Apr 6, 2012

Video Game Endings and Epilogues

There's been more than a little activity on the internet surrounding the ending to Mass Effect 3. I haven't finished it yet, so I'm going to hold off on commenting much there. What's interesting to note is that fan reaction has been so powerfully negative that Bioware has announced plans to release an "Extended Cut" ending as free downloadable content for the game.

As I understand, the plan is to add some additional ending cutscenes and the traditional text-based epilogues for each of the characters. Usually, I'm not a big fan of these. I don't think a well-told story should need an epilogue. This is the usual attitude taken towards books and movies, that an epilogue is most often an unnecessary add-on, a sign the author isn't quite ready to let go of their characters. Personally, I prefer not to know everything that happens to characters after the story ends. I find that epilogues add a sense of finality to a story, that it really is over forever. Whereas if there is no epilogue, just the right amount of suggestion of what may lie in store for the characters in the future, it feels more like they live on, like the story never really ends.

Sometimes when I'm reading or watching a movie, I think there's nothing more sad than the thought that the story truly is over and there's nothing left to tell. Maybe it's because that's the only way a fictional character can ever really die, for there to be no more stories left for them.

Video games, on the other hand, seem to have a different approach, and set of expectations. Without that epilogue, players feel let down that they don't get to know how their characters get on afterwards. It could be a matter of investment. Some players may feel so much more attached to their own characters than to those in a movie or book that they have a deeper need to know for certain what happens next.

I think it could also be due to the nature and restrictions of storytelling in video games. When video games first started to try and tell stories, they were limited in terms of technique. Music started off as little more than electronic melodies. Graphics were primitive, limited by technology. Words became the primary storytelling method. But the skillsets for developing a video game and writing a story are quite different. So video games used very basic techniques to portray their plotlines.

As the technology advanced, new ways to tell stories could be introduced, but I feel that while the nature of video games as a form of entertainment evolved, many of the techniques used by developers remained the same. Improved graphics and animated cutscenes started to be inserted. Musical flourishes accompanied key scenes. But these rarely felt like an organic part of the game experience. Most often they interrupted the flow of play to tell a part of the story that the player wouldn't be able to interact with. But they often helped to make the game that much more entertaining.

The balance between player interactivity and making a game feel more like a movie has been a difficult one for years. Game developers are still relying on old techniques, however. They never stopped using those text-block epilogues, and so players come to expect them and rely on them to complete the story. As a result, I think most players aren't in the right mindset for these traditional techniques to be set aside. Maybe because they're used to waiting for the end cutscene and epilogue text to explain things, they feel let down when they're not there, or not what they expect.

But what if game developers really started treating their work like a novelist or film-maker? What if they learned to take the technology at their disposal and let go of the old crutches they needed in the past? What if they made a video game like a movie, showing the story rather than just telling it?

The Mass Effect series may be the first real attempt to bring video games beyond their old limitations. It pushes boundaries and gives the player a strong interactive experience where you feel like everything you do matters to the story. Why the need to tack on an epilogue? I don't know yet. But I'm looking forward to finding out and coming back to this topic once I have.


  1. Endings are hard, but to give a spoiler free response, fans legitemately expected to see the repercussions of all their actions as the climax. That does not happen unless you consider the whole third act the ending climax, and even so, the extremity of the actual ending states automatically raises questions of 'Well, that changes everything, so how does my legacy carry on in the brave new world?'

    If you play a Metal Gear game, you know you're going to be told a story, and maybe some people will live/die based on your choices, but the main story remains unchanged by such minor plot details. You like it if you think Hideo Kojima is an auteur, and hate it if you want to be able to do anything as cool as the cutscene in the game.

    But Mass Effect is a game that's sold on choices making a difference. Bioware pulled a Lost on the ending, no doubt, but they probably realised that most fans would be happy if they got some closure on the impact their final choices had on their squadmates, allies and so on. I'd argue they were too stuck on traditional storytelling techniques to step up to the ending the series needed.

  2. That's a good point. A revolutionary form of video-game storytelling was promised, absolutely. Which is why depending too much on traditional video game methods feels like a let-down.

    I'm about to hit the last run. For my own experience, I can safely say I've seen how my choices have affected the galaxy so far. In fact, I can't think of any decision I've made so far for which I haven't seen the end result, those results have just been presented throughout the course of the game, blended into the story, rather than been pointed out in an epilogue.

    What comes next is the final push. Maybe I'll make choices that aren't properly resolved from here on, but I definitely have seen the payoff for just about every decision I've made coming up to this.

    Of course, it has been pointed out, repeatedly, that Mass Effect 3 is only the end of one chapter of the Mass Effect story. Players have been told to keep their saves. I take this to mean that there will be more games in this setting, and we'll get to see how the story continues, even without an epilogue.