Endings are a prize to behold. Your reward for working hard to finish a game. About thirty years ago, developers struggled to make their games last the consumer a long time, and this was often done by ramping up the difficulty to unreasonable levels. See Battletoads, or Ninja Gaiden if you died too many times to those cheap pitfalls. Through all the s**t we waded through as kids, one would be fair to expect a spectacular ending.
One would also be let down.
Back in the days when the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis and Master System were the go-to consoles for gaming, our endings were usually slaps in the faces. Text screens that a developer probably took a coffee break putting in, even thirty years ago when technology was fairly primitive.
But who can blame them? There was only so much you could really do with NES games, and not many developers cared to go the extra mile to include colorful cutscenes to reward the gullible children who played these games. This isn't to say games weren't fun to play, but there's no reason developers shouldn't work to put in a spectacular ending. Games back then were hard, and that was the norm. Fast-forward to the present day, gamers are busy because the demographic has widened to include many more adults, as well as kids. The time and effort we put forth into completing a game - no matter how easy or hard it might be - should be respected.
So why then, have we come full circle?
Deus Ex: Human Revolution was one of my favorite games of 2011, deserving a spot somewhere in the top five list that I will never make, because I don't measure games by checklists. Yet it was also one of the most crushing disappoints of that year as well. I have been in many arguments over the game's ending(s), and every time I've argued that the endings were detached, lazy, and presented in such a weak manner that I didn't feel like my actions had consequences. Especially when I can just save right before picking an ending and choose all four to get the achievement.
In a game about choice, that's unacceptable. The Endingtron XP 2011 displayed what looked like crappy YouTube montages rather than real endings, all of which were half-hearted. Even Adam Jensen's clever little narrations didn't save it from being a massive letdown. I didn't feel like my actions had consequences, I didn't feel like I made any sort of impact.
I even once got criticized for caring more about graphics than superb writing. But that's just it: the ending wasn't superbly written. Seeing what you do is just as important as hearing about it, if not more so. Don't tell me that developers can actually put effort into making graphics engines like Frostbite 2 or CryEngine 3, and yet can't be bothered to make anything more than a quick, little fart in our faces for an ending.
It's often this kind of laziness that makes me pessimistic when thinking about the future of the games industry. If I were asked to make a list of great video game endings that I can remember at the time of writing, my mind would be permanently stuck on one ending that I feel should set the golden standard for all developers.
Portal 2's ending was so sublime, that if anyone were to ask me for any examples of good endings, I would point only to this game. There are plenty of other exciting endings I've had in games, but few feel as rewarding for your effort as Valve's critically acclaimed sequel. The entire game was full of delicious humor and there were few times when I wasn't enjoying myself. The ending was like rewarding me for enjoying the game.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
You would expect a boss battle in a puzzle game like Portal to be unfitting and simply shoehorned in just to make the game look innovative. But this one wasn't; it felt chaotic while challenging you to find the solution in what I thought was a fair amount of time. The final battle with Wheatley felt incredibly climatic on its own, but nothing could have prepared me for the true ending.
I enjoyed Portal 2 for being lighthearted and often times, over-the-top, and let me tell you, the ending did not fail to defy all of my expectations, and in a good way! Defeating Wheatley by attaching defective cores to him made for a fun battle, but it didn't defeat him, so what did we have to do?
Pop a portal onto the surface of the f**king moon!
When I saw that ceiling crumble away and reveal the moon, I recognized that colorless palette. That same surface I had been popping portals onto the entire game. It was almost impossible not to know what to do next, because the moon was gray and white, and the camera pointed at it without flat-out telling you what to do. It's times like that that I feel like my decision matters, rather than being callously asked to press one of four buttons, depending on the flavor of ending I'm in the mood for.
It was such an incredibly wacky ending and the likes of which I would expect from the lighthearted tone of the game. To top it off, you actually get to see what happens to Chell (the player character) and GLaDOS. You get to see how they resolve their situation, and just when you think that GLaDOS might have learned a valuable lesson about friendship, the writers defy convention for the sake of unexpected humor and you start to feel you might be in trouble again. Though your mileage may vary on this part.
That's when GLaDOS makes you leave. You're lifted out of the Aperture Science facility, while turrets play a little tune for you as if to make a throwback to the original Portal. Then, when it's over, a field of tall grass for as far as the eye can see greets you, and a blue sky that you had never gotten to witness before over the course of not just Portal 2, but its predecessor. It feels like such a change of pace for the player because you had never actually gone "outside" during the course of the game, and there's a pause for silence as if to let the player think about what might happen to the brain-damaged character.
Then the door slams shut. Then it pops right back open, and chucks your companion at you who appears to have been caught in an explosion, to crack just one last joke and leave you remembering why you enjoyed the game.
After writing this article, I have started to think about Portal 2's ending as an example. Although I would certainly use it as a role model, perhaps using it as a common example may be a tad overkill. Making good endings isn't that hard, at least in my mind. But making endings that stick with you like Portal 2 may require a lot more clever thinking. Even to the most jaded of cynics and to people who dislike the game, you have to admit that the game did something right: it gave us an ending to remember in a time where game endings have become little more than an obligatory gesture.
Games should resolve their problems at the end, but they should not do it sloppily. Developers should work to make their endings unforgettable and iconic. Giving people a game that they can recognize is a major step forward in the industry. Or to put that another way, what do you think of when you think of PlayStation 3? Does Uncharted come to mind? It's made a name for itself, whether you think it deserves it or not, and endings are just one more step in making you remember a game and making that sixty dollars feel like it was money well spent.