The Horror of an Unfinished Story

by Nick Dinicola

8 May 2015

Ignorance isn't bliss. It's horrifying.
 

This is the second time that I have recently played a game in a horror series that has ended without an ending, the second time that the final chapter has been more prologue than conclusion, the second time that I’ve been left feeling confused, annoyed, a little ripped off, but also a little impressed.
  
The first time this happened was when I played The Last Door, a game that follows protagonist Jeremiah Devitt as he finds himself uncovering a cultish conspiracy while investigating the suicide of his childhood friend, Anthony Beechworth. The Last Door was released episodically on its developer’s website, and then all four episodes were bundled into a Collector’s Edition for Steam. Note that the bundle was (and still is) called “Collector’s Edition” and not “Season 1.”

Here’s what I wrote about The Last Door during Indie Horror Month 2014:

The game embraces another wonderfully Lovecraftian touch that’s often forgotten: The intelligence of the protagonists. In our short scene with Beechworth, his narration suggests that he’s a smart man, and that suicide is the smartest decision he could make. Jeremiah Devitt is a smart, educated man and our sense of his intelligence is only bolstered by all the puzzles that we have to solve to progress. But it’s precisely that intelligence that gets him into trouble. It pushes him along, it encourages him, and then it fails him when he’s faced with the truth.

It’s a very good series, but episode 4 ends with a cliffhanger. It ends like any other episode would end. It’s clear now that the series was always meant to continue beyond four episodes, but the game itself gave no indication of this length. The game that I bought had no ending.

The second time this happened, it was when I played The Charnel House Trilogy, a game that tells the story of Alex and Harold and their fateful train ride towards Auger Island. The game is broken up into three chapters, Inhale, Sepulchre, and Exhale (and it’s interesting to note that Sepulchre was previously released as a free standalone game, a format that may have worked to its advantage, being one in which mysteries are allowed to go unexplained and not all plots are expected to be wrapped up).

In Sepulchre, Harold explores the ghostly train, encountering unusual strangers and reliving past mistakes. In Exhale, it is Alex’s turn to be haunted, except that she eventually accepts her situation and begins to ask logical questions, which earn her answers that blow up the scope of this little story. Alex’s and Harold’s personal character arcs become a prologue to something larger—emphasis on the “something.” We know that they’re special, we know that they’re being “called” to Auger Island, but we don’t know for what purpose. This trilogy doesn’t build to a conclusion. It builds to the revelation of more story, a revelation that there is no conclusion, and that there was never meant to be one.

And I kind of like that about it.

This kind of dangling plot leaves me feeling more in touch with the characters than I ever would have imagined. Both of these stories have a Lovecraftian tone to them, and Lovecraft always wrote about the limits of our knowledge and understanding, so it’s fitting that they end with a denial of information: I’m confronted with the truth that there’s a larger story to all of this strangeness and then I’m denied that larger story, leaving me with only the knowledge of my own ignorance, an understanding of what I don’t understand. I’m forced to grapple with the fact that my limited knowledge is all that I’m going to get, that the unknown will remain unknown, that this mystery will remain partly unsolved, the final puzzle piece hidden away but with enough of the puzzle already complete that I’m compelled to keep digging, or to be more specific about this situation, to keep waiting for a continuation/conclusion. Honestly, it’s a pretty terrible situation for a developer to put a player in, but it’s also kind of great in its terribleness.

Or maybe I’m just bending over backwards to not hate on games that I enjoyed, finding an excuse to praise them despite their lack of a proper ending. However, I can’t deny that, at least in these two cases, with these two Lovecraftian horror stories, there’s something thematically appropriate about their non-endings. These are stories that I might never fully understand, ones that I’ll always be somewhat ignorant of, and that ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s horrifying.

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