You know what I love? Endings. I mean real endings. Not just that point where the game peters out before the credits roll, but proper conclusions that actually wrap everything up, grabbing the narrative loose ends and tying them together in a pretty bow. A proper ending to a game can increase just how significant all my actions up to that point felt. It can give them meaning: “This is what I was fighting for all this time.”
But so many modern videogames don’t end. So many videogames have to leave the ending open for the inevitable sequel that will be made when it sells well enough. Consequentially, so many videogame stories render my actions throughout them meaningless. Not because they are bad stories, but because they lack endings. They lack finality. In the end, I wasn’t fighting for anything.
It’s for this reason that I am kind of angry at myself for playing Halo 4. I loved the ending of Halo 3. Absolutely loved it. It had this amazing finality to it that so few big, franchise games have these days. Master Chief had saved the universe and, in the process, created a world where he was no longer needed. It was powerful and bitter sweet. He just went to sleep in a dead space ship drifting through space. That was that.
It had such a powerful finality to it. I had been working towards this point for three whole games, and now all those actions had paid off, saving the world and rendering my character unneeded. Further, it felt like a promise from the developers: we have wrapped this up; it over; what you did mattered.
But then, of course, Microsoft wanted to make more money, so five years later they forced the Chief to wake up again. It’s not that Halo 4 is a bad game. On a purely mechanical level, it is an entirely commendable Halo game. The gunfights are as enjoyable as they are in any of the previous games, with the same focus on choosing the right combination of weapons for the right enemies.
The problem is that the game never actually feels like you’re doing anything other than going through the motions, as an excuse to give Microsoft more money. Halo 4 exists solely because they wanted to make another Halo game. And, in the process, it posthumously destroys one of the strongest endings of a franchise in recent years.
Halo 3’s great ending will never again feel the way it did. Next time I watch Master Chief go to sleep at the end of his struggle, I’ll know that this isn’t ultimate, that he will just be woken up again in a few years. With the existence of Halo 4, the previous game’s ending—and the three games of actions that lead up to it—was rendered meaningless.
Some people might just shrug at this. It’s inevitable, surely. Our industry is one where known franchises are the ones that sell copies. Big publishers need to turn new IPs into massive franchises, selling more and more titles on the same universes, mechanics, and characters. Generally speaking, we often can’t have strong, conclusive endings because for most games that isn’t financially viable. There will always be another game in that franchise. It always has to be left open.
But just because a franchise might be extended forever doesn’t mean that franchise has to keep tacking onto the end of the same narrative thread. Before Halo 4, Bungie and 343 alike had extended the franchise in all kinds of meaningful ways with prequels and other characters and stories in other parts of the world. In such a broad universe with so much potential, so many worlds and characters, why destroy the one strong ending you have?
Plenty of franchises have already figured this out, of course. Final Fantasy has been starting entirely new stories in entirely new worlds for decades now. Though, with their ‘-2’ games, even they have been tempted to destroy solid endings to make more money. The Elder Scroll games, meanwhile, manage to extend a world’s narrative but jump forward enough in both time and place to not step on the toes of the previous games.
So I don’t buy that the capitalist-driven, franchise nature of triple-a videogames as a good excuse for the general lack of strong, conclusive endings. Clearly, a good ending is not easy to create, and I’m not one to lecture developers about how to do their job, but when a good, conclusive ending comes by, it always makes everything feel worth it.
It’s part of the reason that I think Spec Ops: The Line has been as critically acclaimed as it has been. Whether or not the story was any good (which is certainly arguable), each of the possible endings felt final. We might get more Spec Ops games, to be sure, but this game sealed off the end of its own narrative. It’s done. Final. Any new games in the series will have to introduce new characters or locations.
Another game I recently finished was Gravity Rush on the Vita. Without spoiling anything, it had a particularly odd ending. Enough was left open for a sequel to cash in, but it was also conclusive enough in its own right that it felt like the conflict the characters faced in this game was dealt with.
Ultimately, Gravity Rush was able to tie up the right threads for me to get that sense of narrative finality, but also left some other threads dangling me to entice me on to a new game.
Currently, whenever I play a triple-a game, I play the final stages in fear. I am terrified that the game’s hunger to have a sequel is going to ruin everything. I’m afraid that the game is going to leave me drifting through space like Grayson Hunt in Bulletstorm, twiddling my thumbs and waiting to be rescued forever, not conclusively going to sleep like Master Chief in Halo 3. And even if a games does have a good ending, I have to live in constant fear, still, of the publisher coming back and ripping it up again, untying the bow and frazzling the narrative rope just to make more money.
It sucks. Which is why I love the strong endings we do have. The ones the punctuate the games more concerned with their own quality than their sequel potential. There is a direct relationship between how much my actions feel to matter in a game and whether or not the game ends in a conclusive way. Hopefully, in the future, more franchises realise they can have it both ways: universes can be extended and more money can be made without having to wake old heroes from their slumber.