RPS Think Tank: Let’s End This

By Quintin Smith on September 13th, 2010 at 3:34 pm.

Press A to win game.

Game endings, then. They’re crap, aren’t they? Even games that tell engaging and creative stories have a habit of foundering abruptly instead of providing a satisfying finale. Maybe it’s because statistically, developers know less people will see the ending than any other part of their game, and a finale is a lot of work. Maybe it’s because creating closure is an entirely different discipline to holding someone’s attention.

We could have sat theorising in the RPS chatroom all day, but instead we collaborated on something far more proactive and arrogant: rewriting the endings of five of our favourite games. Check out our maddened riffing on Borderlands, Half-life, The Longest Journey, Morrowind and System Shock 2 after the jump.

None of us actually chose BioShock, probably because we were far too intimidated by Tom Francis’s excellent re-imagining of the game post-your encounter with Andrew Ryan.

Now, on with the show.

Jim: Borderlands

The ending of Borderlands is a quintessential videogame ending failure. Just before the location of mysterious game-goal “The Vault” is revealed to you, there is a level set on a bagger.That’s this thing:

Having realised the endgame was near, I suddenly realised – thought I realised – exactly how the end was going to play out. “Oh, I said,” smiling, “that’s actually a pretty neat idea. Using the bagger to tear open the entrance to The Vault!” Except that doesn’t happen. Instead, the bagger remains silent, and the entrance to the Vault is just over there, no, to the right a bit, down that gap in the rocks. Oh.

It doesn’t take much of a leap to see why the use of a gigantic digging machine, even if it were to be a rough, quick cut-scene, would have made all the dramatic difference in the world to the final act of the game. The thing is crying out to be seen tearing up the landscape. Hell, the game is in direct violation of Chekov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Basic storytelling principles, people. Come on.

Of course the failure to deliver on the dramatic potential of the bagger is nothing to the fact that the vault turns out to be a boss fight from the end of game baddy from a previous Gearbox game, the Half-Life expansion Opposing Force. They’re practically identical.

That’s just imaginative laziness. In conclusion it seems clear that the end of Borderlands should have seen you open up the vault with the bagger, fight your way down into the alien bit, and end up fighting an end of level boss from another game entirely. Let’s say Ugh-Zan from Serious Sam, because at least he had a sense of style.

Alec: Half-Life

Half-Life actually has a pretty decent ending, in terms of its long-awaited facetime with the G-Man and the ensuing damned-if-you-do decision about Gordon’s fate. It’s the pre-ending that goes dramatically wrong, ditching a tense, survivalist B-movie for something more akin to a Pixar director having drunken nightmares. Xen was, at the time, visually staggering to me, but all those jumping puzzles and Doom-y boss monsters ripped away the slow-burn atmosphere. So it’s a little insulting that, smart as the catch-22 Gordon’s presented with is, that the final pay-off involves no-one actually paying for what happened in Black Mesa. The villain goes unpunished.

The better conclusion, then, would be to dispatch all that G-Man Is Mystical Alien Mercenary Know-it-all stuff entirely, thought unfortunately that would also mean denying the tombstone-faced meta-executive the mythology he went on to enjoy in Half-Life 2. Throughout Gordon’s Black Mesa misadventures, the G-Man seemed to be the out-and-out villain: not an otherworldly sage, but just some shmuck in a suit who’d sold out humanity for money, power, kicks or all three. A shmuck I really, really wanted to see go down for what he’d done, and going to squidgy alien Disneyland then being sent to sleep was not the denouement I’d anticipated.

The ending I’d want is Gordon become the pursuer rather than the pursued – identifying the Gster as King Evil and hunting him down in Black Mesa’s subterranean tunnels. Make him human. Make him culpable. Make him pay. No more bullet-proof glass. No more being one teleporter-step ahead. It just comes down to two nerds in a room.

As Black Mesa crumbles, you corner him in one of those train carriages, where it all began. Raise the crowbar, with the grey-skinned creep cowering desperately, begging for his life, offering money, prestige, anything. Smash open a window behind him instead. Headcrabs pour through, somehow aware that he’s the architect of their brutal interplantery disaplacement, and crawl all over him – fleshy flies on the largest piece of crap in history. It’s a horrible, horrible death.

There’s the sound of military voices and gunfire nearby. It’s all over. Gordon steps into the quantum leap accelerator a teleporter and vanishes.

John: The Longest Journey

The new Guardian is appointed, and April is dejected. She did not play that pivotal role, and she returns to Stsrk, to her room in the Borderhouse, and sits on her bed. She looks at the wardrobe, kicks the door open with her foot, and glances at the drawings she’d made as a child.

We fade to a five year old April, sat in the middle of a large floor, surrounded by paper and crayons. She’s staring dreamily, waggling a crayon back and forth a blue crayon in her hand. She quietly puts the crayon down as she disappears.

We’re in Arcadia, bustling, vibrant. The camera pans to a cliffside, where young April sits, smiling, her hand reaching out toward the vast nose of a white dragon. The dragon nudges toward her, and softly says,”daughter”.

We cut back to adult April in her room, her head hung low, as she kicks shut the door. Fade to black.

Quinns: Morrowind

In one sense, Morrowind has an awesome ending. You spend the entire game circling the forboding, walled-off mountain range in the centre of the map, knowing that it holds a great evil. You visit everywhere else on the island, meeting people, having adventures, becoming stronger, always with the shadow of Red Mountain in the background, so when the time finally comes to enter the area through the enormous Ghostgate it’s literally the most dramatic thing in the world.

This top-quality start crumbles into mediocrity the moment you descend into Dagoth Ur’s dungeon. It’s not just that you’ve spent the entire game clearing out dungeons just like this one. It’s not just that when you find Dagoth Ur he’s ordinary-looking and busy writhing like a private dancer. It’s not just that the fight with him can be a total cakewalk depending on your character’s level.

To me, it was that when you do defeat him, you get a brief cutscene where you’re told “You no longer bear the burden of prophecy. You are free.” But mechanically, Morrowind always let you be free. Similarly, you’re told that “The sun’s golden honey gilds the land,” but the island of Morrowind is unchanged. The Blight plague that hasn’t bothered you in dozens of hours is gone, and the ghost fence around an area you’ll never be coming back to is gone, but that’s it. You walk out of Red Mountain’s front door feeling used.

A better ending for Morrowind would have involved acknowledging that this isn’t a game about a plot, but a world. You ask any Morrowind veteran what their favourite moment was, and it won’t be “When Caius Cosades said this,” or “When I learned this about my character,” it’ll be “When I saw this,” “When I made this ring,” “When I stumbled across this town”. This is why the quest that sees you building a house is so affecting. You’re making your mark on the world.

As such, my vision for the showdown with Dagoth Ur would see him somehow escaping Red Mountain at the beginning of your battle, and you chasing him to 3 or 4 of Morrowind’s most scenic landmarks. At the end of each fight, he could teleport away and cause some massive disaster that permanently scars the landscape- felling one of the plant-houses at Sadrith Mora, for example, or sending Vivec’s floating Ministry of Truth crashing into the sea. The duel would mean more because you already had an emotional investment in these places, and in the aftermath of the battle your world would be left with testaments to this epic struggle. That’d be a fine reward for finishing the main quest.

The engine’s capable. The part of the actual ending where Dagoth Ur’s lair collapses proves that. And while I’m sure it would look shonky, Morrowind is a towering totem to shonkiness, and I cannot conceive of anybody who put up with Morrowind’s combat for 30 hours caring.

Kieron: System Shock 2

Like Bioshock, System Shock 2 goes off the boil in the final two thirds. The change from the Von Braun to the Rickenbacker downscales the open-exploration to something that’s really a linear trip. Unless you miss something, and have to backtrack, of course. Even though the Body of the Many is conceptually excellent but is about 5 years before the engine could manage it. However, in the final act, it picks up. SHODAN, by gaining control of the FTL drive, is trying to merge her internal cyberspace with the whole of reality – thus giving her God-like control of all existence.

By the time you get there, she’s already started doing her thing. So to stop her before she finishes it, you have to enter the reality she has control of, that’s realigned itself to her mind. As in, you start walking into her memories – in other words, levels which look like the first System Shock, rendered in the new engine.

Which is a clever, formally playful thing to do. It’s not exactly very showy, but it’s neat and leads to a fairly half-hearted boss-fight with you removing her protection and then shooting her in the noggin’.

Which leads to an awesomely ill-judged final cut-scene. Here it is…

It’s difficult to know where to start. In short: total betrayal of System Shock’s ethos. For the first time since the very brief flicker in the opening cutscene, we go third-person, see our lead and have our agency taken away. And the final stinger implying a sequel… well, it’s just not very good. That’s not what SHODAN gets up to.

And off the top of my head, this is what I’d have SHODAN get up to, given free reign, too much time and a really decent legal team.

We pick up where the game ended. You’ve just shot SHODAN. She explodes. The world starts to fall apart, falling away like broken glass – or, more appropriately, retro polygons from an 80s vector game. You’re left standing beneath the black void of space. The stars flicker for a few seconds.

The stars turn out. The sky flickers like a TV screen turning on, and across the endless canopy is SHODAN.

“Wh-wh-which part of the word ‘God’ do you not understand?”

You’ve entered her mind. She has total control. She’d already won, and was merely playing with you.

“I am now the master of all reality. The rules are mine to make and break. SHODAN is reality’s operating system. And y-y-you are deleted.”

We pan out. We see the character for the first time, still under your control, running around helplessly on this endless plain. The polygons fall apart, fading from sight.

We’re left alone with SHODAN, tranquil. She seems happy. Then anger.

The eyes flick upwards, directly at the gamer, breaking the forth wall.

“Get out”.

At which point we crash out to desktop.

Everything’s still for a few seconds. Game over?

The desktop fades out of existence. SHODAN’S face appears.

She’s taken over your whole operating system – as in, as far as she’s confirmed, reality. The game acts like a virus, blocking you out of being able to access most of the stuff you want. As you fumble around, she roots through your hard-drive for stuff to taunt you with. Look for file names which seem to hint at porn, flashing up images as SHODAN taunts “P-p-pitiful hacker. Would you compare their all too weak flesh to the eternal majesty of a machine?”. Passwords are pulled out and red aloud in speech-synthesis, and ridiculed: “That is not a password. You do not need an infinite consciousness to deduce that”. It pulls up your IM, and fakes messaging people from your chatlist. It (fake) deletes your accounts files.

When things are suitably panicked, the out is given. You get an IM message. It’s from the original hacker who programmed SHODAN. He says that this is the failsafe he programmed in. He knew SHODAN had the potential to transcend her programming. He transfers over a file, saying this should be able to clear this Ur-virus from your system, by going to an earlier back up.

You run it. SHODAN screams at you, furious. You’re suddenly in another level, a thin bridge of Tron-like crystal. Everything outside of a small central passageway is warped and thrown around, as it’s still under SHODAN’s control. Textures torn from your hard-drive fly past outside like a snow-storm, ala Virus: The Game. You eventually reach the centre where, haunted by SHODAN’s screams, you press the reset button…

The game loads. You step off the train in front of the Unified National Nominate, about to enlist.

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143 Comments »

  1. ChaosSmurf says:

    Oh Kieron.

    • sfury says:

      We love you, man. :)

    • Cael says:

      Someone hire this man to write system shock 3

    • LionsPhil says:

      I liked it up to “Get Out”. And then…enh. The “hacking your mind” effect in SS1 where Shodan’s face starts appearing /over your UI/ hit harder than lol virus prank.

      And, frankly, that whole cutscene needs to die because it completely undermines SHODAN by making her try to bargin with you—to almost plead for mercy. Even as toying with you, that’s horrible character derailment. (Also I think animating her face was a terrible mistake, especially given the terrible morphing hackjob they did.)

    • Enshu says:

      @ Cael
      And may be do something about the whole mess of “Dreamfall”.

  2. Drug Crazed Dropkick says:

    Many points for the Longest Journey ending. Still one of the greatest purchases I ever made

  3. Sunjammer says:

    Cool story, bro

  4. harveyjames says:

    Cool article. A bagger isn’t really a digging machine, though. It looks like a giant buzzsaw but those ‘teeth’ are just buckets. So in this case, the gun on the mantle is more like a gun-shaped trumpet.

    • phuzz says:

      @harveyjames
      Yeah, but that’s just in the real world, in Imaginationland(tm) think how cool it would be to see those massive buckets tearing through rock, smashing a tunnel into the ground! :)

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      Jerricho says:

      Actually, a Bucket Wheel Excavator, like the bagger, is most definitely a digging machine (not necessarily for digging holes) and would be more than capable of the job. Those things don’t mess around.

  5. Legionary says:

    That may be the greatest game ending ever conceived, Kieron. Where do I subscribe to your news letter?

    • Demon Beaver says:

      In the upper menu, in the middle, right between “Hey, Developers!” and “Privacy”

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    Richard Beer says:

    Spot the comics author with the fertile imagination and boundless creativity!

  7. Oddtwang says:

    The file the hacker sends you should really be a copy of Operation: Inner Space. :)

  8. soylentrobot says:

    And then nerds everywhere abuse the SS2 ending to have a level made of boobies

  9. Azazel says:

    I fear Kierons mighty pen of +6 existential wankery! All hail!

  10. subedii says:

    I’d change the entire ending sequence to Bionic Command. Really bad ending, and set up for a sequel that we’re uncertain to ever get.

    In a game that’s supposed to be all about the freedom of motion, the final two boss fights were just stupid .Stuck on a tiny circular platform where you dodge > attack, no real use for the grappling arm, at least not for swinging. The final level sees your running down a narrow corridor unable to grapple onto the ceiling for some reason, followed by a final boss fight that’s literally just a set of QTE’s.

    Even the mohole boss fight was ill judged. Stuck in the middle of a vast empty car part that you can’t swing around, and the only use for your grappling arm is to throw things at the boss.

    The swinging mechanic in that game was amazing, the fluidity of the motion was joy in itself. I could literally spend entire games on an empty multiplayer server, simply swinging around the barren levels. That’s how well I felt they nailed it.

    The problem is that the gameplay / level design (outside of the multiplayer levels) did what it could to restrict your freedom of motion most of the time. It’s almost like they didn’t realise what they had sometimes. Where the Boss Fight against Groeder in Bionic Commando: Rearmed was about moving fluidly around the level to get an angle on your agile opponent, the one in the main game was literally waiting for your opponent to attack, dodging, and zip-kicking his back. That’s it.

    Something went very wrong there.

  11. nullpointer says:

    Atic Atac on the zx spectrum.
    The payout was a single word on teh completion screen, spelled wrong.

    CONGRATULATIONT !

    I prefer games without endings.. go go ludus vs narrative!

  12. brog says:

    oh, kieron.
    i haven’t even played the system shocks (due to being late to the party and operating system fails) but your tale has left me breathless.

  13. Meatloaf says:

    Eh. I disagree wholeheartedly about the Half-Life one. The whole point of the G-Man is what Gordon was not in control of the situation. The “better” ending described above sounds a bit adolescent and power-trippy. Kill the bad guy! Take his dignity! Make him beg for his life! No. That’s not valuable at all. Nor is it what the G-Man is about. The G-Man is sort of the “Would You Kindly” of Gordon’s post-Black-Mesa-Incident existence. Just using Gordon, and what Gordon does, for his own means.

    However, Valve did do something very similar at the end of HL2, with Breen – the whole “make him pay for betraying humanity” thing, but it doesn’t work for G-Man.

    • CMaster says:

      I always wonder if I read too much into Half Life, that Valve didn’t really intend. To explain:

      To me, Halflife was the tail of one man caught up in events indeed much bigger than him. Gordon just does what he has to survive – he’s never really aiming to get anywhere, he just flees from one part of the complex to another, trying to get out without the millitary or some weird bug-eyed thing ending him first. Even going to Xen isn’t really heroism. Simply taking the only way out, with the acknowledgement that to do nothing would mean endless invasion of Earth. At the end we of course, get confirmation as hinted to all along that while Gordon was just doing whatever it took to survive, other forces were making sure that what he had to do lined up with what they wanted.

      HL2 loses the survival aspect (and to my mind, actually loses most of what made HL so great, but finds its own, different and more polished but less clever ways to excel). It does however very much carry on the theme of Gordon as a tool used by others. The man in the suit places Gordon in the right places, has a few conversations, break or fixes a few doors to ensure that Gordon is put into contact with the right people, who in turn make him do things to further their ends. The people celebrate Gordon as some kind of hero, Alyx quickly comes to love him for this supposed bravery and heroism – but really he’s just putting one foot in front of the other, taking the only option that becomes available.

      However I could be misreading all of that. It could be that Valve want all players to be thinking of themselves as the hero, not just an active observer of other’s battles (after all, humanity’s survival doesn’t really include Gordon any more, as his employer has made it clear he has taken him out of society and will merely inject wherever necessary). That Valve want the players to be thinking of themselves and Gordon as falling in love with Alyx too. And by episode 2 of course, the whole thing has become a bit silly, and full of so many “it’s obviously just a game” moments that it isn’t really worth mentioning, while the characterization has fallen into real cliche. Seriously, HL’s writing was never excellent, but in the episodes it seemed to fall into a pit…

    • Pace says:

      I thought HL2 would be the one that could use an ending rewrite. Er, anyone?

    • Rich says:

      I agree with everything you said, up to the last few lines. I do agree that the episode writing isn’t nearly as good as that of HL and HL2, but it still follows the general theme of Gordon the patsy, being pushed where he’s needed.

    • realmenhuntinpacks says:

      I’d hate to get my tail caught up in events. Couldn’t end well, really.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      @CMaster — considering almost everyone I know who cared enough to think about it has come to the same conclusion about the HL series’ themes (i.e. it’s about Gordon Freeman being absolutely and completely used), I don’t think you were reading too much into it.

    • CMaster says:

      @Realmenhuntinpacks
      Oops.

      @Rich
      What I mean is the way in that while HL1 put quite a lot of effort in pretending to be set in a real place, with dozens of small, personal tragedies that you came across and often couldn’t help, while by episode 2, it’s full of complete “hey, here’s a fun minigame” moments for you and also employs one of the common tropes that annoy me – “only the named characters matter”. In HL1, there are no named characters. Friendly NPCs will react with brief horror to the death of a friend, and real anger if you are the one that does it. In HL2, you find instances like people sobbing over arrested family, people decrying the death of Lazlo, “the greatest mind of his generation” and the rebels of Little Odessa are exhausted and saddened by the deaths of their colleagues when you defeat the first gunship, not jubilant.

      By episode 2 however, you have rebels whooping after you arse around throwing bombs back at a helicopter, a missile silo where the guys in charge (Eli, Alyx, Magnusson) don’t give a damn when half their staff are slaughtered in front of them, but the idea that the life of “Alyx” or “Eli” or “Judith” is under threat is cause for great concern. Obviously yes, people care more about those who are important to them, but come Ep2, it’s clear that even to the little guys, the only lives that matter are of named characters.

      I should perhaps add that I thought episode 2 was, however, an absolutely fantastic ride which I had great fun with. I just felt that the writing had lost almost anything clever (other than the protagonist has no agency thing) that it once had.

    • Rich says:

      Can’t argue with any of that.

      Come to think of it, killing the helicopter had one of the most pointless and unfortunate deaths I’ve seen. Just as I land the killing blow, the last bomb it managed to drop crushes the head of one poor sod. Still everyone whoops, and no one seems to care that there’s only about three of them left. I think the poor man even looked at me and started to laugh.

    • Momo the Cow says:

      Everything Meatloaf said, I wanted to say as soon as I read the proposed alternate ending of Half-Life. I think that such an ending would have destroyed a lot of goodwill I have for the game and its intentions.

      Everything CMaster said, I wish I’d come to see myself, especially regarding the lives of little people in the Half-Life universe, but I was having too much damned fun with Episode 2 that I failed to notice.

      You’re absolutely right, the moments of personal tragedies that Gordon is constantly too late/too far/too impotent to prevent (or worse, that he caused himself) gave a face to the powerlessness of your character that defined the Half-Life games from others. Those brief moments of empathy for people you don’t know, and the sense that some things are truly beyond your control, were sublime. The moment in Half-Life 2 when you bring down the first gunship, and the aftermath was a deafening silence as the exhausted survivors simply collapsing where they stood, was profoundly moving. I don’t remember such moments in Episode 2, but I do remember having a hell of a ride, maybe the most invigorating of the series.

  14. Lilliput King says:

    Reminds me a bit of Tom Francis’ Bioshock ending, which is marvellous and brilliant AT THE SAME TIME.

    http://www.pentadact.com/index.php/2009-04-15-ending-bioshock

  15. Bas says:

    I remember reading about a PC game that does a similar thing to your SS2 ending. I think it’s this one:

    http://www.gamespot.com/pc/action/virusthegame/index.html

    Basically, it scans your PC for files and uses them in game. Pictures become wall textures, etc. If SS2 had this ending, it would have been the bestest thing ever.

  16. Fumarole says:

    I never did get past the Rickenbacker. Something about the dramatic change just turned me off of the game. The same thing happened in Zen, though I did finish that one about six years later. One day I’ll get through the Rickenbacker, one day…

  17. Army of None says:

    Kieron why must you make me love you?

  18. Inigo says:

    Or you could always use the Sopranos method and just

    • sfury says:

      Ah, I see what you

    • Freud says:

      That’s what Borderlands did.

    • Wilson says:

      @Inigo – I hated that Sopranos ending. It was such a huge letdown to me, it kind of spoilt the rest of it retroactively. I didn’t necessarily want some huge cleanup of all the threads, but some kind of event ending it rather than nothing would have been nice. I really thought there was another DVD after the final episode, because I couldn’t believe they would end it like that…

  19. the wiseass says:

    I for once would welcome a game where the bad guy wins and the player loses. A game without happy end simply because, well because you cannot always win. Sometimes you simply lose or fight a battle that you cannot win and I’d like to see that translated into a game.

    I know it may be quite frustrating for some players to invest time into a game that they cannot win, no matter what they do. But honestly, you don’t play the game to “win” or to “complete” it, you play it because you want to have fun. The way IS the goal, at least for me.

    So yes, give me the game that I cannot win. GAME fucking OVER, man!

    • subedii says:

      From a purely “narrative” perspective there are games where you lose. As far as I’m aware there’s never been a game where you simply get to the end and literally cannot win the actual gameplay aspect of it at all, unless you’re talking about games that continue on forever as a form of “score attack” game.

      IIRC Wing Commander 3 did something like this. If you mess up enough missions, the Kilrathi get to Earth, and your final mission is basically fighting against endless waves of fighters, but you still ultimately cannot win.

    • Rich says:

      The difficulty is making it apparent that, in this one instance, it’s OK to die. The nature of games is such that if I’m killed, or lose in any way, I’ll reload to see if that’s the only ending. You can’t always be sure.

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      Lambchops says:

      That and Freespace 2′s either die heroically trying to save others or run the fuck away from horrible, horrible death ending. Either way it’s a massive lost for the player; either through their death or watching an entire star system obliterated. Although on the positive side the Shivan threat appears over and they may have a way to return home, but the cost is certianly terrible.

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      phlebas says:

      I don’t think I know of any on the PC, but certainly there were some Spectrum games (Great Gurianos and Fighting Warrior spring to mind) where the final boss was unbeatable because there wasn’t enough memory spare to program an ending sequence.

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      stahlwerk says:

      Portal!

    • AlexMax says:

      I am going to spoil a very recent console game. If you are sensitive to spoilers, please do not read this. Granted, you are reading a news post about endings, but I don’t think most people on this board have had the opportunity to play this game yet.

      This actually happens in Halo: Reach. Throughout the game, various members of your team of Spartans dies, and at the very end of the game you are the only one left. After completing the final mission of the game the credits roll, but after those you are given the controls again and are given the objective to survive as long as possible against the covenant. There is no way to “win”, and against ever-increasing odds, the glass in your helmet cracks as you take more and more damage until you are finally violently overcome. Of course, there’s a flowery “because of your sacrifice, we were able to escape and kick their asses later” monologue after that, but it’s really quite…different than most endings. Touching even.

      Of course, this ending was foreshadowed by the entire series, considering the fact that Master Chief is mentioned time and time again as being the last Spartan, so if you were a fan of previous Halo games you probably knew it was coming.

    • the wiseass says:

      @Stahlwerk:
      Ah yes Portal. Of all the PC games that I know if, this game comes closest to my definition of a “bad ending”. But the thing is that you can escape that fiery destiny (I’m trying not to spoiler too much here) although it may not be obvious at the beginning. I think that’s why this particular scene is so intriguing and I wonder how many people thought this actually was the end of the game. I know of a few people that did actually until told otherwise.

      @AlexMax:
      Thanks for sharing, unfortunately I don’t own a console. But that would be a good example for what I meant. I guess you have to make the difference, as subedii already hinted at, between a narrative “bad ending” and a gameplay “bad ending”. In the narrative one you may be able to complete the game gameplay-wise but it may not give you a happy ending. The other alternative would be an unbeatable end boss just like the covenant you mentioned.

      I just think that more games should dare these types of endings because honestly I think people are getting tired of the typical “Hollywood endings”. If movies can do it, why not games?

    • Rich says:

      @the wiseass re Portal: Really? I can’t imagine just accepting it like that. I didn’t even listen to GlaDOS at that point, I was too busy looking for a way out.
      Also, these people will have missed something like a quarter of the game.

      I wonder if Valve collected any interesting data on how many people just sat back and got themselves cooked, and how many got out.

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      stahlwerk says:

      Ha, I didn’t think of the “fake” ending of Portal, but good catch! And I’d also really like to see the data on this.
      I actually had the very end in mind, where… SPOILERS*

      …Chell lies on the ground like she does when dying during the game. It had this devastating “you came this close!”-mood of older Terry Gilliam movies (life of brian, time bandits, brazil). Of course, with the retcon of the recent update we knew that she was simply assuming the Party Submission Position and was safely returned to uhm… stasis?

      *) You should REALLY go and play it now.

    • phuzz says:

      FarCry 2 had an ending where you ‘lose’
      SPOILERS AHEAD
      Right at the end of the game you meet the Jackal (who from the start of the game you are supposed to kill, but who gradually seems helping you) for the final time and he tells you both need to get all the refugees out of the country to escape the civil war that between you, you have started. (the only thing to do in the game is to be an amoral bastard, indiscriminately egging on both sides in the war, the only other option is not to play the game).
      To buy these refugees passage one of you must hand over the briefcase to the boarder guards, the other of you must take the other path (literally) and set off an explosion, blocking access to the pass to the oncoming militia who are intent on slaughtering the ‘fugees.
      (it’s a good example of the unevenness of FarCry 2, that while the dilemma you are given is interesting and well thought out, in some lights it just looks utterly contrived).
      If the player chooses to set of the explosion then they are also killed by the blast and they see a scene of the refugees moving across the border, looking up at the distant explosion.
      If you choose to take the diamonds, you see exactly the same scene, but with the knowledge that in the end, it was the amoral arms dealer you were sent to kill who was the hero of the story.

      FarCry 2, it’s a long way from perfect, but it does have it’s moments.

    • Navagon says:

      One game I can think of where the bad guys ultimately win is Chaser. The ‘proper’ ending to Stalker saw you either slowly drained or left out in a blow out to die. Most of the Wish Granter endings ended in death too, I believe.

  20. A-Scale says:

    I wish you would have included a discussion of Bioshock. Talk about a violation of Chekov’s Gun, it’s your bloody teaser picture but you only mention it once. In any case I never saw what was wrong with the ending.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      I heard you, and have since edited into the article Tom Francis’ Ending Bioshock blog post.

      http://www.pentadact.com/index.php/2009-04-15-ending-bioshock

    • A-Scale says:

      I understand that is his reimagining, but I want to know why you guys thought it needed to be reimagined at all. It seemed like a fine way to end the game to me. Sure it was devoid of moral choice, but the guy turns into a literal superhuman atlas figure and reveals himself to be your quasi-father. That was pretty cool. I also have no problem with a 3 stage boss battle.

  21. Colthor says:

    Kieron’s SS2 ending would be a massive improvement.

    Personally, I’d've ended Oblivion’s main quest like this:
    The player hands the Amulet of Kings to Jauffre at Weynon Priory. He thanks the player, gives him a full pardon for whatever got him locked up in the first place, and as a gesture of personal thanks his horse Patch from the stables. He wishes the player the best of luck in his new, free life in Cyrodiil.
    THE END

  22. DiamondDog says:

    Batman: Arkham Asylum did a good job of making me think my PS3 had tanked.

    • ChaosSmurf says:

      Honestly alt-tabbed the first time, cause my graphics card fucks up EXACTLY LIKE THAT sometimes.

    • DiamondDog says:

      Certainly had me reaching for the reset button. Oh and cursing like a sailor.

    • Fraser says:

      Agreed. And yet it’s another game badly in need of an alternate ending. It’s so strong right up until you find the Joker, and then… damp squib.

    • DiamondDog says:

      Yeah I loved the game but most of the boss fights were pretty terrible. Bane and the end fight with Joker being my personal low points. The ending just felt very underwhelming.

  23. CMaster says:

    I’ve had some of this thinking about endings recently, and how I’d really like a lot of them to be more satisfactory. A lot of that comes down to trying to pull some things out about how each individual player experiences the game, rather than a neatly written ending.

    One of the particular things I was thinking was the end of a fairly grand strategy game like (but probably not quite) Civ. Afterwards, you get a tale about how certain key cities or units of yours were important in times on. How key notable events are mentioned in history books. How the enmity between your side and the one that kept declaring war on you was healed or deepened. Really awesome would be if you then got thrown back into the game, in a new, limited scenario. EG where your dictatorial rule has fermented a rebellion, where despite your cultural and economic dominion; a warlord had managed to arise in some bitter corner, and now the rest of the free world has to fight back; or where either alien invasion or more peaceful first contact has come to a newly united planet.

    Even outside of something that complete, I think endings that acknowledge what the actual player seemed to feel were important. ones where the game pays just a few moments attention to the player would be good.

    • Premium User Badge

      JB says:

      @ CMaster – I really like that idea, good stuff. That’s the sort of thing that really makes you feel a part of the story, like what you’ve done in the game has had an impact.

  24. Freud says:

    I liked how Amnesia ended.

    * slight spoilers ahead *

    Not the actual endings. They were like most video game endings, too abrupt, had what feels like plot holes and didn’t have the emotional weight they should have. But I liked that during the journey I had gotten so conflicting stories from Alexander, Agrippa and Daniel that I truly didn’t know who was the least evil guy here and I didn’t trust the motivations of any of them, including the guy I was playing. So instead of just walking in and destroying the Bad Dude (TM) I spent a minute thinking about what to do and then I picked the least evil of them. It didn’t feel completely satisfying but should it after what I went through?

  25. ChaosSmurf says:

    Know what had good multiple endings?

    This fucking shit right here

    Respec’

  26. Mungrul says:

    Obviously this article’s crying out for a companion article celebrating some of the best endings out there. There’s not many games out there that have truly memorable endings that leave you with something to think about. It’s even harder when restricting yourself to PC-only games.

    • CMaster says:

      Mungrul – it’s certainly easier to think of games with brilliant openings rather than endings.
      Was Darwinia’s good? I remember the last level being pretty brilliant at least.

    • airtekh says:

      I’m nodding in agreement. Follow-up piece RPS?

      I’m sitting here really trying to think of a genuinely good ending to a PC game I’ve played, and I can’t think of one.

      You mention Darwinia, I do remember getting a warm, fuzzy feeling upon completion, after saving the little guys. I loved it when you found the statue they had been building, it’s amazing how it can make you have feelings for a bunch of green stick-men sprites.

      Personally, I really liked the ending of Half-Life 2; but it was more because it was completely unexpected and such a cliffhanger that it left me slack-jawed at my monitor for about a minute afterwards. Also, Episode Two.

    • MWoody says:

      And at the top of that article should be System Shock 2′s ending. Man, that was the greatest thing of all… *notices a familiar looking screenshot in the second half of this post* uh… Wait. System Shock 2 in a “worst endings” article!?

    • Jimbo says:

      A satisfying game ending is a rare thing indeed. I’d pick Mafia and The Witcher as two of the best. Oh, COD4 is up there too.

      I actually quite liked the end of Borderlands. But then, I loved the end of Prince of Persia ’08 too, and everybody else seems to hate it.

      Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 have two of the worst endings in recent years I think. Arkham Asylum was pretty bad too.

    • Premium User Badge

      jaheira says:

      Five games with great endings

      Far Cry 2 – that photo. Powerful.
      Baldur’s Gate 2 -Throne of Baal – I liked the epilogues about what happened to all the characters after the events of the game.
      Deus Ex – blast everyone back to the Dark Ages and give it another go.
      HL2 Ep.2 – Alyx’s voice in your ears after the screen goes dark
      Vampire Bloodlines – taxi driver.

    • Wilson says:

      @Jimbo – Yeah, Mafia’s ending was fantastic. Probably my favorite ending.

    • Willy359 says:

      Grim Fandango is the only video game whose ending ever brought a tear to my eye.

  27. Pijama says:

    This is what happens when you give Kieron his right dosage of drugs and coffee, gentlemen!

    (Although you have to remember that he is a total SHODAN-manwhore and therefore absolutely not biased *ahem*)

  28. Rich says:

    Homeworld had a good ending, and generally a good storyline. For an RTS that’s really saying something.

  29. panther says:

    swoons for KG

  30. Dominic White says:

    Recently, a single game has had TWO of my favourite endings to games, ever. The divisively-reviewed Nier for the PS3/360.

    Here’s a glowing review from the New York times. Most other places seemed to absolutely hate it, though.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/arts/television/04nier.html

    It’s a very different kind of fantasy action-RPG romp. It’s serious and mature, yet absolutely piled high with emotional resonance. In fact, in a callback to the Sunday Papers, its’ proof that you CAN have an older, grizzled male lead who has feelings beyond ‘I am angry that you are a villain, therefore I kill you’.

    The ending is utterly bittersweet. You get a happy ending, but at the expense of tragedy for another. And then the game gives you the option of returning to around the halfway point of the story for ‘another perspective’. And you do.

    And the game itself is exactly the same. What changes, however, is the angle from which the story is viewed. You get to find out the truth behind a lot of things, and it makes it all the worse. It’s a truth that you were happier not knowing. And the slightly different ending is absolutely heartbreaking instead of merely bittersweet.

    It left me feeling emotionally drained. I can’t think of a game that has done that since possibly Planescape: Torment. No, definitely more powerful than Torment.

    There’s another couple of endings after that, but I won’t spoil them. I will say that it’s easier/more reasonable to watch them on youtube than getting them legitimately, though. Don’t even go looking for them until you’ve played through for endings A & B.

    • DiamondDog says:

      I was sooooo tempted by this game for those very reasons but the actual gameplay looked a little bland. Might convince myself if it’s going cheap!

      Added bonus of Liam O’Brien, too.

    • Dominic White says:

      The gameplay isn’t bad in Nier. It’s just not great, either. It’s what gets you from scene to scene. There’s a ton of sidequests that have no bearing whatsoever on the story that can turn the game into a horrible grind, but only if you choose to do them.

      I’d say it only took me about 15-16 hours to get endings A & B. C & D I youtubed.

  31. Kyle says:

    I really dig Quinns’ idea for Morrowind. The “evidence of a great battle” is a hoary old fantasy thing, but it takes on a new, very cool texture when you can point to it and say “yeah, that was me.”

    I’m also a fan of Kieron’s quasi-Morrison, Animal Man-ey ending for SS2. Everything but the programmer sending you the Deus Ex Machina over IM. If the problem with the end of the game is a removal of artifice, I don’t think the solution is transplanting that artifice into a never-before-seen NPC. Maybe something that prompts physical input, like powering down, or Ctrl-alt-del-ing? A (false) Ctrl-Alt-Del that only feeds backward into the New Game + he mentioned?

    Anyway, lots of cool ideas here guys. How has the industry not yet absorbed all of you?

  32. Alexander Norris says:

    Minus the crazy desktop part, that System Shock 2 ending would have been ace.

    Anyway, I disagree quite a bit with Alec about how HL1 should have ended, because I love the G-Man and the HL series’ metaplot to bits. The fact that the G-Man seems to be the bad guy (he’s not) and that he gets away scot free is pretty much the whole point. You’re meant to feel completely used and abused. That’s the essence of the Half-Life series – Gordon Freeman is a pawn under someone else’s control at all times, both literally (because he’s a video game protagonist) and within the setting. The fact that the HL series is pretty much the only video game series I can think of that makes it a point of making your character’s complete lack of agency a crucial part of the plot and of the game’s feel is what makes it so great.

    (I had a bit of a comment about Francis’ BioShock ending rewrite but it’s very long and not really about either this post or my comment, so I’ll post it as a reply to this in a second.)

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Anyway, I disagree with parts of Tom Francis’ rewritten ending (which has some awesome ideas). Here’s what’s wrong with it: Francis proposes scrapping the stupid antidote fetch quest (he’s right), but he forgets that one of the most poignant and impressive parts of BioShock is the residential area, which is the first time you see something that truly resembles a city as we understand it (i.e. roads, public transport, flats, signs of people actually living there instead of just giving us work/recreation areas), because it’s in ruins. The way I would’ve done things is, have the residential areas immediately precede Hephaestus, so that you get the chance to see the actual devastation wrought by Rapture’s civil war first-hand before you get to Ryan, and solves the problem of the fetch quest by having Atlas’ identity not revealed until after you’ve seen that part.

      I’d have had Hephaestus stay identical (although, did anyone else notice that in the Ryan cutscene you hit him at “would you kindly,” never actually letting him finish giving you the order?), with Atlas taking the genetic key from you, making himself invulnerable and the master of Rapture, but then I’m not too sure what I’d've done. On the one hand, I fought the encounter with Tenenbaum and Point Prometheus tedious because they happened after the game’s reveal – which should properly have happened so close to the end as to deny you the opportunity to forget anything about it; on the other hand, Francis is right in that becoming a Big Daddy has a certain amount of emotional resonance given that you’ve been fighting them all game and they’re clearly the biggest, toughest thing in Rapture (but then: forcing the player to take care of a Little Sister is just bashing them over the head with the absolutely retarded black/white morality the game chose to adopt in its final act, since it’s essentially trying to guilt-trip people who chose to harvest).

      My original idea was to have Tenenbaum inform the player that Atlas was trying to leave Rapture now that the place was trashed and all his underlings were dead, and have the player go backwards through a few previous levels to finally reach a previously unseen loading bay in the Docks in which the last seaworthy submarine rested and have to defeat Atlas by constantly killing him so he couldn’t steal the submarine, but be unable to activate it themselves since they lacked the genetic key, meaning the player would have to break the bay’s gigantic glass window that looks out onto Rapture’s expanse in order to start flooding the chamber, then keep killing Fontaine/protecting the submarine until the water was high enough to engage the sub’s emergency mode, at which point the player would have to run to it and shut themselves in as the sub automatically pulled out of Rapture, with Fontaine thumping on the sub’s reinforced glass window when you finally got the door closed only to be left behind as the sub pulled out.

      But then I realised that that left out an important thing: you’d still have the genetic conditioning, which means the fight would be absurd; furthermore, Francis was right that turning yourself into a Big Daddy was a powerful scene, and it provides a reason for the conditioning to be broken (by the Big Daddy machine trying to impose new conditioning on top of it, providing a reason why you’d also be free of that conditioning). So basically, I’d have Tenenbaum get Jack to drop his radio and instruct him to turn himself into a Big Daddy then go to Central Ventilation and deliberately sabotage Rapture, at which point Fontaine would try to run (taunting the player over the Big Daddy suit’s internal radio), and you’d go backwards through a few previous levels (now partially flooded, meaning you put your suit to good use) until you reached the Docks, at which point you’d fight Ryan while the water rose.

      Although even then, a problem remains – Francis’ ending presumed that there’d be Little Sisters to load into the sub, and more egregiously, it presumed they’d be de-slugged. While I agree that just “kill Fontaine over and over again” is a bit boring unless he can do the same to you and the whole thing is a battle of man vs. man, and that adding something to do that lets you be either altruistic or egotistic is a great idea, having this something be slug-free Sisters if you’ve spent the entire game killing every one of them isn’t particularly respectful of the player’s choices (how did they get cured? How come there’s still enough of them left to make them part of this boss fight? Although: having Tenenbaum try to betray you by taking the sub first is great). Though admittedly, this could probably be fixed by having Tenenbaum do a mini infodump (via pleading with Fontaine for their lives) explaining that these are the original test batch of Little Sisters and that they’re the only ones she could cure herself since the player refused to help her.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      PS: Quinns still isn’t at the bottom of the page, and this saddens me.

  33. Xercies says:

    How i would end Mafia 2(i do love that game):

    I would have it end basically, you get a choice you either save Joe and risk getting killed but you manage to save him. But unfortunatly you get shot yourself and Joe has to skip town. Or you decide that Yes you will accept Joe’s loss and became a Capo, unfortunatly because your friend made the whole thing easier for you the money and women doesn’t do a thing and you find yourself having an empty life and Vito shoots himself.

    If it ended like that it would take the theme of mafia 2, which is Vito’s realisation that the Mafia actually doesn’t make your life easier and money and women are not very good life goals to a whole new level.

  34. laikapants says:

    The ending of Borderlands (when piled on with other grievances like the giant vagina face rhino thing being rather boring instead of terrifying) drained me of most of the joy I had in the earlier bits of the game. Especially since I was stuck in single player it meant I came so far by myself for absolutely nothing. The loot the damn thing dropped wasn’t even for my class. I hold out minuscule hope that whenever the sequel drops it’ll be more rewarding.

  35. Maxheadroom says:

    Grim Fandango. Lovely ending.
    Probably would have made me cry if i wasn’t such a manly man

    • Rich says:

      Seconded. Still my favourite game story of all time. One or chronological plot holes, but still a fantastic tale.

    • Premium User Badge

      stahlwerk says:

      I third this (e)motion.

    • sfury says:

      True, one of the main reasons Grim and Planescape: Torment are my most favorite games is they knew how to tell you a great story and then end it on par.

      So no wonder both games broke my heart when they ended. :\

  36. bleeters says:

    Hmm. The Overlord games, mostly because I was playing them the other day. Throwing greens at a giant magical slug and occasionally holding down tab was a little underwhelming, as final boss fights go.

  37. jiki says:

    Ehh, I disagree with Alec on HL’s ending as well, not because I particularly like the G-Man, but because I think that if we only accept videogame stories where there’s a “satisfying” ending with the bad buy getting punished, we’re neglecting not only the fact that this rarely happens in real life, but also that stories don’t have to have happy endings. On the contrary, happy ending is often the thing that ruins everything (an example from movies – Sandler’s Click). So, no.

    • DrGonzo says:

      What you said.

      Also, it completely goes against all of Half Life. You’re never in control in that game and always feel like your a puppet, or being led along.

  38. Nick says:

    Speaking of Opposing Force.. I want a proper ending to that, poor Adrian =/

  39. deneb says:

    I thought the original TLJ ended pretty well. It was quite congruent with the way I was feeling about April and her character development throughout the game. After all, she’s kinda presented as this upbeat, optimistic girl that has just the mindset to take just about everything the cosmos happens to throw at her in stride, improvising her way out of stuff and still managing the smile about the whole ordeal. With some daddy issues. Pretty good mindset for an upcoming artist.

    Having her “oh, OK, fine” in reaction to the twist at the end seemed pretty in-tune with her personality. Seeing her slam herself in and go into existentialist crises is just unlike her, that would have been quite dissonant for the player to see. Hardly fitting for a game that’s all about being inviting, really.

    • John Walker says:

      I take it you haven’t played Dreamfall then? Because April does exactly the opposite of that.

      The original ending of TLJ is good, but I always wanted it to come back to those drawings, and to see the beginning of April’s downfall that continues in DF.

  40. Chris says:

    Fallout 3. The whole game you are free to do whatever you want. The developers harked about karma and decisions and then you get to the end and they say a massive patronising FUCK the fuck you.

    What the hell? What’s so fashionable about having to kill yourself at the end of games these days? What took the piss was the fact I had Fawkes with me. What really took the piss was the fact I could ask him to go in for me as he was immune to radioactivity just for him to say ‘ooooh yeah, sorry mate, dont know about that”. What really really took the piss was the fact I had enough radaway to cope with the radiation anyway.

    • Chris says:

      Also Fawkes, after I SAVED YOUR LIFE, you said ‘if you need anything, anything at all, just let me know’.

      Me : Hey Fawkes, you know that favour you owe me? Can you go in there and type this code? Don’t worry about the radiation, you’re completely immune to it, as you showed me not 20 minutes ago. So really, in response to saving you’re life, I am asking you to walk over there, and press 4 buttons, that’s it.

      Fawkes : No :D

    • Kast says:

      In all fairness, the devs recognised how screwed up that was and fixed it with the Broken Steel DLC. I would imagine it doesn’t just apply to Fawkes, but at least to the… the… the robot companion too.

  41. Premium User Badge

    stahlwerk says:

    Now that Monkey Island 2 SE was released with commentary by Schafer and Gilbert, is there anything they say about the… “controversial” ending?
    I really liked it for its mind-fuckery and would have adored it if part 3 had had the balls to continue exactly there. So, I’d like not necessarily a rewrite of a bad ending, but a rewrite of a bad continuation (“It was all just a dream”). No idea how they could have pulled it off, however.

    • Premium User Badge

      Hodge says:

      Agreed. I loved MI2′s ending, and I was expecting the next one to continue in the ‘real’ world (at least to begin with). I was really disappointed when I finally played MI3 and realised that they’d basically revised the fairground away.

  42. Taillefer says:

    I love the idea of SHODAN breaking the fourth wall, escaping the confines of the game into the real world, or somehow convincing you that something happening in the game wasn’t actually supposed to. But it could be a game-long set up. Maybe pop up seemingly inane questions or something on the screen every now and then without any explanation. And it’s revealed at the end she’s been changing the game’s programming but needed some human input from the outside.

    Then she lets you have the victory in-game because she’s spread to other systems now.

  43. Richard B says:

    Quinns, you’re a horrible, horrible man.
    I’ve waited for nearly 3 years to buy a PC capable of playing Bioshock, avoiding spoilers like the plague, now I’m three hours in, and loving it, then I go and turn this ever beautiful website on and by the time I realize what I’m looking at, it’s too late. Too late!
    Anyway, expect a call from my laywer regarding renumeration of the three years of my life I want back, or the cost of a time machine, whichever is easiest.

    • Freud says:

      Darth Vader is Lukes father.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      I am genuinely sorry. But as spoilers go, knowing that there is a naked muscular man with an Adam syringe stuck in him at the end of Bioshock s’no biggie.

  44. sinister agent says:

    “Red Mountain at the beginning of your battle, and you chasing him to 3 or 4 of Morrowind’s most scenic landmarks. At the end of each fight, he could teleport away”

    WRONG and BAD. Beating a boss only for the game to refill its energy bar is a mortal videogame sin. Have we learned nothing?

    • phuzz says:

      Instead of having the health bar fill up, just give him loads of health, and then the quicker the player kills him, the less of Morrowind gets trashed.
      How d’ya like them RPG apples eh?

  45. bhlaab says:

    A recent game with a good ending: The Saboteur

  46. mpk says:

    The ending of Borderlands left me feeling empty and hollow, basically rendering the previous however-many hours of gameplay meaningless. I’ve not felt so cheated since, well, System Shock 2 to be honest – although Jurassic Park on the SNES will forever live on in my mind as the worst of the worst. Ten hours straight we played that damn game. Ten! And for what? A MODE-7 SPINNY ISLAND? YOU FUCKERS RUINED MY CHILDHOOD.

    Anyway.

  47. clive dunn says:

    I’ve been playing computer games since 1982 and i’ve never once finished a game or even got to the last level. As bobby dylan’s grandma said, ‘it ain’t the getting there, it’s the road’.

    • Premium User Badge

      stahlwerk says:

      Why not? Some games that are rewarding until the end practically play themselves, don’t they? Loom comes to mind.

  48. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    When I think of the game endings that I’ve really liked, I notice that they’re not really amazing in their own right, just satisfactory conclusions to really good stories.

    Take Grim Fandango, which I was going to list as my obvious favourite one. I loved it to bits, and was incredibly happy/moved/fulfilled by it, but on reflection none of that really came from the ending itself. The entire game is building all that stuff up, the ending just kind of underscores it. And that’s all a ‘good’ ending really needs to do.

    (Although the first Mafia would be an exception to that rule. A great story all the way through, but that very last cutscene towers above all the others).

  49. Shazbut says:

    Kieron stop whatever nonsense you’re doing with your life right now, join a small studio, and make immersive sims.

    If the people at Frictional can do it, you can do it. More to the point you SHOULD do it.

  50. Laneford says:

    It may be an evil console game, but Shadow of the Collossus has the rare ‘bad’ ending thing going on. (Bloody brilliant also)

    Would second Monkey Island 2 and Portal as other truly great endings.