crisis Core.

And now the opposite. The gameplay in this PSP prequel was somewhat interesting but a bit of a slow grind, especially if you were doing the mission mode. The storytelling throughout was odd, and many of the characters justified their inconsistent behaviors with infuriating, illogical rationales.

But the ending. Oh God, the ending.

Zack Fair, the main character, ends up fighting the Shinra army that wants him dead or alive. He fights them until his health drops to 0, with only a few soldiers left. While doing so, memories of all the friends that inspired him flash before his eyes. Finally, as he stands his last ground against three soldiers, his memories of Aerith flash by.

The game then puts you into Zack's first-person perspective as the soldiers open fire. You hear and watch as the camera shudders and collapses while taking bullet after bullet. You're then on the ground, watching in double-vision as one soldier comes up to your body, aims, and fires a bullet straight into your skull. All goes black.

Then the final cutscene, rendered in full-motion Advent Children-style, lets you watch as Cloud slowly crawls to Zack's dying body and inherits his legacy, his sword - which has a great legacy of its own. All while you hear nothing but the rain washing away Zack's blood.

It's powerful. It's moving. It made me cry.

This is a game that literally had me pacing around my room shouting about how stupid the characters were. But this ending moved me so much that I can't help but look back on it all with great fondness. The ending gives everything that came before new meaning, new emotional charges. I'd happily replay it again.

It's a bad game, really, but the ending makes it all completely worthwhile.


Sonic Adventure 2

Sonic grinding in a level of SA2.

You wouldn't expect a franchise like Sonic to have a moment of dramatic brilliance, but it does.

Sonic Adventure 2 introduced Shadow the Hedgehog, a serious, angsty opposite to Sonic. The story was structured by creating two parallel playable storylines - one with the Hero side with Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, and one with the Dark side as Shadow, Dr. Eggman, and Rouge the Bat, Knuckles' new rival.

Thus, the line between good and evil was drawn. Each hero had a direct antagonist, and each villain had a direct antagonist... wait...

The line was blurry. Sonic and Shadow played almost exactly the same way, as did Eggman and Tails, as did Knuckles and Rouge. And their levels covered the same ground and used many of the same textures. Every level in one story has a counterpart in the other one that looks and plays similarly: Hidden Base and Sand Ocean, Green Forest and White Jungle, Wild Canyon and Dry Lagoon, City Escape and Speed Highway, Prison Lane and Iron Gate, Meteor Herd and Mad Space, Final Rush and Final Chase...

And above the subtext, the game insisted on this illusion of the good vs. evil dichotomy.

But then, when both storylines were completed, the Final Story showed up. In this last act, the line between good and evil disappeared. Every character stood on their own, independent of their rivals. Then it went beyond standing independently to teaming up, working together to save the world. And the final climactic image is of Sonic and Shadow powering up with the Chaos Emeralds simultaneously, ready to charge into the final confrontation in full force.

That image has lasted in people's minds for nearly a decade, and the characters that had been introduced are now prominent in the Sonic universe.

It was sublime. It was a dramatic system that completely paid off and delivered everything it promised, charging the final boss with spirit and emotion. While FF7 Crisis Core used shocking imagery to move the player (which is totally legit), Sonic Adventure 2 used symbolism that was ingrained in the gameplay that came before it.

Thus, a pretty good game was made great and lasting through its climax.



GLaDOS in Portal.

And then there's Portal. Always Portal.

Portal can sort of be split into three different acts. Act I is defined by confusion and curiosity with some tension as you go through the beginning challenges. Act II kicks into high gear when your life is put into direct danger through turrets and deadly pools. Then Act III is all about high tension as you escape murder and dodge obstacles in the facility's backstage.

It all climaxes in the battle against GLaDOS herself. Everything else - the challenges, the Companion Cube - has led up to this. But having listened to her for so long, having spent so much effort trying to understand the cryptic things she says, it's hard to ignore her as she insults you and goes about murdering you one last time. If you played the game with the sound turned off, the final confrontation would look rather easy compared to what came before. But when you've listened to her all this time, the climactic encounter with her is tense to the ultimate level.

Finally, you beat her. With the resulting explosion, you finally get outside the facility. Your goal in life is complete. It's simple, but satisfying.

In this case, the climax is not one image or one dramatic shift, but an entire gameplay sequence. The emotional charge was built up slowly over time, through the obstacles that came before. Portal is essentially about one goal, one task. Everything before is just leading up to it. That pure focus and payoff makes the experience memorable and powerful.

And then, y'know, they had to ruin it by adding that stinger to advertise Portal 2. Let me tell you, it sure as heck ensured my purchase. I need my ending back.


It's all about the endings. That climax of pure aesthetic emotion is what gives stories their power. And as game designers who are fighting to hold sway over people for hours on end, anything truly powerful is worth studying.

And if you have a great story climax, games can put that intense moment in the hands of the player. That's what puts games ahead of movies, all the time.

Yes, the player has to be interested enough to get to the end. But the quality of that climactic moment for the player will either enrich their past, present, and future experience... or cast meaninglessness over all their hard work.

The lesson here is this: games can be made or broken in their final moments. A strong, meaningful climax can make up for previous faults, while an ill-fitting or meaningless climax will put a sour taste on even the greatest of games. It's just that important.

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