On Video Game Endings and Falling Action

fable2If there’s one thing that not too many video games have, it’s a solid, well-thought out ending. In fact, many games just throw you up against the final boss, show the heroes riding off into the sunset (or helicoptering, if you’re Chris and Sheva) and ready to face another adventure in the oh-so-exciting and inevitable sequel. But is this the way it needs to be?

The dudes on the 1UP podcast had an interesting discussion about the idea of video game endings, recently. Namely, that most good stories are structured so that they have a denouement, or falling action that occurs after the climax. A sense of wrapping things up towards the conclusion. Video games, however, don’t do this at all. They build and build until a climactic boss battle, and then end within 5 minutes of the action. Very rarely do they offer any real resolution for the player, much less in a playable form.

This is interesting stuff. Check out what the 1UP guys say after the jump:

Garnett Lee: The exigency of making the game come together at the end and hitting the [development] milestones was what undermined building out the ultimate end of the game. They were working on the journey, they’re building all this stuff. And then they get toward the end and they’re like: “Oh shit, we’ve got to wrap this thing up. Let’s wrap it up, get it done and get it out…”

…If you followed a classic story progression, the end of the game wouldn’t be the climax. You’d have the climax prior to the end of the game and then you would have the rest of the run-out.

Christian Nutt: Ico had a denouement…

In a sense, this makes open world games where you can traverse the great sandbox after the game’s over a little more complete in terms of story. Fable II is an example of a game with a heavy period of player controlled falling action after the final boss battle. It was a very satisfying game to finish, precisely for the reasons raised in this discussion.

The interesting thing is that nearly all games end just after the climax, be it a huge title or a small one. Halo 3, Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy… each of these tried and true franchises are modeled the same way, and video games in general. Funny that nobody looks at changing this.

So what do you guys think? Do games climax too late with not enough falling action and resolution? What are some of your favorite video game endings and why?

Source- Kotaku, Listen UP Podcast (quote occurs at 1:49:40)

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I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

13 thoughts on “On Video Game Endings and Falling Action”

  1. Well, its all about capturing the audiance. The truth is if you have gone through a game, where you have been totally believing in what you were playing the developers can throw a shit ending at you and you will totally praise it.

    Look at Fallout 3, we can all agree that it is a fantastic game. The original version had a really bad ending (in my oppinion. But i didnt care, because i had been captivated by the feel of the game. Thats why the developers could make such an ending without me thinking the game was bad.

    Same with Call of Duty 4. The singleplayer was great fun (although short) and the ending was somehow good, again because the experience had been great.

    This doesnt mean that developers shouldnt put much thought into the ending of the game, but they often dont. Just think about a great singleplayer game you have played recently. Chances are you found many of the endings dissapointing, but it never destroyed the experience for you, because it was a great game.

    So if the Developers can impress you through the singleplayer they can often get away with bad endings.

  2. My fave endings have to be from COD4, MGS4, SotC and FFX as they all made me feel happy/sad/sorry for the characters after their trials of the past 9 hours (90 in FFX’s case).

  3. Well, the arcticle mantions that Fable 2’s being able to paly after the end makes it a more complete story. I dont really agree with that. I enjoy being able to traverse albion after the end, but the story almost seems none existant afterward. Say you choose to bring everyone back that was killed in the constructoin of the spire. All that happens is you get a thank you letter, a statue and some good points. You cant go and visit Hammer or Garth or Reaver, although you can buy their houses. You cant go and have tea with Teresa or ask her about her history. The game continues, but the story doesnt. It basically is just like saying “and they lived happily ever after”

  4. Listen UP! is one of my favorite podcasts. I kind of wished that they had called it Four Dudes, 1UP!, though.

    Anyways, I think it would be nice if games came to a satisfying conclusion, but I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. Video games are designed and iterated upon over and over to hold our attention for a consistent amount of time, so the level of story we’re going to be subjected to at any time is going to be short and to the point, and get us back to the gameplay quickly…well, except for Metal Gear.

    I think they mentioned it on the podcast, but Gears 2 is guilty of this. They mention that the Brumak ride is the climax, and the fight against the Lambent Brumak was supposed to be something like the denouement, a pallet cleanser that you can watch and enjoy. They probably had that working at some point, but gameplay tests might have shown that people preferred playing to watching. Just speculating, but sometimes story is sacrificed for playability.

    People expect different things from video games as opposed to movies. Take Transformers 2, for example. As a movie, it was an exercise in how to do everything wrong, but it would have been an excellent game. Chock-o-block full of action, with a small but serviceable plot that only serves to drive you to the next action scene. Sure, the tie-in game wasn’t great, but imagine if it had been given to a proper team and had a proper development time.

    Until more developers start putting out games where the story holds greater significance and the game-playing audience is more accepting of this, we’re going to see a lot of games service their story in anticipation of the sequel.

  5. The reason most games end in a climax is because that’s the last playable part in the game. The ending cutscene is the falling action and ending. Genres like FPS’s and even RPG’s that focus on combat can’t easily have an interesting falling action because the final boss that the game has building up to is as much playable falling action as you can get.
    So in the end, it’s practicality that makes games have to end at the climax.
    Now, is this really that bad? Imagine if you had to play as the helicopter pilot that evac’d Soap and what remained of the task force at the end of CoD4. That would really ruin the subtle ending of CoD4. Yes, subtle. The fact that entire 10 hour (or however long it is, I didn’t count) experience ended with three shots to one man and then a heli comes to help four wounded or dead soldiers makes you think about how much modern war revolves around only a few people, and that the public is totally unaware of these NUCLEAR threats as the news cast played at the end of the mission says that conflict between the Loyalists and Ultranationists had just begun to surface. I alos love the “In other news, the search for a cargo ship lost in the Bering Sea has been called off,” showing how covert Special Forces are.
    So I liked that ending because it was powerful, subtle, and rewarding. You kill the asshole who made you and your squad go through hell and back again just to kill him, meanwhile saving the bloody world. It didn’t sacrifice story for a little extra epilogue at the end. Mile High Club doesn’t really count because it’s not story, just a fun little bonus, so it’s not what we’re talking about. Any gameplay after the final boss is either considered unnecessary, or is probably not even noticed as it seems to simply be an escape objective which is climax. Now, it could be like you’ve just killed the boss and now you get to rule his domain or something, but couldn’t that be summed up in a cutscene or continued in a sequel? So far, there’s not an effective enough way to portray falling action and conclusion as gameplay unless the story people try, which, as in the case of Fable 2, seems (personally) unnecessary. If you’re not continuing the story, and you’re just wrapping things up, there’s no point for pushing buttons anymore. It can all be done with cutscenes. The most interactivity you can get is an interactive dialogue at the end, something for games like Mass Effect or Fallout 3. So if ever we do have a game that adds a playable epilogue, it’ll be in a open world game, not an FPS or similar game.

  6. Well, Cossack69 really hit the nail on the head. Although,on the Modern Warfare ending I’ll elaborate on my ideal way to end.

    The game should’ve ended with a bunch of bite-sized bits of gameplay. Something like this:

    -Winch operator on the Heli that extracts Soap/The squad. You have a rushed sense of urgency and need to simply raise up the winch bringing the wounded SAS (Which you DO NOT see) into the Heli.


    -A surgeon at a nearby Army Hospital. You are reading the paper when you get informed that you have paitents inbound and you need to get your Scrubs on and prep for operation.


    -You play as a air traffic controller the clears a SAS transport plane to land at a runway in the UK.


    All these little sequnces are short, easy to play, and are NOT difficult. They are essentially mini-games where Heavy Prompting from the game is involved. And while you are playing these bits, an extended form of the news coverage at the end of the game plays. Not so loud that they’re overpowering, but not so quiet that you can’t hear them.

    The conclusion of the game (in this particular case Modern Warfare) should consist of many, many mini-levels that are easy and give the player something to do that is related to the plot while their little cheap form of denouement. This way the player (Crazy idea here) PLAYS till the very end.

  7. [quote comment=”7687″]How do we know until we try?[/quote]
    Well generally, a game gets tedious with over long cutscenes, right? This is because you obviously don’t get to play. Now with the falling action, you just went through an intense amount of action in the climax, the only way the falling action will work is if it is equal to the climax, which just makes it an giant long one, so to save time and resources, I think the falling action is simply just cut.

  8. It’s not a bad idea, Sam, but again, that’d kill the subtly of the ending. Plus, what’s the point of doing those mini-games when it’s not necessary. Just get to the damn credits! lol
    As for the escape objectives, they can be awesome, like in Halo 1 and 3, but those are the climaxes, since neither have a boss enemy, like Halo 2 did. If Halo 2 had a Warthog Run after fighting Tartarus, that’d be your sort of falling action, but still climactic.
    So basically, any gameplay you have at the end of a game is the climax, just about by definition.

  9. [quote comment=”7687″]How do we know until we try?[/quote]

    I’m with Anthony here, why not try it first. Look at hl2 ep2, the whole last chapter was just the countdown to the rocket launch and the big death scene. no action whatsoever.

  10. I think when we talk about big game endings like this we usually come up with games that have been released in the past 6 or so years, as those are the ones with more focus on story (it surprises me that even though HL2 was released in ’04 and is still one of the most graphically innovative games out there, thank God for the source engine)

    Anyway, a Climax is the turning point in a game, basically where everything comes together, and then changes on you. For Halo 2, it was not the battle with Tartarus, it was when the Arbiter is betrayed by the Prophets and the race to stop the rings from firing begins. For Halo 1, it was at the beginning of Two Betrayals when Halo’s purpose is revealed, and in Halo 3, it’s when the Flood arrives at the end of the Covenant.

    Usually a climax incorporates something you weren’t aware of, usually some sort of Deus Ex Machina that helps the Underdog win. What’s been mentioned so far has been the ending of the falling action and the beginning of the resolution. For example: In Halo 3, when Spark kills Johnson and Chief kills Spark and activates Halo, that ends the falling action. The resolution is everything afterwards.

  11. Hmmm. On this topic, I can only comment on a few games. MGS2 I really liked, but at times I really wanted to skip cutscenes. For some stupid reason my PS2 froze up at the start of the 40 min long cutscene (or something like that) at the end, so I watched it on Youtube instead.

    I prefer it the Half-Life way. Although shamefully I have never gotten to the ending of HL1, the ending is a bit of both – climax but also calm ending as you listen to Mr. G-Man rambling on about choices.

    It’s the same at the end of HL2, can’t speak for the Eps though because my PC is too old for that. For me, the real ‘climax’ in HL2 is not Freeman destroying Dr.Breen and all, but rather when the gravity gun goes onto Ape-Sh*t mode coz from then on you are virtually unstoppable.

    For me, the perfect ending to the HL games is basically a 5-min ‘council of elrond’ (yes, I did just steal a reference from Eddy) style lecture by the G-man…

    I really like the idea of having short mini-games though to tie up the story, that could work for most games. Valve just has a very specific way of doing stuff..

  12. I think the greatest ending ive played, thats not been mentioned, was Mass Effect’s. Not only did it allow you to choose your way to finish the game, it allowed you to influence the next game as well. From the ‘get to the relay in 30 seconds’ bit, to fighting on the outside of the citadel, and finally taking down Saren, I loved everything about that ending. It cleared everything up, yet left the story open for interpretation, presumably with the second game.

    While it does not let you go back around the game to finish quests, etc, I think thats a good thing. When a games over, its over. Its meant to be interpretated as a story, you finish the story, its over.

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