So, a few comments and posts and games have gotten me thinking about Bad Ends, which are essentially where a game ends with a relatively full ending — it’s not just a “Game Over” screen — but one that is generally seen as at least an … incomplete ending. It can range from the world being destroyed to some important character dying to conditions not being what you’d like, but in general these are seen as being incomplete: you didn’t do something you should have and there are negative consequences for that across the game world.
What I ended up thinking about, though, is that in general tragic ends aren’t necessarily bad ends. In Fatal Frame, the canon ending is that Mafuyu stays with Kirei. In Shadow Hearts, the canon ending is that Alice dies. In both cases, these were used to set things up for sequel games, and both worked relatively well. And it isn’t even necessarily the case that achieving a non-canon tragic ending is bad. In Suikoden V, when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get all 108 stars and, knowing what the endings were I decided to recruit less stars and try for the solitary ending. I was a little disappointed in it, but it seemed like the more interesting ending if I couldn’t get Lyon back.
And that really encapsulates my thinking on this matter. I don’t think I agree anymore that there even are really bad or good endings, just bad or good ways to play a character. What I want from a game is multiple endings, but where each ending follows from choices your character makes. In short, the idea is that you get the ending that your character, acting as your character would, would end up getting. What this means — and what is very hard for video games to do — is that these endings have to be predictable. Not in the sense that you necessarily have to see that specific ending coming, but that when the ending happens you say “Yep, that’s exactly what ought to happen given the character I was playing”. So, in a sense, I don’t want good or bad endings, but satisfying endings, which means that given the character I was playing and how I was playing that character, the story makes sense and is precisely what would happen.
An example of a “satisfying” ending might come from Akiba’s Trip. At the very beginning of the game, you are given the option to continually badger the Big Bad about the figurines you were promised, and can even refuse to accept the treatment because he refuses to give them to you. In frustrated rage, he kills you. Sure, this is more of a Non-Standard Game Over than a real ending, but it’s also consistent with the character and the world; the Big Bad is likely to be frustrated by that stupidity and you aren’t that important to them. Acting like an idiot to the Big Bad is indeed likely to get you killed, and I laughed when I saw that ending for the first time.
Now, some might counter that I’d find that ending less humourous if I had gotten through 20 hours of the game instead of less than 1. Which is true. But I submit that the problem isn’t so much that that sort of bad ending wasted my time, but that when those sorts of bad endings come up we feel that the game was incomplete, that I played for 20 hours and didn’t get to finish the game. Part of that can be from the game itself: the game either has the ending pop up out of nowhere — in short, it doesn’t follow from your actions — or the ending itself implies that this was incomplete. And part of that can be our expectations: we expect the game to allow us to complete everything, and if there is an ending that completes more we think that that is somehow the “True” ending, the one that we should be striving for.
I submit that we should and should be able to view each run through of a game as a separate story, and thus the ending we get should be the one we’d expect given the story we’re in. For the longest time, games weren’t really capable of giving us that, but from games like Knights of the Old Republic and into at least Dragon Age: Origins we now have the ability to change some and now significant parts of the story to make it feel like it is our story, and thus a story for our character. There is a difference in story between, say, an Elf who rejected the Dalish Elves and sided with the werewolves vs one who sided with the Elves, and Dragon Age in some sense will reflect that. I think that more endings should be thought out wrt that sort of experience rather than as punishments for not doing all the right things. Ideally, to my mind, multiple endings would follow from what the character does in the game, and so if you acted that way you’d get the ending you’d expect. We are, however, a long way from that really working out in today’s games.