Obligatory spoilers afoot!
Now that the dust has settled on Game of Thrones, I think we can all agree that its conclusion was, at best, underwhelming. Whether you were satisfied with it or not, the final season of the near-10-year epic was undoubtedly rushed and far from what it could’ve been. Sadly, these are often the realities of production. Time and money aren’t infinite (as much as we wish they could be) and it’s rare for projects to come together exactly as they were envisioned. And if there’s any industry that could act as a figurehead for experiences slowly running out of steam towards a rushed whisper of an ending, it’s video games.
There are extreme cases, like Dark Matter – an action-platformer that failed to meet its Kickstarter goal but launched anyway, ending with an abrupt wall of text – but many examples simply come in below expectation. Naturally, the most infamous disappointing game endings exist in the triple-A space, where hype, anticipation, and the inevitability of future sequels come together to create messy and controversial conclusions.
I’m sure we all remember the debacle that was Mass Effect 3 – a hugely disappointing finale to a fantastic sci-fi trilogy that united fans in their frustration. The game’s ending was so universally hated that fans petitioned to have it changed. Sound familiar? Or Half-Life 2, which concluded one of the best first-person shooters of all-time with an explosion, a brief speech, and an unsatisfying cliffhanger.
The point is, satisfying endings are hard to write and consistently entertaining games are even harder to make. They’re often made with first impressions in mind, with all the best stuff occupying the first several hours. It makes sense, of course. That’s the bit that most people will see. It’s also most likely going to be the part you show in your marketing material.
In a cynical sense, the rest of the game doesn’t matter. Most people won’t see it and it’s not likely to sell you any more copies. But doesn’t it just suck when things don’t live up to expectation? When they simply aren’t as good as they could – or should – have been? The worst instances are the ones that start off well and slowly get worse, or – as with Game of Thrones – simply taper off at the end.
Take Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, which starts off promising but quickly descends into disappointing mediocrity and over-ambition. It’s still a solid game, yet an undoubtedly disappointing sequel. It’s the flat, deflating endings that stick with us. The devastatingly dull or just plain forgettable conclusions to otherwise brilliant games.
There’s nothing worse than a great experience coming to an underwhelming close. All those hours invested in a world, its characters, and mechanics suddenly feels wasted thanks to some extremely dissatisfying closure. It’s not all dire, though. Satisfying conclusions do, in fact, exist. The Banner Saga, the first chapter of Stoic Studio’s fantastic Norse-themed trilogy, is a great example. After spending 100 (or more) days trudging through the snow with the Dredge, your relentless stone-clad foes, on your tail, you finally reach the human settlement of Boersgard. It’s here that you make your final stand against Bellower, the Dredge demi-god of mythical stature that’s been following you for a large portion of the game.
After a dramatic encounter – I won’t spoil the specifics; if you haven’t played The Banner Saga already, you should, it’s great – Bellower is defeated and the heroes are safe, for now. It’s obviously not the end. You know there’s going to be a sequel (or two), but it’s a satisfying ending nonetheless. It provides rewarding closure for the first chapter of its story, setting up a sequel in a way that’s exciting rather than cynical and inevitable. More games should learn from Stoic Studio’s clarity of vision, their ability to craft a world of epic proportions and still provide satisfying conclusions. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible.
Disappointing endings aren’t a new thing (any Dexter fans in the house?), and they’re not going to magically stop happening. If anything, they’re only going to be bigger, more frequent, and far more impactful. As entertainment becomes increasingly intrinsic to society, becoming entwined with cultural movements and tangibly affecting the world around us, the ruckus caused by underwhelming conclusions and sloppy endings is only going to grow larger and more uncontrollable. So, buckle up for another decade of petty petitions and fan outrage.
Dan is a UK-based lover of games, music, and movies. He can usually be found buried in RPGs, shooters, roguelikes, and sometimes World of Warcraft, but really he’ll play anything he can get his hands on.