We Write Our Own Ends

Emergent Endings in Gaming

by Nick Dinicola

17 May 2017


Ending Linear Stories

We can walk out of a movie or play, we can stop reading a book or comic, and we can take a sideways glance at a painting or sculpture. We’ve always been able to determine our own endings…

I stopped playing 2016’s Doom about two-thirds of the way through the game. I enjoyed what I’d played, but I had also grown tired of the exploration and impatient with the story. I felt like I’d seen all of its surprises, its tricks. It was still bloody gory fun, but it was less compelling than it was in the beginning. Essentially, after ten hours of fighting and slaughtering, I felt like I was going nowhere, it was just a treadmill of (entertaining) violence, so I stopped playing and stranded the Doom Marine in his endless battle. I imagine the cinematic version of my ending would show the Marine collecting ammo and armor after an exhausting fight, only for the camera to pull back and show another horde of demons in the distance, waiting for him. He cocks the shotgun to the beat of a heavy metal crescend—cut to credits—ending the way it began. 



This ending actually feels perfectly in keeping with the themes expressed by the game. The Doom Marine is not presented as a person who loses fights, he’s a supernatural force, Doom incarnate, destined to fight demons forever. My ending doesn’t represent a loss as much it does a stalemate: Hell survives to commit more atrocities, and Doom survives to enact more righteous vengeance. The battle continues because this is what they’re destined to do.

This ending leaves the ideological battle between Doom and Samuel Hayden unresolved, but that also feels fitting. Hayden was arrogant in his attempt to mine Hell for energy, but he’s not wrong about society’s and humanity’s need for that energy. Doom, in his silently blunt way, expresses an understandable disgust at the massive loss of human life, but his existence is defined by war against Hell itself, so he’s not exactly one for nuanced arguments. Doom is morally right, but naïve; Hayden is rationally sound, but cruel in his unsentimental rationality. It’s fitting that neither is shown to be correct. What the game presents as morally complex and unresolvable is left morally complex and unresolved. It’s pretty perfect.

My emergent ending was satisfying from a thematic, character, and plot perspective.

Compare this to the developer’s ending, and it’s actually not all that different: Doom defeats the minions of Hell, preventing their invasion of Mars, and is immediately betrayed by Hayden, who vows to rebuild the mining facility while sending Doom away through another portal. Everything is still left unresolved. In fact, this ending is basically a setup for the exact same story! The developer’s ending doesn’t really provide any more closure than my “premature” ending. Stopping early doesn’t change the themes of the game, and to be honest I think my ending even embraces those themes more fully. The “proper” ending just implies more battles with Hell and Hayden, my “premature” ending makes those implications explicit.

Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2 begins with Queen Emily Kaldwin being dethroned by an aunt she never knew she had. She’s instantly imprisoned, then quickly escapes, and naturally vows revenge on the usurper. The first level of the game has us sneaking out of our castle, and along the way, you’ll encounter many traitorous guards. I’ve written previously about my violent response to these men who dare call themselves “guards”: “I killed everyone. Every goddamn traitor. I even retraced my steps back through the level, killing every guard I had previously knocked out. I stood over their sleeping bodies and stabbed them in the face. I needed revenge.”

That brutality earned me a “high chaos” rating, which means I was on track to get the “dark” ending. I wanted the happier ending, so I made it a point to kill as few people as possible after that. Yet despite my pacifism, my high chaos rating followed me for several levels. I considered the character implications of that in the same article: “The dead haunted me. The shadow of my violence loomed over all my subsequent good deeds as a reminder of my potential. No matter how many people I don’t kill, Emily is not a good person; she’s not a peaceful person. She’s a violent person, and that violence has consequences, and those consequences linger. Murder is not so easily forgotten.”

I stopped playing soon thereafter, not because I found fault with the game but because life got in the way and I just never got back around to it. Rather than consider the story unresolved, I started to consider what it meant for Emily’s journey to end there.

I had just finished a level that focused on the class disparity of a foreign city. In my mind, Emily was forced to spend time in a poor district, forced to see how the other half lived, and realized that she didn’t really understand her people or her kingdom. After all, I was surprised in the beginning with how disinterested Emily seemed to be in the details of ruling a kingdom. She didn’t want to be in meetings, she didn’t want that responsibility, but when it was taken away she suddenly wanted it back. She killed to get it back.

Eventually my high chaos rating turned to low chaos—a symbol of Emily’s internal struggle with morality—which is to say, her inner self was in turmoil and then it was at peace. I took that to represent self-reflection and a realization that she doesn’t actually deserve the throne. It’s an atypical revenge story. One in which the queen recognizes her entitled hypocrisy, and that the violent vengeance she seeks proves her unqualified for the throne she once had. It’s a potent character arc.

Sure, this ending kind of ignores the fact that her father was turned to stone, but it’s easy enough to just assume he died at that moment. It’s a natural endpoint for him—
the death of a mentor to motivate the hero. I actually think the developer’s ending, in which we reverse his petrification, is a cop out. They can’t dedicate themselves to killing him because he’s a central character of the series. Their narrative bends to the will of branding and marketing. Mine does not. 

A Satisfying Ending Is All that Matters

Of course, sometimes I like the developer’s ending. I think Darks Souls III and This Is the Police have great endings that make clear the themes of the game in a way I never could. And I don’t want to insult the games that have really good, satisfying endings like The Walking Dead: Season 1 or Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Sometimes the developers really knock their ending out of the park, but when they don’t, it’s OK for us to pick up their slack.

Players write a game as they play it. Our actions are narration, our victories are plot progression, and our upgrades are character development. We choose to start the story, we choose how to progress the story, and we can also choose how to end the story.

There’s no such thing as a premature ending for a video game. There’s only your ending.

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