I used to finish every game I started. I made a specific point of it: Play to the end, see the story to completion, and once the credits roll I’m done. It wasn’t a hard goal to accomplish, it just required time.
I’ve stopped doing that. There are multiple factors to blame: My ever-increasing backlog of games, my ever-shrinking allotment of free time, and my ever-growing impatience with things that aren’t immediately compelling. If a game starts to drag, I’m OK with stopping partway through and never returning. Even if the gameplay itself is very good, I don’t feel an obligation to keep playing.
Yet I still care about the stories. “Story” has always been my driving motivator to consume any form of media, and that hasn’t changed. I still want to be told a good story, which means I still want a story that ends. Not just any end, I want a story with an ending that solidifies a theme or character arc. But I don’t want to have to beat a game to get that kind of ending. It’s a bit of a conundrum.
With my new carefree attitude towards completion comes a new interest in how that lack of completion affects the story, or rather, my perception of the story. If I stop playing part way through a game, why is that ending considered illegitimate? After all, if we concede that games, as an interactive medium, rely on both player and developer to tell a story, then surely player inaction affects that story just as much as player action. Telltale Games makes story-driven games that are largely driven by conversations, and they take great pains to ensure silence is always an option — we don’t have to talk in a game driven by talk. Inaction is just as important as action. Stopping is just as important as playing.
There already exists an entire genre built around player-created stories. Games that embrace “emergent gameplay” and “emergent storytelling” don’t tell a specific story, but rather they create a framework of mechanics and systems that allow players to experience and create their own stories. So if we can already create our own stories, we should also be able to create our own endings.
Ending Emergent Stories
This idea is easiest to apply to games that seemingly don’t have an ending, the kind that go on for so long that most players will stop well before reaching the credits. They’re usually mechanics driven, putting us through a gameplay loop that grows progressively harder with each iteration. They can have a story, but more often they’ll just have a premise and the promise of an ending, and we fill in everything in-between. These are our “emergent stories,” the kind we write for ourselves based on how the mechanics and systems play out.
Some time ago, PopMatters writer Eric Swain wrote an article criticizing the intense length of these games, specifically Darkest Dungeon and Redshirt. He argued that the shorter narrative arcs created by the player and the gameplay systems were far more interesting than the overall narrative arc that constituted the “real” story.
In Darkest Dungeon, his vestal healer “…was the main character of the game. She was my hero. She had triumphed over evil in such an astounding fashion and against all odds.” And yet, she died. Not in a heroic boss fight, but against a random enemy that simply overwhelmed her. Swain wrote: “This was a brilliant narrative arc that fit so well with the Lovecraftian tone and theme of self-destruction that is central to Darkest Dungeon. The problem is, this was still in the early game… I could have found a new protagonist to follow and cultivate, but the narrative would have been a poor rehash of the same thing.”
A Darkest Dungeon vestal
To continue playing would dilute the meaning of this personal narrative. The larger story of Darkest Dungeon involves you, being the owner of this cursed property, sending down hero after hero, adventurer after adventurer, highwayman after highwayman — all that mulch into the grinder of monsters — until your persistence results in victory. It’s a narrative that explicitly asks you to not get attached to each character, that explicitly demands you treat them as tools to be discarded. That’s a harsh narrative, it turns the focus of the horror from the cosmic monsters to the human in charge of the whole operation. It’s a narrative that makes the player the real monster. It’s no wonder Swain stopped, I like his story better, too.
In Redshirt (“a social simulator set on a Star Trek-style space station” as Swain describes) he started a relationship with a co-worker, then she cheated on him, and then he left her behind as he was promoted up the corporate ladder. But then they reconnected. A tragic romance turned sweet.
However, Redshirt is about you scheming your way up that corporate ladder in order to earn yourself — and only yourself — an escape pod from some impending doom. The nature of the story is such that your survival matters more than anyone else’s survival. Swain’s “girlfriend” wasn’t really his true love, just a pawn to be used and abused and abandoned. It’s another harsh narrative, and again, I like Swain’s story better.
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These are both great examples of the value of player-created stories, but the tone of the article uses them as dire warnings. To Swain, it’s a bad thing that “In both Darkest Dungeon and Redshirt, the narrative arcs that these games generated ended long before either of the games were over.” For him, it’s a bad thing that the player-created narrative overshadows the developer’s narrative. The unspoken belief behind this criticism assumes that the overarching narrative provided by the developer is more important that the player-created narratives — the former is more authoritative, more definitive, more authentic. Anything that detracts from the developer’s narrative is bad, even if it results in an excellent player narrative.
I disagree with this sentiment. It’s not a bad thing these games continue long past the end of Swain’s narrative. In fact, that’s the entire point of these types of games. They’ll go on forever, and it’s really up to the player to choose when to end the story, and thus when to give the story meaning. Swain’s games didn’t go on for too long, rather they lasted just long enough to allow him to create the story he preferred.
The Pride of Interactivity
Just because a developer gives us more gameplay to experience doesn’t mean we have to keep playing their game, and just because a developer gives us more story to experience doesn’t mean we have to keep playing their story.
This has always been true of art, to a point. An audience has always had the ability to end its participation in any form of art at any moment. 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, however, all those other mediums have historically presented themselves as creator-driven mediums: We go to a movie because of the actors, we see a play because of the writer, and so on. We’re attracted to the art because of the author. The whole argument of author versus audience is less an argument over art, and more of an argument over the culture around that art.
In that respect, games have always presented themselves differently. They’ve always presented themselves as something more cooperative, a more malleable form of art. The medium has always prided itself on its interactivity, on the ability of its works to be manipulated and changed by someone other than the original author. Once that cultural control has been ceded, it cannot be taken away. If a game cedes control of the story to the player, then it’s acknowledging the narrative veto power we’ve always held, which means it must also cede control of that story’s end.
This obviously applies to emergent games like Darkest Dungeon and Redshirt, but it also applies to more strongly story-driven games. Like, for example, Doom and Dishonored 2.
Ending Linear Stories
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 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.