The Complex Nature of Video Game Endings

When Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing film of all time, debuted its teaser trailer, Tony Stark told us that “part of the journey is the end”. As consumers, we both dread it and long for it. An engaging story manages our expectations with the ending in mind, carefully guiding our attention every step of the way through things such as careful pacing, complex conflicts, and twists and turns. For some, the endgame can determine the worth of the narrative. Many writers work towards it, either because their vision requires intricate build-up and pay-off, or because they simply believe the last thing we experience needs to be the most convincing. Perceived ‘convincing’ and ‘rewarding’ endgame is what separates the consumer’s reception of a high stakes 22-film superhero run from the final season of Game of Thrones. Established character arcs need to meet their unavoidable and appropriate end, while foreshadowed storylines and conflicts need to evolve into their true forms. This is what consumers by and large expect from narrative, but these expectations take different forms across media. An example of this is video games, where narrative warrants complicated expectations that can’t be honored through the mere accomplishment of telling a story.

Embarking on an experience that can last for dozens of hours as a consumer that can also ‘affect’ said experience through their actions means that these players perceive the satisfaction of an ending differently. Game design has the ability to facilitate a journey dictated by progression in a way that makes the player feel like their power and knowledge in moment to moment gameplay is steadily growing and working towards a climax. So what about this makes the final stretch of a video game different from endings in other media? The difficulty in providing a satisfying conclusion to a game is partly influenced by the complex dynamic between gameplay and narrative. As we will see in a moment, games with a relevant focus on narrative essentially have two different endings to deliver. Meaningful progression remains pivotal in order for both to succeed, but with it comes the continued growth of room for deviation. Many games allow their narrative beats to inform the feel of a particular gameplay moment, and vice versa. This marriage between narrative and interactivity can often be a strong one, only empowered by the phenomenon that their endgames often serve a different need; the need to inject meaning in play, and play in meaning. We can look at this process by analyzing a game that marked the beginning of my interest in interactive narrative: The Last of Us (2013).

 Concept art of The Last of Us by John Sweeney

The Last of Us is a game that puts narrative front and center, and one that is perhaps easiest to compare to cinema because of its ‘cinematic’ storytelling, with cutscenes that progress the narrative while gameplay sequences serve equally important but generally smaller narrative beats. The game, set in a post-apocalyptic United States in the year 2033, follows two characters, Joel (early 50’s) and Ellie (14), as they travel across the country to find the base of a dying faction that may or may not be able to extract a vaccine from Ellie’s immunity to the infection. Such a synopsis of this story might already indicate that this is a narrative that is supposed to feel like a journey; the player parallels the characters’ adventure of discovery, challenge, and survival. The player, in this kind of narrative game design, seems to mirror pillars of the narrative in gameplay, while the narrative aims to provide them with a high enough sense of intrigue and progression to keep them engaged in this act. But how can you keep a player engaged over the course of a 12-15 hour game that follows, in essence, a straightforward story?

Neil Druckmann, the creative director of The Last of Us and Vice President of its development studio Naughty Dog, disclosed his writing principle in a video interview: “Simple story, complex characters”. Acknowledging the simplicity of your plot to create space for character complexity is a more than effective tool in The Last of Us. It means that the player has to accept, from the very first minutes of the game, that they are playing a very specific character that would make very specific decisions in a given situation. Creating the necessary but appropriate distance between player and character makes this kind of linear experience work, provided that the game puts the player in enough positions to enact their agency. Agency remains a challenge in game design; linearity vs. non-linearity has started many debates, and it gets uglier once the concept of player agency is used as a counterargument against linear experiences. It is true that The Last of Us moves from point A to point B in one straight line, and every player experiences every single narrative beat the way they were intended to. But we are not looking at the benefits or drawbacks from this. Looking at it in the context of delivering a satisfying ending is the goal here, and within this context, there are two narrative endings to analyze before we can discuss the game’s conclusion as a whole. These narrative endings pertain to the conclusion of the main plot, and the conclusion of the main character arcs. I separate the two because The Last of Us ends on two individual narrative beats that are very intertwined but send different signals to the player. Spoiler territory here!

Concept art of The Last of Us by John Sweeney

Joel and Ellie ultimately find the earlier referenced faction after a traumatic but empowering journey. The nature of their relationship is fundamentally familial. There is no mistaking that Joel looks to Ellie as his daughter, and Ellie to Joel as the father she never had. The faction they’re looking for, named the Fireflies, find a nearly drowned and unconscious Ellie, and forcefully bring her and Joel into the hospital they’ve made into their base of operation. Ellie is immediately brought in for surgery without her or Joel’s consent, the Fireflies claiming that the fungal growth around her brain has mutated, and become the very source of her immunity. The fungus can be extracted and used for a potential vaccine, but it would mean Ellie’s death. Joel engages in a very questionable and often debated about course of action, and leaves the hospital with an unconscious Ellie in his arms after having eradicated nearly the entirety of the faction, including their leader. This is the game’s climax. Joel and Ellie’s character arcs, however, end with Joel lying to Ellie about the entire thing, omitting his murder rampage and fabricating a narrative that hides what Joel did to keep the only thing he had left in the world. The status of their relationship after this lie is undetermined, but it is noticeably damaged. The conclusion of their arcs as well as that of the main plot make up the game’s narrative ending.

The player, however, ends the game by combining everything the game has taught them into one smooth gameplay sequence in order to pull off what Joel ends up doing. This hospital scene is about many different things when it comes to the narrative beat; fear of more loss, selfishness, survival vs. destruction, etc. For the player, the main gameplay beat is power. The game instructs them to use all of that power accumulated over this long journey, and focus it all into one simple task: save Ellie, at all costs. While the game’s conclusion, the playable parts of this entire hospital sequence, and narrative conclusion, Joel saving Ellie and lying to her, are designed to inform each other, the player is caught between two worlds; on one hand, they are the driving force behind an act of violence, and on the other they are subject to complex character writing leading to an ending that was always out of the player’s control. In order to achieve this ending, it was necessary to separate the player from the narrative one more time before the credits roll, because when Joel lies to Ellie, the narrative is no longer serving the player. It is serving the characters. 

Screenshot of The Last of Us

Rest assured, this ending didn’t come without division. Many felt that ending the game through the open-ended conclusion of a character arc was unsatisfactory, while others praised it for the way it offered the player an opportunity to fill in the blanks. Eventually, any game that pits the players against a narrative enters into a contract with them, essentially making two separate promises. One is the promise of the fundamental concept that is play, with the other being the promise of consequential and authentic narrative, and such an experience needs to end accordingly. What’s truly significant about the character-driven approach, however, is the way such a conclusion got consumers thinking about narrative in video games. What it does is make people like me think about games in an entirely different manner, enabling me to look at them today through perspectives I wouldn’t have gained had it not been for my experience playing The Last of Us. Any given game can’t necessarily be the universal, primary argument for the strengths of video game narratives, but Naughty Dog’s critical success is certainly one that can and has led to informed and eye-opening debates about them. The best discussions tend to be the ones that feel timeless, as I continue to hear thoughtful arguments about journeys I’ve ended a long while ago, and The Last of Us is a prime example of a conclusion that creates constant food for thought.

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