When I was a kid, the ending of a video game mattered. A lot. Even if it was just a generic “thanks for playing,” the ending was your reward for the time you put into beating the game.
In fact, let’s pause there. Does anyone even say “beating the game” anymore? You might beat a boss, or another player, or a level, but we’re long past the days of Nintendo hard where games universally felt like they hated us for playing them. You don’t beat a game anymore. You finish it, like a book.
That’s the crux of it. As gaming has matured as an artistic medium and moved away from being a challenge to being an experience, it has sort of dealt its own deathblow when it comes to the concept of an ending. It’s just not the point that it used to be.
Part of it is the birth of YouTube. When I was a kid, the only way you were going to see the multiple endings in a New Game + playthrough of Chrono Trigger was to actually play through the game and beat the final boss at different points in the time travel adventure. I used to have a TV/VCR combo, and would use it to make recordings of the endings in Twisted Metal 2. Aside from a few games, like Legacy of Kain, that had a section to rewatch cut-scenes in the options screen, the idea that you could see the ending in any way other than going through the game entirely was unheard of. Now, it’s all on demand from YouTube.
Beyond that, though, I think it’s more that gaming has evolved to the point where games are less goal-oriented and more experience-oriented. Games still have goals, of course. There’s definitely a progression in most titles, no matter how abstract they might be.
I’ve been playing and replaying a lot of titles that arguably don’t have endings. Games like Firewatch and Gone Home and Limbo simply stop. You come to the end of the game, but not really the end of the story you have participated in bringing to life through your playing it. In Firewatch, you discover that the mystery surrounding you was a mundane story of a lone, crazy hermit. In Limbo, you end exactly where you began. In Gone Home, you find out your sister ran off with her high school girlfriend rather than possibly killed herself as the game hints at until then. That last one is a particularly good example because the final act of Gone Home has the player character picking up the book of journal entries that you’ve been listening to throughout the game.
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In all these cases and many more, what defines the experience is not how it ends, but how it plays. You explore the afterlife, or the wilderness, or a creepy old house, and it’s the unique gift of interactive medium that allows you to feel a set of contrived emotions that are outside the narrative being told. It’s orchestrated empathy that matters. The story is just a framework.
Not all the time, obviously. You take a game like Bioshock Infinite, which let its core series game mechanics kind of rot while the game focused on setting up its mind-twisting payoff, and there’s little reason to value the act of playing it over the act of watching it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m a person who enjoys the rebooted Mortal Kombat franchise entirely for its storyline, not its play, and lots of games, like Ni no Kuni or The Last of Us, still embody the classic format of “now you play a game, now you watch a movie” very well.
But that progression of the game as a playable film is definitely starting to feel outdated and old-fashioned. Even in intensely narrative-driven games like Life is Strange or Beyond: Two Souls, their endings are in and of themselves expressions of core game mechanics and how they are played. It doesn’t really matter in Life is Strange what you choose at the end, only THAT you choose, and that you feel the weight of that very hard choice. The whole point of the game, told in both its play and its plot, is that no matter how much we would like to rewind time and fix our mistakes, eventually you are going to have to move forward with the best outcome you can think of from a flawed set of options. When the credits roll, you’re left with the question “Could I have played that differently?” The answer is yes, and the way to explore that answer is to play again. Interact with the work again.
The idea of the ending as a reward, something that pays you off for the time spent playing, always sort of seemed to imply that the time spent playing was, well, not worth as much as the payoff. But it was. The act of play is a perfectly valid form of artistic expression in everything from Splatoon to Undertale, and ironically, it has rendered the ending of a video game as meaningless as the end of a friendly game of sandlot baseball. When I was a kid slogging through hours of Final Fantasy VI, I couldn’t wait to get to the ending. These days, I just keep hoping my games never end, and that the play gets only denser.