So a good chunk of the hardcore gaming community is pretty butthurt over Mass Effect 3’s ending, and rightfully so: as I stated in my review and my follow-up editorial, ME3’s ending really is pretty terrible. But instead of reopening that bitter wound, let’s talk about game endings that were actually good.There are a lot of great games, but now that I really think about it, there haven’t been a lot of great endings to games. There’s a lot of reasons for this: a lot of games simply aren’t narratively driven, and don’t need a proper story conclusion — despite what some poor, misguided saps on the internet may tell you, great games like Super Mario Galaxy or Mega Man or Street Fighter or even Demon’s Souls manage to succeed without the need for complex stories or narrative arcs. Unlike other forms of art which only require passive audience participation (such as books or movies,) games are by their very nature active experiences, and as such can get by without an engrossing story (provided the gameplay is good enough,) and a lot of them simply don’t need a complex ending. You save the princess, you stopped the evil guy, and that’s it, and that’s honestly all it really needs to be. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Most games are also designed to be “front-loaded”: the most memorable bits are always going to be at the beginning, because developers want to grab players’ attention and get them hooked right away. The longer the game goes on, more and more players quit, and obviously, you want to put the most effort into the parts of the game that most people are going to play. Surprisingly, very few people actually play most games through to completion, so ironically, the ending is usually one of the last things on most game designers’ minds.
But while there’s a lot of games that can get away with a half-assed (or non-existant) narrative and still be regarded as classics, there are a handful of games that manage the rare feat of not only creating a genuinely engaging story, but also manage to wrap that story up with a satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s honestly something that should be celebrated to a greater extent on those rare occasions when a game manages to get it right. Like I said earlier, games don’t necessarily need great stories (and by extension, great endings,) in order to be satisfying experiences, but at the same time, a well crafted story and a proper ending can turn a good game into a great one.
So hey, with all the controversy surrounding Mass Effect 3’s epic anti-climax, now seems like a good time to step back and discuss what exactly a game ending should be by looking at some of the best endings in gaming history.
Like always, these are just my personal picks. I haven’t played every game out there (nor have I ever claimed to,) so obviously there’s a good chance I’ve missed out on some epic endings. I state this on every “top 10” list I make, but I feel like I should keep repeating myself, because the comments in previous articles make it clear that nobody is getting the message: these are just my personal picks, so obviously I’m going to have different preferences and opinions than you will. If I left out a game ending that you felt was particularly noteworthy, then by all means, feel free to let me know in the comments. If my choices (or omissions) anger you to the point where you feel the need to tell me how wrong my opinions are, then fine, I give up. Feel free to let your Asperger’s run wild in the comments as well. I’m done trying to explain the concept of “opinions” to the internet.
Oh, and one last warning: As to be expected from an article about endings, there’s a lot of spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk. Anyway, like the ending to Return of the King, this preface has dragged on for too long. Time to get to the point: Here are my 10 favorite game endings of all time:
Final Fantasy VI
Square’s flagship franchise may just be a pale shadow of its former self, but strange as it may sound to modern gamers, Final Fantasy once meant something beyond angst-ridden pretty boys and bombastic CG cut-scenes. Take Final Fantasy VI for instance: not only was a technical marvel (for it’s time,) but it had substance to back up its style: it had a cast of characters who had depth and issues but didn’t act like whiny teenagers. It’s battle system combined the dedicated “job” classes of previous Final Fantasy’s (each character had their own specialties and roles to play in combat,) with a then unheard of level of customization (the Magicite system, as well as the copious amount of skill-granting “Relics” that… well, honestly, could be used to break the game if you knew what you were doing). The second half of the game was entirely non-linear, offering an almost open-world level of freedom that wouldn’t be revisited in J-RPG’s for nearly 2 generations, and to top it all off, the game had one of the series’ most offbeat and memorable villains ever.
Final Fantasy VI was an epic game, long before the word “epic” would be transformed into a pointless internet buzzword on par with the 90’s “extreme” (thanks, 4chan,) and it’s lengthy, almost half hour long ending (which was considered very long in those pre-Metal Gear Solid days,) was not only visually impressive and backed up with one of the best soundtracks to ever grace a video game, but it also managed to wrap up every single character’s story arc in an intensely satisfying manner.
Phantasy Star 2
Most people don’t know it, but Sega’s cult classic Phantasy Star series has arguably influenced J-RPG design just as much as Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. Back in the 8-bit days when DQ and FF were still basic dungeon crawlers with paper-thin stories, Phantasy Star was introducing features that would eventually become the hallmarks of the genre: instead of a group of nameless, player-created avatars, Phantasy Star had a set cast of characters with pre-defined skills, appearances, and full back stories, and while PS’s NES contemporaries still featured stories about saving princesses, Sega’s RPG featured a cinematically focused sci-fi storyline that, while simplistic by today’s standards, was substantially deeper and more mature than any other console game at the time.
Phantasy Star’s first Genesis sequel would continue to build on these innovations, and in addition to some great (though rather grind heavy) dungeon crawling, Phantasy Star 2 also offered one of the bleakest, most unapologetically dark story lines to ever grace a game at the time. Long before gamers were shocked by Sephiroth shanking Aerith, Phantasy Star 2 casually dealt with issues like government conspiracies, genetic engineering, suicide, mass murder, and yes, even the tragic death of the central heroine. Despite all the surprisingly dark themes hidden under it’s 80’s anime inspired veneer, PS2’s characters remained hopeful and determined throughout, and when you reach the game’s ultimate climax — in which your party ultimately saves the world, but are themselves left stranded in a hopeless situation — it’s hard to not feel a little choked up. Again, Phantasy Star’s cinematic presentation and dark story may seem simplistic by today’s standards, but back in the 8 and 16 bit eras, the series’ stories were a revelation. For teaching a generation of RPG fans the meaning of a pyrrhic victory, Phantasy Star 2 definitely earns its place on this list.
Okay, so putting Chrono Trigger on this list is kind of cheating, since the game has 15 different endings, but honestly, most of them were so good that if I had listed each of CT’s ending as its own spot, then this top 10 list would probably be comprised of this one game only.
But even if you were to only experience Chrono Trigger’s canonical ending (or one of the many variations of it,) CT still manages to do what most games’ endings, even modern games, completely fail at: it just simply manages to wrap everything up in a proper, satisfying manner, and it’s just plain hard to not feel good as the ending credits scroll by while one of the best songs on the game’s infamously great soundtrack plays. Chrono Trigger’s canon ending is a happy one (nevermind that its sequel Chrono Cross sort of makes a mess of the game’s continuity,) but as with any truly wonderful experience, it’s hard to not feel a little melancholic as you realize you’re at the end of one of the best adventures ever committed to a game console.
I loved the endings to both Portal and it’s sequel, and I had a really hard time picking between the two, but in the end, I decided to go with the second game’s more hilarious and surprising conclusion. Sure, Portal 1 spawned the once hilarious (but now very, very tired) “the cake is a lie” meme, but the conclusion to Portal 2’s final battle — which I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say that the achievement description that pops up after you complete it (“That just happened.”) is pretty apt — is hands down one of the most memorable moments in gaming history.
Shadow of the Colossus
Gamers have been rescuing damsels in distress ever since Mario scaled a building to rescue his girlfriend from Donkey Kong, and it’s been an accepted trope in movies and books for generations. Whether he’s willing to admit it or not, every guy out there wants to be a hero who chivalrously saves the day.
And when you start Shadow the Colossus, that’s what it seems like protagonist Wander is: a hero who’s trying to bring an innocent girl back to life. But as you slay the game’s 16 majestic colossi one by one, it becomes clear that Wander’s journey, despite whatever good intentions he originally may or may not have had, may not necessarily be in everyone’s best interest. It soon becomes clear that Wander’s devotion (obsession?) to saving this girl may just be putting the entire world at risk. Despite that, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit sorry for Wander as he meets his ignoble end before he can finally be reunited with the girl that he’s sacrificed so much for.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
I love pretty much every entry in Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia franchise (well, except for the PC/Dreamcast bomb Prince of Persia 3D, but I like to pretend that never happened,) but while the recent 360/PS3 reboot was great, my favorite game in the series will always be The Sands of Time. Everything about it, from the innovative time altering mechanics, to the cleverly designed platforming challenges, and the whimsical and charming cast of characters and story, make Sands of Time one of my favorite games from the last generation. Yes, I even manage to tolerate it’s repetitive (sometimes cheap) combat with a smile. But one of Sands of Time’s most memorable moments is when the Prince uses the time altering power of his dagger to… well, make it so that the rest of the game never happened.
The whole “it never actually happened” or “it was just a dream” trope has been done to death a million times in every form of storytelling media invented, including video games (see Super Mario Bros. 2 for an early example of that,) but Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was one of the few stories to get it right: When the Prince uses the full power of the titular Sands of Time to rewind time and undo the entirety of the events that transpired, it feels like a genuine extension of the game’s wibbley-wobbley timey-wimey time travel logic(Doctor Who fans know what I’m talking about.)
It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t played it, but Earthbound is a pretty special game. Sure, it’s simple combat system may not have any game changing gimmicks and the game may not push the Super NES hardware in the same ways that its RPG contemporaries Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI may have, but its still a classic that deserves to be ranked alongside those games. You see, what Earthbound lacks in technical achievement it more than makes up for with personality: absurdist humor may have found it’s niche nowadays with Adult Swim and Tim and Eric, but Earthbound’s bizarre, surreal world and dead-pan writing style still create situations that are still far funnier than most things you’d see on TV nowadays.
Earthbound wasn’t a game that was content to stick to genre conventions, and nothing illustrates this better than the game’s playable ending: while most RPG’s are content to end the game with a cinematic that tells you how you saved the world, Earthbound let you walk around the world that you just saved, complete with some new dialogue and scripted events to let you know how things had changed. I know a lot of players who simply didn’t want the game to end, and spent hours walking around in the world following the game’s final battle, eager to take in more of the unique setting and humor that made the game so lovable in the first place.
Silent Hill 2
Like Chrono Trigger, Silent Hill 2 has multiple endings, and all of them are pretty great in their own way, so again, putting Silent Hill 2 on this list is kind of cheating.
The interesting thing about Silent Hill 2’s endings (well, besides managing to achieve that perfect balance of creepy and poignant that Silent Hill so deftly creates at its best moments,) is that none of the game’s multiple endings have been singled out as “canon” by the game’s developers. Most of the endings are a good example of how to do an ambiguous, intentionally vague ending properly. Like so many things about Silent Hill, personal perspective and psychology seem to determine which ending people like most: some people prefer to see protagonist James Sunderland suffer for his surprising past, while others prefer to think that he redeemed himself in the end… and then there’s some people out there who think a very smart dog was behind it all. Regardless of which ending you think is Silent Hill 2’s “true” ending, there’s no denying that all of them are hauntingly beautiful and memorable in their own ways.
There were a lot of problems with Mass Effect 3’s ending. There was the complete and utter lack of choice. The final conversation with the Illusive Man could’ve been an amazing final confrontation, whether it was handled entirely verbally or via physical combat, but instead we got a rushed, short conversation that lacked a satisfying resolution. Then, there was of course, the magical, literal deus-ex-machina that popped up with little to no explanation. While people seem to have Mass Effect 3’s ending for a variety of reasons, I think that the general ideas behind it had some merit, but Bioware executed them all wrong.
For an example of how to do an open-world RPG ending properly, there’s no better example than the original Fallout. Depending on the choices you had made so far, your character could either resolve the game’s final battle with a conversation or with a protracted gun battle. Your enemy’s motives were clear, and regardless of what path you chose, the end result always felt like a natural conclusion to the narrative. Bioware has already stated that they plan to re-do, or at the very least, expand upon ME3’s ending, and if they want to use this second chance to do a proper ending, they might want to take a few pointers from the game that basically defined the modern PC RPG.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Metal Gear director Hideo Kojima kind of gets a bad rap these days, and he’s often criticized for filling his games with lots of unnecessary, often embarrassingly melodramatic exposition in place of actual gameplay. I don’t think that assessment is totally fair, and while I do think his games do get overly chatty, sometimes it’s worth it. The best example of this would definitely be the surprisingly moving conclusion to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
Snake Eater is widely regarded by hardcore MGS fans as the best game in the series, and it’s not just because the gameplay (which is great, mind you,) but because of it’s story. Where as MGS2 and 4 were well, to be honest, convoluted messes, MGS3: Snake Eater manages to deliver its message without seeming preachy or corny, and though it has cut-scenes that are just as long as any other game in the series, they’re well directed and well paced enough that it never gets tiresome. When Naked Snake ends his mission feeling bitter and used, players genuinely feel for him and understand his situation and motives. MGS3 delivered a complex, deep story without being so convoluted and bizarre that it needed an extra database to make sense, and its ending was definitely the best part of that story.
Wanna know a bleak story with determination and a sad ending? Lunar 2.