Sometimes, the most satisfying ending is a depressing one.
This post contains spoilers for Neuromancer, Halo: Reach, Braid, and Red Dead Redemption.
Recently, I've been slacking on some projects I'm working on, but I have a good excuse. Well, at least my editor might think it's a good excuse: I got caught up reading William Gibson's novel, Neuromancer. It's a foundational work in modern science fiction, one I'm proud to now check off of my long list of shamefully neglected cultural blind spots. There's a lot to like about Neuromancer, but one of my favorite aspects is the ending -- specifically, how depressing it is. This isn't to say that it's bad or flawed, just that it's not a particularly sunny resolution. It's the kind of ending that also appears in some of my favorite video games.
For those who haven't read it, Neuromancer's protagonist, Case, starts and ends the story as a drug addict. After an amazing journey, one that sees him accomplish things that no human has ever done, one that reveals deep insights into his own life, one that quite possibly alters the very definition of life in the universe, he takes his heist money, buys a new pancreas, and settles back into being a lowlife. The possibility of starting a new life with Molly (a mercenary with whom he has grown increasingly intimate) is dashed when she decides to take off. The book's final line, "He never saw Molly again," signals that his brush with exceptionalism is over with a note of depressing banality. [It's also very hard-boiled --ed.]
The biggest downer is being able to see how things could have gone differently. Case's ordeal put him in contact with an AI called Neuromancer, whose programming allowed it to copy Case's consciousness in a way that enabled independent development. In this alternate virtual reality, Case is removed from his life of degeneracy and able to spend eternity with the woman that he loves. Case catches a glimpse of this life during one of his travels in cyberspace. Although it was used as a prison earlier in the story to deter Case from completing his mission, it now looks more like a paradise. Regardless, it's now just an echo.
Few video games end on such a melancholy note, especially mainstream ones. We still find ourselves reliving the "save the princess" plot over and over again, and we almost always get to be the triumphant hero. There are exceptions though.
There's no lack of heroism in Halo: Reach, but the end of Noble team's journey isn't exactly happy. The entire game is a suicide mission and every team member ultimately gets to live up to their moniker. The fact that the game is a prequel and that everyone knows the sacrifices are worth it softens the blow, but the fact remains that "victory" in Halo: Reach is a sad one. Your very last action in the game is fighting an unwinnable battle against a never-ending horde. The question is not if, but when, you'll fall. Once you do, that is the last time that you interact with the game. The last thing you do in the game is get to die, a fate that adds a mechanical punch to a sad story. At least, you still get to be the hero.
Braid creates an unexpected role-reversal by revealing Tim as the game's villain in its final moments. As you rewind time in the last level, you find that the game was lost before it began. The princess has and is gone, and you've been trudging through a collection of sad memories. You may have also created the atomic bomb but that is a bit unclear. In any case, the final narrative push of Braid is about coming to terms with mistakes and letting go of the hope that you can either prevent or mitigate them. In a way, this softens the ending; once you know the truth, it seems preordained and inflexible. Without the hope of an alternative, the pain of a melancholy ending becomes a dull throb rather than a sharp sting.
Perhaps the game that elicited the most similar feeling to the one that I felt after Neuromancer was Red Dead Redemption. Knowing Rockstar, I should have known better than to trust that that the titular "Redemption" would manifest in the game in any straightforward way. John Marston's quest for salvation is largely a failure, one that has implications for his family and maybe even for humanity as a whole.
What does a peaceful life look like for the Marston family? The game actually lets us experience this for a brief segment in which we play as John the rancher instead of as John the gunman. Herding cattle takes the place of train robberies. Hunting game takes the place of murdering bandits. In some alternate reality, John could have lived out his days quietly, but John Marston never manages to outrun his bloody past. Eventually, he willingly embraces the violence that defined his life, sacrificing himself so that his family might find peace.
Unfortunately, this peace is never realized. John's son, Jack, takes up arms to avenge his father's death. He kills the man responsible and in doing so spurns the chance for a different life. At this point, the game opens up again, and you get to reenact the old violent patterns with a new generation of outlaw. Like Case, you've switched out your organs in order to maintain a destructive addiction, not to chemicals but to a lifestyle. After a fleeting glimpse of a hopeful transition, you fall back into a terminal struggle: lawlessness versus the inevitable taming of the wild west. Romantic as it may be, there's only one outcome for this kind of story, and it's not a happy one.
Just like Case in Neuromancer, Red Dead Redemption is about an antihero's journey. The protagonists grow over the course of the story, they see how life could be different, but they ultimately retreat into old habits. They aren't paragons but flawed people who find comfort in familiar patterns. At the end of Neuromancer, I was sad to see case go back to a life of hacking and drug binges, but I knew why he did it -- the same reason why I (as Jack Marston) chose to continue the terminal life of a gunslinger: old habits die hard, people only change so much, and sometimes sad endings are the best kind.