There’s no such thing as a premature ending for a video game. There’s only your ending.
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.