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Bob Muir avatar 2:56 PM on 10.13.2007  (server time)
Friday Rantoid: Why can't games have bad endings?

Author's Note: I had so much fun writing this article for last Friday that I decided to make my long rant into a regular feature on my blog every Friday. (That, and I have nothing better to do in Philosophy class each Thursday, since there's no internet access in that building.) Of course, this week I would have a midterm in that class, so this article is a day late. Oh well, better luck next week!

"And they all lived happily ever after." That trite, fairytale nonsense is the worst ending you can possibly have in a story. When you're a toddler, you enjoy it because life is simple, but once you gain any measure of intelligence, the statement rings untrue because life just isn't like that. Oftentimes there's a bad ending, and even if there's a good ending, things don't always work out perfectly.

Apparently some delusional parents from England, home of neo-censorship, think differently. They've formed the Happy Endings Foundation, a committee which is trying to keep books with unhappy endings out of kids' hands. The founder set it up after Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, a series of 13 books, "caused her daughter to take a more negative approach to life." Huh? I've only skimmed through the first book, but from what I could tell, most of the depressing content in the book was tongue-in-cheek, and if a kid somehow misses that, the parent should be clarifying what the meaning is. If they still can't understand it, then maybe they're too young to be reading the book.

What HEF is asking parents to do is shield their children from reality under the guise of protection. They encourage burning "bad books" in bonfires on Guy Fawkes' Night. That sounds more like the start of a cultural purge than a way to make people happier. Are the parents that afraid of the horrors present in real life that they need books to endlessly coddle them and their children? What is so wrong with a bad ending?

Then again, I guess I'm hardly one to talk. My favorite medium, video games, rarely has a bad ending. Look through your game collection and count the number of games with bad endings. Go on, I'll wait. You won't find a bad ending in Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Halo, Final Fantasy, Half-life, Resident Evil, or numerous other popular franchises. Even in Final Fantasy VI, when the world is destroyed midgame, good eventually triumphs over evil.

It's understandable why a good ending is very appealing. If you spend $60 on a game, then spend anywhere between 10-70 hours of your time playing it, you expect there to be a good pay-off at the end. If a game has an unhappy ending, you may feel like you've just wasted a ton of time for nothing. Nevermind the fact that an unhappy ending may be more emotionally powerful or make more sense, you just fought the legions of hell for 50 hours and you want the princess still intact and the hero alive. The entire world should be cheering for you and happiness should now gallop across the land. At least, that's the current mindset of gamers.

Game developers have tried to fix this problem and come up with their best solution: multiple endings. Now, your actions in-game affect the story's outcome. This brings up some interesting ideas. In Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, there are three endings, the bad ending (not sad, just a really crappy ending), the good ending (an honest-to-goodness unhappy ending), and the best ending (the standard "everyone lived happily ever after" ending). In that middle ending, Soma loses himself to the chaos within and becomes the new embodiment of the dark lord, Dracula. This also opens up an interesting bonus game in which you must play as Julius Belmont and kill Soma. However, in order to get this ending, you must decide to forgo two more map areas, three more bosses, including series-favorite Death, a bunch of souls, and the very useful Chaos Ring. If you want to play the full game, however, you will be stuck with the "best" ending, which isn't nearly as cool.

The problem here is that the game developers intend for only one of the endings to be canon so as to avoid confusion if/when a sequel is released or just satisfy curious fans. The canon ending is almost always the happy ending where everything works out. While I'm fine with some happy endings, making them canon always gets boring. Some developers have stated they liked an unhappy ending better, but if gamers want to play the game to its fullest and complete the game successfully, the game will give them the best, canon ending as a "reward." In the end, the game panders to gamers who, having spent at least 10 hours playing as a character, need to make sure that everything ends okay for that character, even if an unhappy ending would be more interesting. Or maybe it's the developers' reluctance to destroy a character they've built up over two or more games.

Whatever the reason is, developers should not be afraid of crafting a meaningful, sad ending to a game if it makes more sense. (I don't want to see Mario gunned down by alien gangsters at the end of Super Mario Galaxy.) The gamer has already played most of the game and the developers have their money; the ending should not have to pander to their self-gratifying dreamland where everything works itself out perfectly for the good guys.

Author's Note: I know that there are notable exceptions out there and many people probably want to tell me how wrong I am in my views, so feel free to state your mind. Just keep in mind that not every gamer has played every important game and label your ending spoilers appropriately.

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