A scarcely updated (If ever) Blog
As some of you may recall, a while ago I made an entry regarding how to continue and end a series’ of games, from a storyline perspective.
As I stated there, a story is a self contain medium which can either be stretched upon more than one iteration of the same story, but most of the times, we can see standalone stories within their own series’.
What I mean is, most of the times, a series’ of games or movies, books or any other media is not just one long story being told in different acts throughout. The vast majority of the times, an iteration of a series’ is its own self-contained story within another story. That’s actually pretty meta.
It’s a very common practice, the sequel will always lead the way to the ending, or another sequel, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story to be told in the first place. Sometimes, the whole overarching storyline and every arc within it are planned out from the beginning, which is fine, though some other times, the story in question is made up on the move. One such example, is the X-COM franchise, where every game was made in its own, without necessarily leading to a major overarching plotline, and every game told its own story through its own series’ of events, except for the last one, but I’ll get back to that on a moment.
A good ending is the one that gives the story closure, that’s a given. While open endings are a common artistic resource, unless it’s handled carefully, it doesn’t quite work the way it was originally intended. Look at Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, where the whole game boasted a post-modern style of narration, reaching a climax where almost no questions are answered regarding the plot (and, in fact, some more questions were raised). My point is that this ending works in every way, contrary to what many fans may believe. The ending for the game leaves enough questions unanswered to lead up to a sequel (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of The Patriots) that retconned and explained the entirety of the plot (and, as I’ve stated earlier, it’s the greatest way to end a series’ as convoluted and often stupid as Metal Gear), while at the same time giving the character’s own personal arc a sense of closure, regardless of how things turn out. Because that’s what life is, in the end, some things are just not answered. Granted, his arc was brutally deconstructed in the sequel, but for what it’s worth, the game stands as an experience that you can just pick up and play at any moment without necessarily knowing the rest of the series’. Something only the PSX along with this one game can boast in this series’.
That’s a good ending, it provides closure to its own story arc, and leads the way to a sequel. However, the presentation aspect of it is also a very important factor to be considered when making an ending. The plot, ultimately, is just a series’ of events that lead up to a conclusion. As such, the player is expected to have invested himself to it and eventually expect a climax of the events, the stakes to be higher and to reach some sense of accomplishment towards the goal the characters had been striving to achieve. An Anti-Climax can be a good resource to be used some times, for shock and artistic effect, depending on the pacing of the story. However, just like loose ends in the plot, most of the times this leads to a poorly executed ending, such as the following example.
Recently, I decided to play Splinter Cell: Double Agent, in an attempt at finding a good stealth game besides Metal Gear, so naturally I decided to pick this one up from a trade-in shop I frequent (the same one from my entry about piracy). I’ve fallen out of touch with the Tom Clancy series’ (and so has Tom himself, since he doesn’t seem to be involved in these games in the slightest), but I had played the old Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell games, so it couldn’t really be that bad.
Other than the extremely glitchy and wonky engine the game was running on, I had no complaints up until the final section of the game. When the difficulty skyrockets like this was Half -Life and one shot will kill you instantly for no good reason.
The premise of the games is that the daughter of Sam Fisher, the series’ main protagonist, is killed, leaving Fisher in an emotional wreck (for reasons not explored upon until the sequel), which prompts him to take a mission as a double agent in the JBA: James Brown Army, an American based terrorist group trying to reach control of the White House via infiltration, sabotage and acquiring Red Mercury, a nuclear component that could level Manhattan if used in a bomb. The idea was that fisher had to remain in the good sides of both the terrorists and his agency, since this was an extremely top-secret black op.
The last act of the game has the player go back to the JSA’s headquarters to find Sam’s CO and friend captive, and he’s ordered to kill him. If you do, the JSA will not suspect of your treason and you can go back to stopping the launch of the nuclear device. I didn’t kill him and was presented with an insanely hard situation where outside the door I was in, there were two armed guards ready to kill me. And they did, plenty of times, in fact.
The illumination system, which is implemented to let the player know of Sam’s visibility is toned up so that it’s virtually impossible to reach anywhere without being caught, and to top it all off you’re stripped of your equipment.
After the terrorist’s leader decides to blow the installation up with them inside (sort of counter-productive towards their goal of reaching control of the white house, but whatever), you have to stop him, get to the bomb, disable the nuclear device (which Sam can apparently do), all within a small, highly illuminated series’ of corridors riddled with cameras and guards (although, if I’m not mistaken, you can take out the camera crew in the base and the cameras will not launch an alarm state when they see you), all without most of your gadgets that you’ve learned to rely on throughout the game.
Then, the credits roll with the game’s trailer in te background and a very vague narration of what happened after the ending. Then there’s an epilogue (if you can call it that) where Sam SOMEHOW manages to get aboard a boat that contains the second bomb in Manhattan, so you need to kill the remaining character, defuse the bomb and leave. Which I did (and, due to shoddy programming, one of the enemies that wasn’t dead managed to shoot me ONCE during the scripted event of Sam jumping off the boat while it explodes, and that counted as a game over) and then, the boat explodes, Same gets out and we’re greeted with the same black-on-green screen that you get during a Game Over that reads "To be Continued". Then you have to reset your console to get it to work.
I can’t stress enough how absolutely hideous this ending is. I felt, for the first time ever, that I wasted my time and money with this game. The thing is though, there’s a technical reason why this ending is so bad.
You see, the rest of the game is good, if not for plenty of flaws that can be overlooked, but having a climax that reaches such a high difficulty, that requires to memorize the whole map twice, to end with the trailer playing over the credits and a black screen reading "TO BE CONTINUED" is just lazy design, and I’m calling the creative team for it. Their work was shit. Their ending was so utterly shit that it tainted the whole game, making it even more of an unplayable mess every time I tried to replay it than it already was. It is, quite literally, the worst ending ever, of all time. I’ve seen NES games that give more closure to their stories. Like fucking Contra. This game is the reason I started playing more Japanese games.
The excuse was mostly "there’s a sequel", but having a sequel doesn’t mean you can put less effort into the previous game. as I stated in my Metal Gear Solid 2 example, it is very possible to have an ending tie in to almost nothing, yet be utterly genius. Double Agent‘s ending was a spit in the face of every gamer who bought it. Ironically enough, there was a second version of the game, incredibly superior, released to the PS2 and Wii.
Let’s go back to that X-COM example I provided earlier. This is another god way to end your games, when your series’ isn’t made with the idea that there will invariably be a sequel in the future.
The first X-COM, named X-COM: UFO Defense game revolved around an Alien Invasion on earth, the idea was that the player had to manage X-COM, the eXtraterrestrial COMbat force, to combat the aliens, investigate their origins, their biology, their technology and eventually take the fight to them. It’s truly unique in the way the plot will moves. It’s not about how many missions you complete or how many alien crafts you capture, it’s about how much you can learn from the aliens until you’re ready to strike against them. The game ends, without needing a sequel. the aliens are defeated, and the earth is now safe and boasts a whole lot of new technology, courtesy of the invaders.
There were four sequels to this game, Terror From The Deep, a more Lovercraftian approach to the plot, where the an ancient aline civilization surges from the bottom of the ocean, Interceptor, set in the future when X-COM has become defense contractors for Earth’s offworld mining and living facilities, the game kept the base building, research and development and managerial aspects of the earlier games, but instead of being a strategy game, Missions would be fought in space flying simulator, a la Wing Commander, but not nearly as good; Apocalypse, set in the future, when earth’s surface is almost uninhabitable, save for the city of Mega-Primus, where X-COM has to deal with an invasion from a new and unknown enemy from another dimension, And then there was Enforcer.
Every game in this series’ is almost completely unrelated in terms of its own plot (with the exception of Interceptor, which is an Interquel set between UFO Defense and Terror From The Deep), and it works well enough that no game conflicts with each other, since every plot is entirely self-contained within itself, and as such it works for what it is, just the plot, no tying in loose ends, no Retcons (well, a few, but nothing vastly important), every game was fresh, plotwise.
However, as it is with every series’, there was a Black Sheep, which was Enforcer, an arcadey shoot ’em up set during the fist invasion on earth that contradicts plenty of plot points from the previous games, but that’s an issue for another day.
The point I’m making is that, the X-COM games need not to worry about insignificant details, so every game’s plot and conclusion feels equally good, every game feels rewarding towards the end, because of how the plot moves, and how well made the endings for each game are.
Sometimes, however, an ending can be not as fulfilling as because of the lore behind it. Let’s take, for example, the gameCommand & Conquer 4 : Tiberium Twilight, released on the PC a few years ago.
Tiberium Twilight is Electronic Arts’ final attempt at showing people that they don’t give a fuck. Some background, first. If you’re already familiar with the series’, skip the next paragraph.
Command & Conquer is a series’ of Real Time Strategy games originally made by Westwood Studios. The series’ is divided into two main sub-series’. The one we’ll focus at is the Tiberium saga, set from 1990 onwards and based around the plot that an alien meteor crashes on earth containing a rare self-duplicating hydrocarbon that works as a clean, efficient renewable energy source, that revolutionizes every aspect of our society. The first game, Tiberian Dawn, introduces Tiberium into the series’, and the villain, Kane, an immortal leader of an international group named the Brotherhood of NOD, while the main protagonists are the UN’s Global Defense Initiative, or GDI for short. GDI starts off by taking active control in NOD insurgencies all around the world, beginning the first tiberium War which ended with Kane getting shot in the face with an orbiting laser. The Sequel, Tiberian Sun, takes place almost a century later, and deals with how Tiberium has almost destroyed the whole world’s ecosystems, by polluting and spreading itself. As Kane reveals himself to be still alive and kicking, NOD once again launches its attacks towards GDI (which is now a de facto peacekeeping force in the whole world, almost to the point of governing it), starting the Second Tiberium War, and ending with Kane being impaled through the chest. After this, the series’ was meant to end as a trilogy, however, due to Electronic Arts’ desire to cash in from the franchise as much as possible, and thus, after 2 games and 2 expansion packs, we got Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, which was an admittedly good game, that retconned the origins of Tiberium as a meteor sent by an alien race to turn the world into a giant harvesting ground for tiberium. The main plot is, Kane is alive, NOD blows up GDI’s base satellite, the Philadelphia, then Scrin arrives to harvest the Tiberium and kill everyone on the planet to make way for more Tiberium. Easy enough, and to be honest, the game wasn’t bad in the slightest. Worth mentioning is that the idea behind Kane as a villain comes from Cain and Abel, being heavily hinted in the games that Kane was, in fact, the first murderer. Sort of confirmed in Renegade, where the player can find Abel’s sarcophagus in Kane’s temple. Then came Command & Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight.
Tiberium Twilight reaches a new low for the franchise by basically spitting on everything it ever stood for, and every aspect of its plot. Again, we’ll focus on the ending. the plot is basically, that GDI and NOD have reached a truce in order for Kane to help build the Tiberium Control Network, in order to restore the earth to a functional state. And it works, however, within the ranks of GDI and NOD, civil war erupts over various unimportant issues. Skip to the ending, where invariably, no matter what faction you play as, it ends with Kane revealing himself to be actually an Alien stranded on earth for thousands of years in his search to lead humanity into creating the technology to help him ascend… Ascend where or how, it’s never explained. Which contradicts the entirety of the series’ up until then, in absolutely every fashion possible. Kane was meant to be working to use Tiberium as a means to reach a higher evolutionary position for all of humanity, via mutation, infestation, exposition, and all that. His goal was to bring down oppressive governments in the world and have humanity ascend to a higher evolutionary plane. Instead, they took the "ascend" part literally and had him go somewhere somehow for no good reason. It completely mutilates every single aspect of the franchise up to that point. You might be wondering why I didn’t bring it up when I talked about finishing franchises, that’s because the series’ is far from over, for better or for worse.
Alright, I’ve rambled long enough, here’s my Thesis for today: An ending in any game can be artsy, open ended or leading up to a sequel so long as it reaches fulfillment of its own story. A game has to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something within the game itself in order to be a successful story told, you can’t give the excuse that it’s an ongoing story to have half-baked resolution. You need to feel the closure after you’ve ended the story, even if, like in Metal Gear Solid 2, you only feel emotionally fulfilled and the plot has more holes in it than a cheddar cheese factory. Because, in the end, a story is only as good as its conclusion.
Videogames have been a storytelling medium since text adventure games on early computers became popular among the early gaming crowd.The plot factor started taking more and more prominence in the early and mid 80s, thanks to the advent of computer Role Playing games, like Ultima or Wasteland. The common use of excuse plots, lacking basic descriptions or motivations to motivate the events, which became a staple of gaming for a long time, came about with the Arcades and cartridge based home systems like the NES or SNES, which couldn’t contain as much information as a computer, so most of the time games wouldn’t have much of a storyline, with the notable exception of Role Playing Games.
As time went on, the genre matured along with its audience. These days, the idea of a game without a plot is unacceptable. Stories have become part of the experience as a whole, and as such they get better over time, with a few exceptions that either remained grandiose since the beginning (The Elder Scrolls, Point and Click adventure series’, Fallout, etc.) or remain bland even to this day (Metal Slug, which resorts to the old technique of not having any in-game plot; or the Mega Man franchise, which has gotten convoluted and almost unapproachable due to massive amounts of retcons, just to end with games that rehash the old nearly absent narrative), but today I want to address an issue which you’ve probably already deduced from the title, unless you’re stupid.
In media, in general, sometimes a story is told as itself, being entirely self contained and requiring no further development. However, it’s very common to see franchises that span beyond a single iteration. This normally means the progression of the plot will stretch out over multiple self contained entries within the same series’.
While there’s nothing wrong with this, since it gives the story a bigger focus and more time to develop itself, at the same time it can lead to unfortunate side effects.
It can happen that a series’ will become stagnated in a single point in its progression. The cheapest way to profit from a series’ is to make the plot move anywhere but forwards, which is becoming alarmingly common in the videogame market.
This phenomenon is by no means something originated as of recent years. Take, for example, Capcom’s Street Fighter franchise.
As most of you may know, the second iteration of the game was updated and released multiple times over the course of the 90s, due to how immensely popular it was both in the arcades and home consoles. This is not good. Having the same game be released over and over again eventually leads to the creators thinking they can spit out anything and we’ll pour money into it.
A more modern, negative example of this effect can be observed with Namco-Bandai’s Ace Combat franchise. Ace Combat is a series’ that’s spanned since the early 90s to this day in the Playstation family of consoles. It’s a Arcade style flying simulator set in the world of Strangereal, a world similar to earth with plenty of counterpart cultures to our own, but with it’s own history and mythology.
The third game in the series’, Electrosphere, was set in the future, where corpocracies had taken over the world and kept fighting their own personal battles with each other for personal profit. The game featured entirely non-linear storytelling that branched out within the missions and led to 4 different endings, all with animated cutscenes. Sadly, the American release of the game had almost the entirety of the game cut off, leaving it a plotless game with no end. However, that is not the issue I’m addressing right now.
After 3, every game in the series’ has been set within the period between 1990 and 2015 within its own world, and has dropped various hints and has lead up to the events of 3 (The most prominent examples being The Unsung War and Advance). However, ever since Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, the plot hasn’t moved forwards in the slightest. Zero was a prequel to 5, Fires Of Liberation was almost completely unrelated, and the last two games (not counting a remake of 2), Joint Assault and Assault Horizon, have been set in the real world, completely ignoring the established canon.
Now, let me contrast this with another very long series’ with a huge fan following, which I’m quite fond of myself, Metal Gear Solid. To my experience, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of The Patriots is the best ending for a franchise as far as videogames go. Don’t go to the comments section to verbally assault me yet, allow me to elaborate.
The Metal Gear franchise is a mindbogglingly complicated plot which I will summarize some other time. To give you an idea, it’s divided into three main series’. There’s the original games on the MSX and MSX II computers back in the late 80s and 90s, the Solid series’ on the Playstation consoles, and the prequel series’ in the PS2 and PSP. All of them tie in together in 4, which makes about 10 games, not counting special editions, which, in turn, give way to a gigantically overstressed plot with a great deal of plot threads and unresolved plot holes.
Now, Guns of The Patriots is often criticized because of having approximately Nine hours of cutscenes in the entire game, the ending cutscene and epilogue alone lasting for a good 3 and a half hours. If you miss a single minute of it, you might be left behind in the whole series’.
Yet this is necessary, because having to not only tie in to a game with an ending so surreal it’s been analogized as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of videogames, without ever being in space; but also needing to have its own plot (otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a game).
And yet, it pulls the whole thing off perfectly.
See, the thing is, it gives closure to absolutely every aspect of the games that could raise questions. Everything, minor as it may be, is addressed and eventually sorted out in the course of either the game or the ending. It leaves no room for a sequel, since all but seven of the main characters (out of nearly 20 recurring characters in the games) remain alive in the end (one of them having but a few months to live) and need no more development. The series’ in its entirety reached its apex, and ended. The only other game to be released was the last of the prequel series’. There is absolutely no need for a new game in any segment of the story. It’s over. Not that it stops the developers from having a new installment on the way in the form of a spinoff title, with the creator having jumped ship a while ago.
That’s the thing, any sort of story is ultimately just the buildup to its conclusion. Not giving it proper closure is diminishing the importance of every event in the story up to that point. And as such, it might as well be left open to interpretation.
I’m not against the idea of making money off of a given series’, or if the creators want to make more installemnts or expand upon the world. Worldbuilding and Expanded universes are a good thing, if you don’t believe this, go ahead and take a look at the Star Wars franchise. A universe so rich and large that you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by it, yet every plotline has reached its end within the series’.
Another current example of a series’ overstaying its welcome comes from the Kingdom Hearths series’, which after the second game has gone nowhere, plotwise, releasing prequels, gaiden games, and a plethora of other materials, but the ongoing plot remains unresolved.
Now, sometimes this can be done right. See, for example, the ‘Final Fantasy series’, where every new game is set in a completely new world and storyline than the previous one, with a few exceptions. Here, the franchise can theoretically go anywhere, since every installment is a new story almost completely unrelated to the previous one.
Or, if you don’t like Final Fantasy, there’s Bethesda’s excellent The Elder Scrolls franchise, which have a similar structure for each new release, only it all occurs within the same universe. Yet, every game always reaches the end of its story. It leaves a few open strings, but the story in question is over.
My thesis of the week, like any other storytelling medium, videogames need to get closure in their plots, One thing is trying to flesh out the story, maybe make money on the way, but if you purposely hold back the plot to a grinding halt, it undermines the importance of the whole thing, and eventually it will cost you a sizable portion of the fanbase. And when you’re making a videogame, what’s more important, money, or the game you’ve been working on for years now?