"The Ending is the Most Important Part."
We’ve all come across this kind of statement countless times, either from the mouths of crotchety English professors, or else set down in Times New Roman, boldly underlined – usually a chapter heading of some sort. Most everyone agrees on the importance of a good ending… But how that’s defined is one of the most contentious and hotly argued topics in narrative. That is, whether stories should have happy endings – and what on earth that even means.
This question is uniquely pertinent to game designers. We are in the midst of a new artform, mostly unexplored and undiscovered – a wilderness in fact when compared to the centuries of tradition that dot the familiar landscapes of theater, book and film. Even film has the many millennia of the stage to draw almost directly from – and though the medium is visual and geared to large-scale conflicts rather than the intimate personalism of theater, the question is more one of transposition rather than pure creation. In games, very few precedents exist – and the larger questions of story events must be spun from nothing but imagination as we create the form itself.
So yeah… We better figure out how endings work.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is a prime example. After going through its tragic and controversial ending, I fully realized just how much I dislike an unhappy finish to my games, stories, films, or anything else you can name. When I come across one, I end up spending most of my time thinking about the work in terms of “why couldn’t X have happened so that things could have ended up all right?” Often times I feel slightly pained by the experience and in some cases - damaged. This might be what the artist intended and may even be a vindication for the power of the form, but if so then many artists seem to take an almost sadistic glee in making me unhappy.
At the same time, I love a sensation that I call, “aching beauty”. Things that are painful and beautiful at the same time, the sweetness of a scar, are some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in story. Cyranno is one such, perhaps the greatest such, example. But in these truly great tragedies the death is nearly always a triumph for the character. Cyrano’s silence is kept through his honor and solidifies his true nobility while Romeo and Juliet’s deaths prove their immortal love for each other. These endings are immensely satisfying, just in a very different way than the traditional “happy ending”. We can want little more for these characters.
Sadly, I often run into endings where – while beautiful and poignant – something doesn’t quite chime. Perhaps the hero dies and in his death inspires the people he was fighting for to rise up and live their lives for themselves. However, I nearly always wish that he could have lived to be with the person he loves – or that the brothers could have seen eye to eye before the story’s conclusion. And then there are the truly miserable endings, where everything the characters struggle for is ultimately destroyed, all their efforts, hopes, dreams and struggles ground into dust... Or something similarly painful. These are the ones that damage me.
Many artists believe that this is part of the power of art – that we have the ability to touch people’s hidden sorrows and bring them out to resonate with our work. While this is stunning and profound, it also seems more than slightly irresponsible – like a scientist marveling at the awesome power he wields as he presses the button to detonate a nuclear warhead – sending fires of misery blasting through a defenseless town. Just because we have power doesn’t mean that all applications of it are right, and bringing out the sharpness of an audience member’s old wounds may be just as horrifying in its own quiet way.
I have a steady belief that if people don't truly enjoy your art and want to experience it again, sharing it with their friends and loved ones... Then it really is of limited value. I prefer to succeed on every level and give the player a fully content ending, even if it's one they'd never expect. As an example, my favorite thing that I've written is unquestionably an eight-minute play called Freefall, in which the main character jumps off a building and nearly dies.
However, the leap itself was revealed to be a courageous act. It's difficult to explain without reading the play, but the main character starts feeling a yearning need to fly, to soar... And he thinks he might be able to do it. He isn't sure, he thinks it's crazy, but at the same time he thinks he might have a chance... And he can't put his finger on why. Regardless, he's willing to risk his very probable death for a slim chance of success - something that will make people look up in wonder and reintroduce a bit of magic and mystery into their lives, the kind we had when the world was only partially explored. As he says before his plunge, "If you're not willing to fall, then how can you fly?"
He makes the leap… And hangs for a split second in the air. Then he falls, crashing fifty stories to the ground.
But he doesn’t die.
Many people try to explain it, but one of the spectators – a photographer whom before had given up on having a meaningful life beyond ordinary days at the office – knows what he saw. A man touched the heavens for one shining second… And it restores his faith in the wonder of the world.
There's something about me that wants a beautifully satisfying ending for all the characters involved, even if it takes the form of a near-suicide. I write to make people sit back, let out a long rush of breath and whisper, "Wow..." For that to happen the ending needs to be as perfectly satisfying as possible. Everything the audience wants should be given to them, just not in the way they expect... And they should believe that it’s absolutely impossible for them to get it in the first place.
Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files and the Codex Alera series, is a master at this. Often he throws his principle characters (Dresden or Tavi, depending on the series) into such horrendously hopeless situations that even we, the readers, who KNOW that there are more books in the series are sure that Dresden MUST die here - that he comes back to life somehow or something, because there's NO way out.
And when they prevail anyway… It’s absolutely thrilling.
A wonderful example of this is in Captain's Fury, the fourth installment in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. In the story’s final arch, Tavi challenges a corrupt politician to a duel. The politician picks his champion, a woman named Navaris. Now, if you have read Furies of Calderon you know by now who a man called Araris Valerian is. Much of the book was dedicated to subtle references to the legendary warrior as perhaps the deadliest man to ever grip a blade. Well, as much as he was talked up in the first book as the greatest blade ever, the next three books have added even more to his near-mythical reputation.
And Navaris spit Araris on her sword.
It wasn’t a fair fight, Araris was dealing with other enemies as well, but even he admits that Navaris might well be his superior – and that it would be touch and go in a duel as to whom would prove victorious. This is the monster that Tavi, who has only been Araris’ student a few weeks, is up against. And it’s a duel to the death.
Already we’re wondering how on earth he can make it out alive.
And then Butcher makes it worse.
An absurdly powerful high lord has set an assassin, a trusted member of Tavi’s own command and one of the deadliest agents ever to live, up on the walls to kill the exhausted winner of the duel. And this assassin is good enough not to have a hope of being caught – let alone missing his target.
How on EARTH can Tavi get out of this?!?
A lesser writer might have had Tavi die here, in a heroic and poignant way to be sure - perhaps taking the politician and high lord with him and making the world a better place for his death… The people he inspired rallying over his sacrifice as a reminder of all they can be and determined to finally stand up and make the world a place where heroes like Tavi won’t have to die for them. His sacrifice would have inspired the people to take it upon themselves to change their world, rather than relying on a hero to lead them. Many books have similar endings. It would have been compelling, tragic and strangely beautiful…
And it wouldn’t have been nearly as fulfilling the book’s true ending.
I won’t spoil it for you, since fantasy lovers should get to experience the work themselves, but I will tell you that Tavi does make it out alive – triumphing through sheer strength of character. And that is as heartening as the other ending would have been heart-breaking. Much of Drama’s power is seeing a hero pitted against impossible odds and rise against them, through them, overcoming all of them.
To see this in action just sit back and take a minute to imagine how it would feel if, after hours of desperate fighting, heroic struggles and overcoming the terror that is Left 4 Dead, you finally reach the end of the game… And there is nowhere to go. There is no escape, no way out, and you eventually fall under the tide of infected – all your efforts for nothing.
Yeah… That would suck.
The quality of the writing and work would ensure some artistic power, and of a very different kind, but in truth it would be less satisfying than a complete triumph. Left 4 Dead is about survival and cooperation... And if the ending proved that cooperation was pointless and survival impossible, then the entire experience would have been cheapened - the rest of the game clashing with the ending until both were diminished.
This is not to say tragedies are impossible to write, many of the most beloved works of art in the history of the world end with the main characters dying. But these tragic authors know a secret. If you are to write a fulfilling ending, even death itself must be a triumph for the character. Perhaps the story was about their courage, and rushing into battle led to their deaths, but redeemed them in the process. Watching a character walk into fire for the sake of an ideal is the very definition of a noble triumph - but only if the rest of the story is in line with the theme of self-sacrifice.
In Romeo and Juliet, the characters’ suicides are proof of the power of their love for each other. Their love defies first propriety, then tradition, their family rivalries, the worst sins one can commit (Romeo’s slaying Tybalt), separation through banishment and, finally, death itself. Their deaths are achingly beautiful, for they are triumphs within themselves.
The same principles are at work in Cyrano – where his death comes out of his refusal to compromise his beliefs and lick the boots of the aristocracy, and his lack of winning the girl he loves comes not from her unwillingness, but in his own nobility that bids him keep a promise to a friend dead fifteen years, even at the expense of his own happiness.
So what does this all boil down to?
I’ve been thinking about that for the better part of a month, though only in the sleepy seconds between bus stops or before drifting off to sleep. It is not so much the morality of these decisions that bothers me as the effect they have on the audience. I want to create profound works of art and I want to touch people, but it seems that to do that much art is compelled to hurt its members through unhappy or unsatisfying endings – endings that make us wish things could have turned out differently. While this demonstrates clear engagement with the work and a vindication of the author’s own skills – I nevertheless hate being on the receiving end of it. The stories I return to again and again are those that leave me feeling utterly fulfilled and wishing not to change any of it. These are the works that inspire me and make me want to live a better life… So what purpose pain?
It would be easy to take the controversial, reactionary road and boldly state, “None at all!” But this would not only be immature and disrespectful, it would be fundamentally wrong. The thing is, I love it when a character is beaten down into the worst obstacles and misery imaginable, only to rise through all of it and triumph over his demons, both inner and outer and those imagined, becoming better for the struggle. There is nothing more thrilling for me. However, meddlesome tinkerer that I am, I can’t simply leave this alone and exile all unsatisfying endings without any reason but personal preference.
After a few weeks examining why I love these triumphing-over-impossible hardships stories so much (I quickly ruled out the reactionary “it’s conflict and conflict is good” explanations that come so easily to these discussions – for if conflict was all there was to it, a triumph is not needed) I think I may have found an answer… And it’s one that has made me fall even more in love with story.
If the painful experiences in story can bring out the pain of our own lives… A successful triumph over such obstacles for a perfectly happy ending can help heal us of them as well. I love to have my heart broken in a story, so long as it’s put back together again – more vibrantly than ever before – at the story’s end. And this can offer us, if anything, a MORE profound journey than the early finish content at an unhappy ending. Take us to the depths of despair, to where all hope is lost, and bring out all the pain in our own lives, but dear god you needn’t LEAVE us there! Once you’ve brought out all our own sorrows to resonate with the character’s story, you can help us overcome them as the character does… And help heal us in the process.
We can break the audience’s heart throughout our titles, so long as we put it together again stronger than ever before at the end. Art should be healing, not damaging, and just as powerful art can echo the pain you’ve felt in your life… Creating an ending that fixes all the hurt the characters have felt can heal the audience spiritually as well… Forever remaining a more transcendent part of their being than if we simply reopened their wounds alone.
In this way, we can make a masterpiece.
Games are perhaps more suited to this miraculous effect than any other medium. Other artforms can only let us empathize with characters going through similar struggles, but a game can send us through the journey ourselves –bringing out our deepest fears and most desperate sorrows… And then helping us overcome them, through our own merit, healing the hurt within us.
If that isn’t art, then I don’t know what is.
Thus, I propose the following principle for our artworks.
Our Principle: We don’t screw the audience over.
Dan Felder, Co-Founder of WhyGames Consulting