Do We Always Need a Happy Ending?


As gaming evolves and begins to weave more and more complicated narratives with amazing characters and wonderous locations it becomes more and more difficult to figure out a way to finish up the story in a proper manner.  Many games still follow the traditional path of the hero conquering the big bad and essentially “winning” the game.  But with games that are now telling tales as intricate as any novel or film, I wonder if things always do have to end up so nice and tidy.

First off, I want to make clear that a traditional “happy ending” is by no means a bad thing.  I believe one reason it is used so much in any medium is because it is so satisfying.  The feeling over coming the game’s challenges and fighting to the end and coming out ahead is a great feeling.  Just as with any competition and or conflict, it feels good to win and games are no different.  But there are times when I have to wonder whether or not games have to end so well all the time.But there are times when I have to wonder whether or not games have to end so well all the time.

Take Bioshock: Infinite for instance (warning spoilers); I remember reading about some cases of controversy over its ending specifically regarding Booker’s death.  Now the ending was definitely strange and took a moment comprehend, but once I understood it, the ending not only made sense but fit the tone of the game.

For Comstock to be permantely stopped, Booker had to die.  He had to go back to the very moment when Comstock was born, at his own Baptism, and stop Comstock in the only way possible by making sure Booker himself died then and there.  All along Booker had been seeking to “wipe away the debt” and to find some kind of redemption. It unfortunately required his death, but the game ended in a way that fit the narrative.

While it wasn’t exactly happy, the game ended on a positive note with both Booker and Elizabeth free of Comstock’s long shadow and has a somewhat bittersweet feeling.

Bioshock Ending

Going even farther in the direction of just plain bitter, there are games like Spec Ops: The Line.  The game can actually end in several different ways but none of them are happy.  You are only deciding just how broken Captain Walker’s mind is.  Even the “best” ending, where he actually leaves Dubai, has Walker look so utterly haunted and broken.  But again, these all fit the tone and narrative of Spec Ops.

You spend the entire game witnessing and even participating in more and more horrific acts that are enough to seriously damage anyone’s mental state.  The game’s overall story is incredibly dark and depressing and the endings reflect that perfectly.

Both Spec Ops and Bioshock: Infinite told great narratives that were far from typical, light-hearted fare solely about winning.  Each one had darker elements that really made me stop and think and truly feel the story the game wanted to tell.  Their endings reflected this tone and fit appropriately for their narratve.  And everyone who has each game that I have talked too have praised their story telling and tone.

Spec-Ops Ending

Just like with movies, books, TV shows and anything else, games can tell any number of different stories ranging from joyful celebrations to dark and brooding narratives.  And while the old school of thought that a game has to give you the chance to win is still certainly valid, it does not have to be the only way to think about story telling in games.  Tragedy and drama can be just as engaging in games as heroics.  As long as its done well and fits with the story, a game does not need a happy ending.

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About Paul

Paul Stehlin is a Gamemoir writer who likes to spend all day talking about games and not much else. Find him on Twitter at @sharkboy421 or on his own blog at corrin.blog.com

There are 7 comments

  1. Nick Verboon

    So true. The endings that really shock and depress you or feed you brutal irony are the ones that really stay with you as opposed to just saving the world and getting the girl or whatever.

    1. Paul

      Most definitely. I love that games are now willing to take on such heavy topics and do them well. That not to say that I don’t enjoy saving the world, but its nice to have games of both kinds to play.

  2. CompGeekDavid

    I still think Mass Effect 3 would have been far more interesting if we could have lost – or if there were alternate endings where you could lose, at least; end points earlier on. Something like Chrono Trigger, or Final Fantasy XIII-2.

    1. Paul

      Yeah it would have been really cool to have like a tiered ending for ME3. Especially if they did include a “lose” ending and not just the refusal one we have.

  3. Dashiell Barlow

    Personally, I like games which have stories with multiple branches. A game shouldn’t be treated like a novel, in that it can end only the one way.

    The idea of being able to win – but not necessarily in the way you wanted, perhaps even in such as a way as can be called Pyrrhic – makes a story that much more alive. And so I agree, that the endings need not be ‘happy.’

    1. Kandice

      I agree with you in the idea of multiple branches of a story, but I think at least one of them should be a “happy” ending. Or at least not leave you feeling confused or depressed. I’m not saying that all of these endings have to be happy, but I would like at least one of them to- like GTA

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