“If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.” Chinese proverb
When I was a kid, video games didn’t have endings. You just played, and played, and, well, played. You only stopped playing when your dad demanded custody of the television revert to him in order that he might watch the soccer results, or your sister threw a tantrum because she was missing some lame new romantic act performing on Top of the Pops.
Okay, you might well find yourself hunched over your sweaty joystick for innumerable hours on end trying to attain some sort of target score that you erroneously believed might make you the envy of all your nerdy friends. Indeed, once Space Invaders had introduced the concept of the High Score to the world, a lot of people spent their time trying to beat various sets of anonymous initials into second place: “Hey, I beat NSZ, woo-hoo!”, that kind of thing. But the ‘ending’ was kind of arbitrary: you were either forced to stop playing for the aforementioned reasons, or the right side of your body had gone into spasm because of the sheer number of hours put in. Or, more likely, you ran out of lives.
One of my earliest memories of video games is playing Asteroids obsessively with my sister’s boyfriend (now her husband and my brother-in-law for many years). We would always play in ‘co-operative’ mode with ‘Bounce’ turned on (for the uninitiated this meant that rather than battle each other we’d work together, and that the four sides of the screen acted as barriers against which both our ships and the eponymous space rock would gracefully rebound). The object of what could very often turn into four- or five-hour play sessions was never stated; implicitly, I guess, it was simply to stay alive for as long as possible. Remember, this was in the days when ‘Save’ functions on games were just a mote in some programmer’s eye.
Then, in one particular marathon session, a fabulous goal unexpectedly hovered into view. As we played and played we edged the score counter ever nearer to 999,999. At last, it seemed we would discover the answer to the fabled question, what happens when you run out of digits? As it transpired, I can exclusively reveal to anyone who hasn’t invested the time finding out for themselves, what happens when you run out of digits in Asteroids is precisely this: nothing whatsoever. The counter flips back to zero, and you carry on, breathlessly annihilating asteroids until, presumably, the real, actual Earth is obliterated by a real, actual asteroid. Which itself could well turn out to be a blessed relief for all concerned (especially for your sister and her misplaced ardour for Soft Cell‘s Marc Almond).
Was I bothered by the anti-climatic nature of the ‘counter-resets itself’ event? Well, yes, there was a moderate amount of ennui. Sure, there was some residual pride in having ‘clocked’ the game, to use much later video game parlance for having got the counter to swivel ‘round to zero. But I can remember feeling curiously unsatisfied, and I never really played the game again. Which is interesting, because though the game had no ending, I evidently did.
These days, of course, we get endings. Sort of. We get to fly the glider out of the hangar at the end of Medal of Honour:Frontline, or we get to race the Warthog at high speed through the exploding spaceship at the conclusion of Halo, at least before the ethereal epilogue kicks in. Okay, so currently Culture with a capital ‘C’ and Video Game Culture in particular is now awash with sequels, prequels, remakes, spinoffs and all kinds of metatexts in a way I don’t ever recall it being, before. But if you put your heart and soul into completing a game, it’s very rewarding to be told ‘Yay, you did it, you-are-a-winner!’ Evidently the Freudians were right, we all desire satisfaction in the end.
One of the modules I teach on the Game Cultures undergraduate programme at London South Bank University is a video game story design and scriptwriting course called Storytime. In one particular session we look at the importance of Openings and Endings, and as a useful case study I show the group closing scenes from the two versions of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, better known as Blade Runner. The film retains the basic narrative of Dick’s novel, in which a futuristic bounty hunter called Deckard must track down and kill (or ‘retire’) a group of fugitive androids.
What’s great about the film version of Blade Runner and the reason I use it in my class is that it had such a chequered history. It was originally released in 1982, but not in the form intended by the director. Upon being presented with the final cut of the film, the studio executives insisted that certain changes be made to the movie for the sake of ‘clarity’. So, since Harrison Ford, the star of the film, was still under contract, they brought him back into studio and got him to record some fairly hammy Raymond Chandleresque gumshoe narration explaining the plot to the audience. The studio also insisted that the main character’s dream sequence, in which he sees a unicorn, should be excised, and finally, that a happy ending in which the hero and the femme fatale character fly off into the sunset together should be tagged on. Indeed, the final aerial tracking shots over a lush forest weren’t even shot specifically for Blade Runner: they’re unused shots from Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining.
Then, wouldn’t you believe it, in 1992 the original version of Blade Runner turned up: sans Humphrey Bogart-style narration, with the unicorn dream present and correct (and with the concomitant symbolism of this scene still intact), and, crucially, without the happy ending. Whether you prefer the 1982 original release version and, bizarrely enough, there are some individuals out there who do isn’t really the point. The point is that the ending of the film expresses exactly what the story is about, and so the message of the film differs wildly depending upon which version you happen to be watching.
In the 1982 release you get Harrison Ford as a gumshoe detective who gets to fly off with a woman who’s an android and who gets to live a happy ever after at odds with the dystopian nature of much of the rest of the film. The narration even goes so far as to reveal, in decidedly ‘And with one bound Jack was free!’ fashion, that the object the robot woman who is Deckard’s love interest doesn’t have a built-in termination date like every other android we’ve encountered up until her. By bleak contrast, in the 1992 director’s cut you get a grim intimation that the Harrison Ford character is himself an android. In this version you most definitely are not served a happy ending on a plate.
So endings are clearly important, whether we’re talking about a film, a novel, or a video game. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that contemporary video games increasingly take the conventions of older narrative forms and manipulate them to their own ends. One of the points I raise in my recently published analysis of the Grand Theft Auto series of games (Grand Theft Auto: Motion-Emotion see Ludologica.com), is the idea that video games may be getting more like narratives precisely because we the people who play games want them to be more like narratives. We may skip the cut sequences but we still like the feeling of being in this fictional world, and we like to see the consequences of our actions that endings bring us.
The ludologists, those academics, journalists, and industry professionals who oppose the idea that games are narratives often cite Tetris as a popular example of a game which clearly doesn’t fit the criteria for what we understand as a narrative. Of course this is true of the original iteration of Tetris, but decades later we’re seeing newer versions of the same game, such as Tetris Worlds, which do include large helpings of (admittedly very bad) narrative.
Which isn’t to suggest that video games simply are narratives, but merely to observe that, like cinema before them, they’ve definitely become more narrative-based as the medium has changed. Until someone reinvents the idea of narrative and various people, including myself, are working on that one the ludology and narratology debate is doomed to continue (despite the fact that both sides tend to claim that they’ve won the argument).
Of course, I suspect it’s only that strange, undefined group, the ‘hardcore’ gamers, who get to see most game endings. Certainly my shelves are piled high with games I’ve never finished but it’s a bit like owning copies of Marcel Proust’s 3-volume Rememberance of Things Past; I’ll never finish those, either, but it’s just nice to know they’re there.
I think ultimately that as intellectual adults we desire endings for the aesthetic closure they bring. But the greedy toddler inside each of us wants more of what we enjoyed. The trouble is, we’re often indulged by artists who just can’t leave their own work alone. Everyone from Arthur Conan Doyle through George Lucas feels the need to resurrect their own creations. The Stones keep Rolling, and Mr. Darcy comes back and back, like some flamboyant member of the undead.
So, as the Chinese proverb so wisely says, decide on your quitting time. With that in mind, this is mine, and this is most definitely, conclusively, utterly, the end of Trivial Pursuit.
For the time being, at any rate.
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Colin Harvey is going off to concentrate on his PhD, his freelance scriptwriting, and to run his video game course. His Trivial Pursuit columns are archived here at PopMatters.com.