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.

, , , , , .

143 Comments »

  1. Zwebbie says:

    I’d like to mention STALKER here, which had multiple endings.

    -Spoilers ahead!-
    Five endings are ‘false’, two endings are ‘true’. In the false endings, you reach the Wish Granter, where your character makes a wish, but the Granter, some weird kind of glowing crystal, twists it in such a a way that you’re maimed or killed. Which of the five endings you get depends on how you played, where ending with a ton of money will have the protagonist asking for wealth, for example.
    In the true endings, you find out what’s up with the Zone, how it came to be, and all that. Crazy pseudoscience explains that those crazy communists tapped into the spirit dimension, it’s now leaking over into the real world, and a couple of scientists have hooked themselves up to a machine to try and stop it, meanwhile also using troops to keep nosy people out. The two options here are to either join them or kill them.
    The difference between the endings is massive – the fake endings keep, nay, reinforce the mystery and are completely in touch with the cruel and almost magical nature of the Zone. The true endings explain everything and ruin the atmosphere of the Zone in the progress.

  2. JonSolo says:

    I’d love to hear what you guys think of other games’ endings. Like the later Ultimas (8,9), Fallout (2,3), etc.

  3. Grape Flavor says:

    I also have not played BioShock and am very dismayed that you would decide to put the ending of a game right there on the front page where you can’t avoid it. Go eat a bag of dicks RPS.

    And then, after presentation of the legitimately empty bag, we will hug and be friends again.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      As I said before, the BioShock devs would probably be quite upset if you claimed that the ending of their game could be summarised as “a bald, naked dude fastened to a table.”

      If you really haven’t played BioShock at all, that picture tells you nothing. Hell, if you’re 75% of the way through BioShock, that picture still tells you nothing. And in any case, BioShock came out three years ago. It’s a tenner on Steam. It’s not a particularly long game. Play it already.

      *slides bag of dicks back across the table*

    • Grape Flavor says:

      yeah it’s not really that big a deal man. i was just joking around.

    • Urthman says:

      The label “Fontaine’s Adam” in the screenshot is most definitely a spoiler.

    • Thants says:

      Some of us prefer to be surprised by bald, naked men! Wait…

  4. clive dunn says:

    now i’ve got to go to bed with the image of you two passing a bag of dicks back and forth across a table. Thanks RPS. ;)

  5. Little Tohya says:

    One of my favourite endings was Conker’s Bad Fur Day, on the N64. After the entire game, during which he’s just trying to get home to his girlfriend after a boozy night out… she’s dead, he’s the king of a bunch of people he’s only just met but absolutely can’t stand , and he blew his only chance to make it the other way round and knows it.

    The game ending has him go to the bar, have a drink, and stagger off from the pub, as it began. What didn’t make it into the game was the original ending… where he staggers out of the pub, and shoots himself.

    It’s totally a downer ending… but it would have finished the story off perfectly. Conker was a really bold game in a lot of ways, and it’s a real pity nobody has tried to follow it up.

  6. Eversor says:

    Gonna have to disagree with Morrowind ending there. It was fine as it was. You, the player, are Nerevarine, a divine being, not some random chump. You’ve pretty much ascended to godhood. The only disappointment there was me not being able to join Dagoth Ur. Other than that, it all made sense. The fight was short, because it wasn’t your intent to kill Dagoth Ur himself. You had to destroy the Heart of Lorkhan from which he drew his power, not chase him all over Morrowind. He was never truly a bad guy either. He just wanted to do what Indoril Nerevar once swore to do – drive Outlanders out of Morrowind. So he was willing to do it, by building the massive avatar. Your task was to end the madness of both him and the Tribunal demigods, madness of mortals who suddenly had become immortal without actually earning the power. Plus, you were just a part of Azura’s revenge plot on Tribunal for daring to tell her off in their ignorance. THAT was the Nerevarine’s purpose in the prophecy, that was why Nerevarine was brought back by Azura, and that was what Nerevarine achieved.

  7. Zuppy says:

    One day, Gordon will speak. And he will say:

    “What? What the f*ck? Why? Why me? Why do I have to… No. No, that’s enough. I’m not a hero. I’m not some messiah! I don’t understand any of this! And now you want me to what the alien whatsit with the what? I don’t want any of this! I want to go home! (pause) I never wanted to hurt anyone, you know that? Do you… do you know how many people, how many people I’ve killed? I’ve… (sobs)”

    • Bret says:

      We’ve heard Gordon talk.

      And he’s a lot less… pacifistic than that.

      In fact, he seems to enjoy killing some of those he deems his intellectual inferiors.

      He does whine a lot, though.

  8. Mathew Jensterle says:

    It is cheesy but I always liked the ending of Hitman:Blood Money. I watched those credits the whole way through before thinking “wait wait wait hang on” and reloading. It was entirely possible I could have never realised I had only reached a branch point, not the end.

  9. DigitalSignalX says:

    I have to agree with the chap who said Homeworld had a superb start, story arc, and end – which no RTS has come close to in my mind since.

    Worst ending ever? Fallout 3 – because of the reasons already explained. I think Bethesda reached this same conclusion too which is why Broken Steel DLC essentially apologizes for it and puts a band aid on it to make it better.

    Mafia II’s sour end is fresh in my mind, mostly because of the hypocrisy. Not 10 minutes prior you had Joe with a gun at your head begging him to trust you, and then wham you hang him out to dry because “the deal was for Vito only” wtf? I’d have put some smoking holes into every other warm body in that final scene’s car, then gone after Joe. Some laywer decides you should live and not your Paisano?

  10. Guy says:

    Interesting article, guys.

    Dagoth Ur could not leave Red Mountain because he was guarding the Heart of Lorkhan, from which he gained his immortality, and to which his life force was bound. In order to destroy him you had to destroy the heart. Destroying it also caused the Tribunal to lose their immortality.

    Besides, I liked the encounter with Dagoth Ur. It fit with the theme of the Tribunal being merely flawed mortals masquerading as gods. There was something pathetic about this mad recluse and his desperate cries whilst I hacked away at Lorkhan :0

    The ending of Morrowind would have led to many changes occuring in the game world: The death of the Tribunal religion, a revival of Ashlander tradition (maybe) the waning of Imperial influence with the return of the Nerevarine..sorry I’m rambling.

  11. Moonracer says:

    About half way through Borderlands I thought it would be funny/was half expecting to get to the vault and just be rewarded with equipment that was ridiculously overpowered (instead of loot that levels with your opponents so that nothing really changes). This would have been funny because finally you would have real uber gear but it would be useless since you just beat the game.

  12. dragon_hunter21 says:

    Holy crap, that was meta, Kieron. I want a game like that.

  13. The Tingler says:

    I was always disappointed that you never actually went after Quake…

  14. 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.

  15. bildo says:

    I must say. I’m not a fan of what Kieron has to say most of the time. However, THAT was an ending.

  16. rich-o says:

    So HL2 had the ending you wanted SS2 to have, but neither are good enough? I think you’ve fallen for a rouge AI with a pretty voice, and just aren’t as excited by the prospect of a nice crisp suit.
    I’m thankful we’re not still in the 8-bit era. After literally months of fighting my way though Exile on the BBC, the reward for finally returning the destinator to your damaged ship is so poor I actually thought the game had crashed. But no, that was the ending, that was all there was. And what about The Sentinal? 999 excruciatingly similar levels only to be presented with the password for level 001?
    Having said all that I’m agreed that the ending of every Bethseda game ever has been proper toss.

  17. Greg says:

    Isn’t Quinn’s ending to Morrowind the exact ending of Loom? (Loom’s ending is yoga flame for all time so no worries there)

  18. MajorManiac says:

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

    “Get out”.

    At which point we crash out to desktop. “”

    - This made the hairs on the back of my neck stand-up. I think this would be the perfect place to end the game.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      I didn’t comment on (and read) this earlier since I was still busy wrapping up my first playthrough of borderlands, but now I have, so hence my comment.

      The digger.. well, it would’ve been nice, but not at all necessary to my mind. I did very much like bursting into Crimson Lance territory and sniping heads off. Also, they have cool cars. But it’s not as if the digger could’ve been involved with things without removing that content.

      Someone else here mentioned the Rakk monster and yeah that was kinda.. odd. And not at all challenging like it was supposed to be. In fact prior to the big Guardians at the very end, Sledge was probably the toughest guy I’ve faced.

      The one disappointing thing, for me, was that in the end the big moment’s there, they key is used.. andthere’s just this totally different monster (the destroyer) than anything you’ve seen and.. nothing.
      I mean.. nothing?! And then they even give you the assignment to slog back to Tanis. Pah. I mean, I don’t want loot at that point, I just want to get a bit of story, maybe the vault.. and if not, then something else. Some conclusion. But it just stops there. There isn’t even any explanation on the Eridians and what the heck that destroyer was and what that has to do with the Vault.

      But the digger? Would’ve been nice if it had moved, but that part seems fine as it is.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Oops.. now how did that become a reply.. ptpp!

  19. DestyNova says:

    So the program from the hacker traps you and Shodan in a loop?

  20. Kyle says:

    I honestly thought the ending of Half-Life 2 : Episode 2 was a good idea. After Half-Life 2, you rebel from G-Man and he doesn’t like that fact. You can see the toold he tried to use in order to get him to aline. Now is Episode 2, they give you the message that hes done with, yet he tries to kill off somebody with a “abnormal” will. Gman then thinks far more into detail. So anyhow, we fight to get to White Forrest, now I HONESTLY think that in the place Gordan was in, he would’ve killed himself by now, Thats one of the games aspects I find retarded. I mean comeon. He killed over one-thousand monsters/humans. He saw so many death scenes… Dont you think he’ll ever break? I also find it ironic he always finds a way around things. Anyway. At the end of the game, Eli dies. That was a message I think. I think thats G-Mans way of saying “Dont **** with me. EVER.” Think about it.

  21. Frank says:

    The game endings were never satisfying. It’s how much points accumulated isn’t it? This is the reason why I stopped playing story-driven games and settled for online red vs blue multiplayer or sports games. Winning is more satisfying than seeing an ending of a story. I have to admit Final Fantasy games have nice endings.