[19 September 2013]
With new game consoles coming in just a few short months, it’s time to start reflecting on this unusually long generation of the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii. This is the generation when games started to experiment with stories, from the abstract, to the episodic, to the oddly popular trilogy.
The idea of a trilogy was very popular for a few years at the start of this generation, with four of the six games on this list being released in 2006-2007 (and three of those four in 2007 alone). The other two games are anomalies, with their trilogies being spread out over multiple console generations. But no matter when they began, they’re all over now.
Many of these franchises have more than three games to their name, but the three “main” games are linked by a continuing story that comes to a head in the third game. It’s worth noting that I only included games that were hyped as conclusions to a trilogy, so franchises that just reached a part three aren’t included: No Dead Space 3 (though I wish that game was a series ender), no Uncharted 3, Far Cry 3, Saints Row The Third, Resistance 3, Bioshock Infinite (obviously), or Fallout 3.
I probably should have included Metroid Prime 3, but I’ve never actually finished any of those games. I also could have stretched the definition of trilogy a bit and included Metal Gear Solid 4, but its been so long since I played that game I don’t remember any of Kojima’s crazy conspiracies, and the only thing I remember about Metal Gear Solid was having to switch controller ports to beat Psycho Mantis. Which is all to say: This is a definitive, infallible ranking that should be taken as gospel.
Last Place: Assassin’s Creed III
The ending of Assassin’s Creed III is a glorious failure. Its plot and character resolutions are soul-crushingly disappointing, but its thematic resolution is so bold and so unlike anything else in the AAA game space that you have to admire the audacity of Ubisoft, while also cursing them.
Here’s how it goes down: Desmond and his Assassin pals spend the whole game trying to open a secret door, behind which lies the key to saving earth from a solar flare. When they finally open the door they find a magic button that’ll release an ancient god-being who’ll save the world but also rule over it. Desmond pushes the button, saves the world, enslaves the world, and dies.
Right off the bat, it’s disappointing to see another game franchise solve its central conflict with a Magic Button. I’m all for using McGuffins in stories, but too often in games that McGuffin turns out to be a literal button that kills all the bad guys while sparing all the good guys. There are good ways to handle this trope (as we’ll see later) but Assassin’s Creed III is a prime example of how not to do it.
The problem is that we don’t actually spend the game looking for the McGuffin, instead we spend the whole game trying to open a door to the McGuffin. So the McGuffin is not actually the cornerstone of the plot, the door is. Besides the fact that that’s utterly boring, by hiding what’s behind the door until the very end, Assassin’s Creed III (and the four games before it) hypes up this revelation to unreasonable levels. If we had known that we were just fighting to get to a Magic Button McGuffin, that would have alleviated much of the disappointment. The mystery builds anticipation, the anticipation builds expectation, and Magic Buttons can never live up to that kind of expectation. Endings are hard enough to get right without all that extra pressure.
On the plus side, this is the rare game that dares to denounce its heroes. Thematically, it’s a brilliant coda to the series, with the Assassins betraying their core beliefs in order to save the world, essentially handing the Templars an ideological victory. It’s too bad that the ending doesn’t focus on this point.
Desmond is pretty much a Master Assassin, meant to embody everything the Brotherhood represents, yet he makes this sacrilegious sacrifice without hesitation. This could have been a moment of interesting internal conflict: Does he betray his beliefs or save the world? But Desmond doesn’t consider these things, the game doesn’t consider these things, and that’s why Assassin’s Creed III is at the bottom of this list.
5th Place: Mass Effect 3
The ending for Mass Effect 3 angered a lot fans, but I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more as time goes on. At least, I’ve come to appreciate the original endings more and more. The alternate endings remove the teeth that made the originals so good.
On that point, Mass Effect 3 is a definitive ending. Shepard is dead or gone, the Reapers are dead or gone, the Mass Relays are destroyed, the Normandy is crashed on some distant planet; this story is Done. It doesn’t pander to the audience by playing it safe and leaving a door open for a sequel trilogy, it ends its story with a giant “Fuck You” to the universe. Yes it’s sad, and more than a little frustrating at first, but in time this is what gives the ending its dramatic weight.
The Reapers were presented as such a monumental threat that the galaxy could never have gone back to the way it was before. The Reaper threat was already undermined from their initial appearance in Mass Effect (in which it took a fleet of starships to destroy just one of the alien machines) to their appearance in Mass Effect 3 (in which earth was defended with guerilla tactics). To further undermine their threat with a happy ending would have undermined them completely (which is what the extended endings do, and why they’re so bad). The universe had to change. There had to be a sacrifice.
On that point, Mass Effect 3 gets away with using that damn Magic Button trope because it associates grand sacrifice with Magic Button-assisted grand resolution. The main plot has Shepard traveling the galaxy, negotiating with alien races for supplies and reinforcements. He needs reinforcements to assist the guerilla war on earth, but he needs supplies to build an ancient machine called the Catalyst. According to old design documents, the Catalyst can kill the Reapers. No one knows how, but it’s not like anyone else has any better ideas.
This is a major distinction that separates Mass Effect 3 from Assassin’s Creed III. In the latter game, the heroes were searching for the Magic Button, which means it already existed someplace in the world and it just had to be found. In Mass Effect 3 it had to be built from scratch.
The narrative structure of both types of stories is relatively similar, but building the Magic Button feels like a grander task than just looking for a Magic Button. This mainly stems from the lopsided scale of both undertakings: It takes multiple space-faring civilizations working in tandem to build the Catalyst, whereas it only takes a crew of hackers to save the world in Assassin’s Creed III. In the end, when Shepard finally pushes that Magic Button, it feels like something you’ve genuinely been working towards. It feels truly climactic.
But then the Button doesn’t save the galaxy. It doesn’t explode with some special explosion that only kills the bad guys. Instead it demands that Shepard make a sacrifice. You’ll have up to three choices, and each one changes the nature of the universe in a significant way so as to make peace between organic and synthetic life. Do you prioritize organic life, synthetic life, or combine them into something new?
In terms of plot, this is a great subversion of the Magic Button trope. Grand resolution should only come from grand sacrifice. However, the whole thematic resolution of organics vs. synthetics feels rushed. The first game dealt with that theme head on, but the second and third games all but ignored it up until this very end.
Looking back at the trilogy, it seems as if each game was made in isolation, and then BioWare tried to bring those three stories together thematically at the very end. Naturally, it didn’t work, and the thematic resolution comes across as forced and unrelated to the actual story being told.
4th Place: Modern Warfare 3
While the Modern Warfare trilogy has been often criticized for its increasingly overwrought story over the three games, I’ve always thought that the story deserves more credit than it’s gotten. Reading the Wikipedia description of the plot reveals a competent action script no better or worse than most Tom Clancy stories. However, I had forgotten most of those competent details.
It’s been a while since I played Modern Warfare 3, and I only remembered a few of the important moments. That’s because for as competent as the story is, it’s never been the central focus of these games. The plot is mostly delivered in voice over while a level loads, and once you’re virtual boots hit the virtual ground the story takes a backseat to the relentless action pacing. So how do you end a story that’s always been more about harsh forward momentum than plot or character? Modern Warfare 3 makes it look easy: Kill that momentum.
But first: Modern Warfare 3 knows how up to stakes of a story. Halfway through the game, “Soap” MacTavish is killed. While the characters have never been very well developed, “Soap” has been our main avatar for most of the series. Sure we jump into other people quite often, but we always come back to “Soap”. Killing him kills a major through-line for the series, raises the stakes for this story, and makes it painfully clear that this game represents a hard stop of an ending.
As for the actual ending itself, it involves Price (another through-line character) and Yuri infiltrating the base of the Big Bad, Makarov. They fight their way to the top of a tower, where they fight Makarov. Yuri is killed, and then there’s a quick-time fight scene in which Price hangs Makarov from a glass ceiling. With the leader of the Russian ultranationalist movement dead, World War III is over.
At this point, Price leans against a wall, takes out a cigarette, and smokes it slowly. The camera lingers here as we just watch him smoke. It’s a great moment as it’s the only moment in the series where we don’t have an objective. That relentless pace the series is known for comes to a sudden stop.
With no goal, with nothing to plan for or look forward to, this becomes a moment of reflection. We watch Price smoke and Makarov swing, and reflect on the war that brought us here. It’s a rare moment of calm in Call of Duty, and the fact that it comes just after the climax tells us that this is what we’ve been fighting for the whole time. This is peace.
Except if this is peace, than peace is boring. This moment doesn’t last very long as the game soon fades to credits, and that’s good because if it had lingered too much longer players might get antsy and anxious. Call of Duty is commonly criticized for its depiction of war as an action movie, its fetishizaiton of the military, and its “bro” attitude. In this final moment the game takes all that away, but as we reflect on all that military action it’s hard not to miss it, even for these few brief seconds. Because the truth is that for as much as Call of Duty is criticized for all these things, deep down we all love them, too.
This moment of reflection isn’t so much about reflecting on war, but on ourselves. As the franchise tagline says, “There’s a solder in all of us,” but what does a soldier do when there’s no war?
Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t have a bad ending, but it’s an ending to a story that never really needed much resolution in the first place. It’s an ending that does the best with what it has. There’s barely any plot or character resolution, but there doesn’t need to be, and to my pleasant surprise the thematic resolution is pretty great.
3rd Place: God of War 3
The ending of God of War 3 is a little weird, since it ends with Kratos killing himself. That’s not a bad thing, I wish more games would be so bold as to kill their heroes, but the problem here is that Kratos has died three times already. In each game he somehow ends up in Hades and has to fight his way back to life. So while his sacrifice is a great conclusion to his character arc, it’s undercut by the fact that it doesn’t really matter. But let’s ignore that for now, because other than that little contradiction, God of War 3 is a great conclusion to the trilogy.
In terms of plot, God of War 3 takes the conflict established in God of War 2 and follows it through to its logical extreme. Kratos is fighting and killing the gods themselves but the gods aren’t just hermits living on Mt. Olympus, they run the natural order of the world. By killing them, Kratos is irreversibly changing the very nature of the world itself. When Poseidon dies the seas begin to rage since there’s longer anyone to control them. When Hades dies all the souls of the dead are let loose since there’s longer anyone to contain them. When Helios dies the sun is blotted out and the weather across the world becomes a constant storm.
It’s one thing to talk about “revenge against the gods” but it’s another thing to actually do it, and Sony Santa Monica deserves praise for not watering down the consequences of this insanely destructive goal. As a result of this follow-through, our favorite pissed off Spartan turns from antihero to asshole.
Better yet, that transformation is actually acknowledged by Kratos himself. Kratos is a memorable character because he’s so angry; that’s the source of his power and our power fantasy, but in God of War 3 it’s also the source of his downfall. At the end, when Zeus is finally dead, Kratos sees the chaos he’s caused and decides to kill himself since that will release Hope into world for convoluted plot reasons that don’t really matter.
The point is this: Kratos understands that he’s a horrible person who has done horrible things, and his last act is one of selflessness rather than vengeance. This is probably his one selfless act in the entire trilogy, and it’s an act that explicitly acknowledges how destructive his life has been and develops him beyond his clichéd anger.
The dark ending makes us question the cost of revenge, our sympathy for Kratos, and casts the whole trilogy in a new light. By taking the one emotion that defines Kratos and pushing it to the extreme, God of War 3 ends up redefining the character and the franchise. It’s not afraid to make Kratos unlikable, it doesn’t pander to fans, it doesn’t water itself down, and the events of this game are so world-changing that it makes a direct sequel logically impossible. This is an ending that’s not afraid to be an end.
2nd Place: Gears of War 3
When Gears of War 3 begins, both the humans and the Locust are damaged, demoralized, and desperate. It’s a proper opening since the last game ended with the humans destroying their final city while it was being overrun with Locust forces. Gears of War 3 acknowledges that wars aren’t won with Magic Buttons, that victory is a long drawn-out process that often leaves both sides wounded, but that there are also Magic Buttons when you really need them.
There are two enemy forces in Gears 3, the Locust and the Lambent. The war with the Locust reaches its climax in Gears of War 2; most of the third game is spent exploring the consequences of that climax, so when the remaining Locust are killed with a Magic Button it doesn’t feel lazy because the war is already essentially over.
It also helps that the Locust Queen genuinely tries to prevent the Magic Button from affecting her people. She wants to use it on the Lambent, but she wants to save her kind as well. The characters understand the destructive power of this Magic Button; it’s not something to be pushed without consideration (unlike Assassin’s Creed III).
The Lambent are the main threat, and they’re pretty much introduced and killed over the course of this game. They make an appearance in Gears 2, but only at the very end and there’s no explanation for them. They’re just glowing enemies we fight for a bit before getting back to the Locust. So while they do appear in Gears 2, they’re still introduced in Gears 3.
This actually works out very well. Regarding the Magic Button ending, killing off the Lambent in one fell swoop is acceptable because the trilogy hasn’t been building them up over the course of three games (like Mass Effect did with the Reapers). Since this is a new enemy, when we’re told at the end that this Magic Button will kill all the Lambent, our first though isn’t “Why didn’t we use this before?” It’s easier to accept the easy resolution of a Magic Button when the central conflict is contained to a single game, and not spread across a trilogy.
However, their brief appearance in Gears 2 is extremely important to the overall plot. Epic Games started ending this trilogy with the second game, that’s when the humans were at their lowest point and a new enemy had made an appearance. In this way, Gears of War follows a traditional three act narrative structure. Each game serves a specific purpose to the overall narrative: The first game introduces us to the world, characters, and conflict, and ends with an “inciting incident” that takes the war to a new level (the Lightmass bomb); the second game has the characters fighting off the now more aggressive Locust, and ends with them in a worse position; then the third game brings all this to a resolution.
Gears of War contains a consistent narrative; Epic was so confident in the direction of their story that they knew they could hint at where the story was going by the second game. In an industry where it feels like most serialized stories are made up as they go, this consistency and forethought is much appreciated.
However, even if the plot resolves itself in a very satisfying way, the same can’t be said for the characters. Gears of War 3 does a good job developing its main cast, but by this point in the series they should already be fully developed characters. Cole’s encounter with fans is a great humanizing moment that shows him struggling to keep up the persona of “Cole Train,” but this scene should have occurred in the first game. Dom is the only one who gets a genuine character arc over the trilogy, and that’s only because he was essentially the main character of Gears 2.
Thankfully, there’s nothing outright bad about how the game handles its characters, even if it could have done better. There are some unresolved mysteries about the origins of the Locust that annoy longtime fans, but the ending is so definitive, and the journey here was so well-paced, it’s hard to get angry about unanswered questions that are ultimately meaningless.
1st Place: Halo 3
There’s no Magic Button in Halo 3, at least not in the same way it exists in Assassin’s Creed III, Gears of War 3, and Mass Effect 3. There still is a button that will kill all the bad guys, but it was introduced as a concept in the original game so it doesn’t feel like a quick shortcut towards ending a long war. Also, it’ll kill all the good guys as well, so you don’t actually want to push it. In fact, there’s a large stretch of game where you and an enemy team up to prevent another enemy from pushing the Magic Button. This kind of trope reversal immediately lifts Halo 3 above most of its peers.
To sum up the plot: There’s a three-way war between humans, the crazy religious Covenant aliens, and the parasitic Flood aliens. They’re all fighting over a series of ringworlds called Halos that have the power to wipe out all life in the universe. The Covenant want to activate the Halos for religious reasons, the Flood don’t want that to happen because they want to infect all life in the universe, and the humans don’t want either of those things to happen for obvious reasons.
Part of what makes Halo 3 great is the way it uses gameplay to reinforce this idea of a desperate three-way war. Over the course of the game there are several alliances made and broken. Master Chief teams up with the Flood to stop the Covenant, and it’s an alliance that makes sense in the moment. Neither side wants Halo activated, so they decide to stop killing each other until this greater threat has passed. It’s surreal to shoot through levels with friendly Flood by your side. Then as soon as the Covenant are stopped, the Flood turn on the Chief. You also spend most of the game with an alien AI in tow, and as soon as it thinks it can take over a Halo ring for itself it betrays you as well.
There’s a real sense of desperation to all these alliances and betrayals. Everyone knows they’re fighting for their very survival, so they’ll resort to any measure that might help. Every alliance lets them live a little longer, and that’s all anyone wants to do. Bungie is also smart in how they pace out these twists: The moment a treaty makes sense it’s made, and the moment the common enemy is gone they’re broken. These sub plot aren’t dragged out for the sake of padding, they’re killed as soon as it makes sense to kill them.
That smart pacing works in reverse, as well. Bungie was smart in that it introduced the beginning of this ending in Halo 2, when a faction of Covenant forces broke off to join the humans. This was a major plot thread in the sequel, and its consequences are followed through on in the third game: This is what makes the Covenant so desperate; they know they’re weakened.
Spreading the ending across two games meant that Halo 2 had a galling cliffhanger ending, but it was worth it to close out the trilogy in a respectful fashion. This trilogy is about a galactic war, and Bungie is smart enough to not try and end that war over the course of a single game. The time frame is too condensed to do that, that’s what forces most of these games to resort to the Magic Button solution: It’s a quick way to end a long war.
Halo 3 doesn’t do that, so we see the slow ebb and tide of battle play out naturally. There’s no sudden end to this conflict; the Covenant are eventually defeated because they’re an Imperialistic society and we kill their leaders. It may be shocking to the logic of games, but most wars aren’t won by killing literally everyone on the other side.
Then there’s the final scene: Master Chief and Cortana are left adrift in space. Cortana says she’ll drop a distress beacon but it could be years before they’re found, and Master Chief climbs into a stasis pod. She says she’ll miss him, and he tells her “Wake me when you need me.”
It’s a great line that encapsulates the tragedy of their relationship. There’s a close bond between them, his words imply that he’ll always be there for her, they’ll always watch each other’s backs, but only when there’s trouble. He’s a super soldier after all, a tool of war, and he knows this. He essentially puts himself back on the shelf, against Cortana’s wishes, because that’s all he knows how to do. It’s a fitting end for this character that also keeps him alive for a sequel. Win/win.