Why Irrational’s shooter and Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line are perfect examples of why a happy ending isn’t always necessary.
As gaming evolves and begins to weave more and more complicated narratives with amazing characters and wondrous 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. Yet 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 overcoming 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. However, 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 (spoiler warning); 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 permanently 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.
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 narrative. And everyone who has each game that I have talked too have praised their story telling and tone.
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 storytelling in games. Tragedy and drama can be just as engaging in games as heroics. As long as it’s done well and fits with the story, a game does not need a happy ending.