Measuring Success: The Unsatisfying Notion of "Good Endings" and "Bad Endings"
Sometimes stories need to end badly in order to be really good.
So, I did it. I finally managed to complete the 2010 classic horror game Amnesia (third times a charm, I guess). Knowing, as I did, that the game had multiple endings, though, I did that gamer thing. I reloaded the game's final sequence two more times to also witness the game's other two alternate endings.
My first playthrough resulted in what has been dubbed the “good ending”, my second completion was the game's “neutral ending”, and finally I finished the game up with the “bad ending”. In particular, it was this ending, which fans call the bad ending, that gave me some pause. To me from both a narrative perspective and from a personal perspective, this “bad ending” seemed like the best ending possible. It seemed to me to be the most appropriate ending to the story of the amnesiac Daniel, ending the game with a conclusion that most clearly represented his final self realization and response to regaining his memory. In that ending, Daniel essentially destroys himself, allowing the shadow that has been hunting him throughout the game to catch up to him and kill him.
Which, of course, doesn't sound “good” at all. However, this got me thinking a bit about the way in which we label endings in games that offer the option to choose your own destiny. What is it that we mean by “good” when we talk about “good endings”, and what do we mean by “bad” when we talk about “bad endings”?
Labeling game endings can become a complicated task. Consider, for example, the 2011 game Catherine, a game about a young slacker named Vincent who finds himself caught between two women, his long time girlfriend Katherine and the manic pixie dream girl Catherine. Throughout the game, certain decisions can tip Vincent's final destiny in terms of which relationship he ends up fostering or rejecting towards Katherine or Catherine or even towards what has been termed the Freedom ending (walking away from both and choosing his own path).
The game associates Catherine with chaos, Katherine with order, and Freedom with neutrality. As a result, the game's various endings are often described as including a true chaos ending, a good chaos ending, a bad chaos ending, a true neutral ending, a good neutral ending, a true order ending, a good order ending, and a bad order ending. Of course, such a complex branching system of outcomes leads to even further complications about how to distinguish between true and good or true and bad. Does “true” signify what “actually happened”, perhaps (though there are three of these endings)? Or is the concept of “true” more akin to my observation about my sense that the “bad” ending of Amnesia is the “most appropriate” ending?
By my best estimation, while I think this idea can vary a bit from game to game, I think that good endings are most often associated with endings that (at least superficially) seem positive or that suggest “success” in terms of the goals set by the game. For example, since many video games use common narrative tropes to establish the long term goal of the game (the way to resolve the game's main plot thread), like “save the world” or “save the girl”, often times endings that are labeled good are the ones in which whatever it is that the protagonist has done seems to have a positive effect on the world and in which the girl is saved. Conversely, often bad endings concern global destruction and/or the loss of the girl. Answers to questions like “Is the final villain dead or defeated?” or “Is the protagonist alive and healthy?” or even “Are all the characters that we care about happy at the conclusion of the game?” also may play into whether or not an ending is deemed good or bad (or possibly neutral if the results of some of these questions are mixed in terms of final successes or general positivity).
All of which may seem pretty obvious to anyone who has played a video game with multiple endings before. However, as I noted, the ending that seemed to be most appropriate to me in Amnesia, what I thought was even the best possible outcome for the protagonist, is one in which that protagonist is dead and in which the antagonist of the game actually completes his own seemingly nefarious goal. What complicates Amnesia for me is that it complicates the main character and the main character's own goals through the oft used video game trope of amnesia.
At the beginning of Amnesia, the player finds themselves behind the eyes of Daniel, the protagonist of the game. He awakens having forgotten who he is, where he is, and, well, pretty much everything about his circumstances. After all, he has lost most of his long term memory. The player receives a note, written by Daniel to himself, that acknowledges Daniel's circumstances (he knew that he would awaken in the future as an amnesiac) and that explains that Daniel must kill a man called Alexander, the apparent nemesis of Daniel and a man who has done some pretty bad things.
The amnesiac plot allows the game to play with player expectation. We assume as players of countless games, some of which frequently use this conceit for a variety of reasons, that there is probably something “good” about killing Alexander, about stopping this man, regardless of what we specifically know about ourselves. Plot threads may result in good or bad resolutions, but we are accustomed to the general idea that video game protagonists are well intentioned, interested in saving the world or saving a girl, for example, at the very least. We must have generally positive motives and positivity is in part one measure of success, or at least a measure of “good” and “bad” outcomes for a plot or at least for the character himself.
For an example of that latter idea, consider, as an alternate example, the discomfort some players of the game The Deed (2015) express about the overall outcome of that game's multiple endings, a game in which you don't play a hero at all. In The Deed, your goal is to murder your sister and then to pin that murder on someone else in order to get her out of the way when the time comes to inherit your family's money. The game has multiple outcomes. You can fail to remove suspicion from yourself and go to jail, your efforts can result in an unsolved crime, you may end up suggesting through the evidence that you plant that your sister committed suicide, or you may just get away with murder by pinning the crime on one of the other innocent characters in the game. These variable outcomes are further complicated by the fact that sometimes you end up getting the inheritance, but under other circumstances you still lose out.
If you read through the Steam forums that support discussion of the game, you'll find people in some instances complaining that there really is no “good” ending to the game because if you play the role of the murderer trying to commit the perfect crime by pinning it on someone else and end up inheriting the money, the game still contains a final line in such an ending that the protagonist feels “hollow” inside. Success without positivity apparently defies the appellation of “good” in those players' minds.
My own personal response to Amnesia suggests the opposite of that idea. What I like about the “bad” ending and why I almost feel like it should be labeled “good” is that by the conclusion of the game, as Daniel finally discovers that, while, yes, Alexander is a pretty terrible guy responsible for the slaughter or many men, women, and children in his quest to complete a mystic ritual, that prior to your choice to quaff a potion that causes amnesia, you helped Alexander perpetrate these very crimes. In other words, you are a villain yourself (or were before you conveniently wiped any guilt about your prior activities from your mind). Amnesia's “neutral” ending is one in which Daniel thwarts Alexander's ritual and lives to tell about it. Its good ending results in the destruction of Alexander and a scene implying the supernatural redemption of Daniel, which to me seems -- quite simply put -- very unjust, given Daniel's new found knowledge of himself.
To me, Daniel seems quite deserving of destruction, regardless of whatever happens to Alexander, and I found his demise in the “bad” ending, as I said before, pretty appropriate, especially coming as it does at the hands of supernatural force that has been hunting him because he began playing with magicks that he had no business dabbling in in the first place. I like the poetic justice of that ending. For me, that ending might be deemed both positive and successful in terms of satisfying justice, though in some way neither really matters to me so much as the fact that I just think that a seemingly negative ending can sometimes be the best way to tell a story. Hamlet's conclusion might not test well with a modern focus group, but there is kind of nothing more powerful than tragedy. Sometimes stories need to end badly in order to be really good.
I guess what I am trying to get at is that while games allow for the possibility of negative outcomes through branching storylines, I am not sure that I like the implications of the ambiguous ways that we sometimes label such outcomes or how we define success in a game. From an aesthetic perspective, superficially positive outcomes are not always the best or most satisfying way to close a story, and maybe that's it, I kind of want “good” and “bad” in some instances to suggest not necessarily simply the measure of a character's success or even an evaluation of moral outcomes, but maybe an evaluation of the most appropriate ending from an aesthetic point of view. Sometimes a work of fiction that is more elegant or more beautiful simply can't result in what we want to blithely call “good”.