Why Video Games Have So Many Endings and So Few Conclusions
Big games need to get better at letting us say goodbye.
Mass Effect: Andromeda screenshot captured by author.
The following contains minor spoilers for Mass Effect: Andromeda and Gravity Rush 2.
You started this game 50 hours ago, or maybe more—60, 70… maybe 80, if you account for the fact that the Time "Played" stat doesn't take into account game overs. You've picked up dozens (hundreds?) of collectibles. You've defeated bosses, mid-bosses, minibosses, and optional bosses. Your quest log is empty—except for that one stupid-and-probably-bugged quest from that NPC who you decided probably got what was coming to him. You've seen the ending True ending (and the Bad ending, and if you're being fully honest with yourself, you sort of like the Bad ending more). There's nothing left to do—this game that has dominated your free time for the last few weeks is finally over.
Now what? How do we step away from games that take so much?
Over the past couple of months, I keep running into this question. Every few weeks we get a question in to Waypoint Radio from a player who can't quite leave the game worlds they love behind: Andy in Sweden felt heartbroken to leave behind his "virtual hunk of a husband, Iron Bull," while Mike in Glasgow noted that beating The Witcher 3's main quest made the world feel lifeless and empty, because all of the memorable characters of the game's story seemed to have vanished.
Reading these questions from our listeners resonated deeply with me. I mentioned feeling this way in the moments after Dragon Age: Origins years ago, and as I finished games throughout early 2017, I ended up finding that same feeling again and again. I was desperate for games to let me linger in their worlds after their most climactic moments.
Gravity Rush 2, an early favorite for me this year, has a massive, hours-long finale that takes the player to a whole new environment and changes the world's status quo in massive ways—and which ends on… if not a cliffhanger, well, something close to one. But like many other games, beating GR2 only left me with a save that brought me just before the final mission, allowing me to pursue incomplete side quests and challenges I'd left undone. And in GR2, the moments before the final mission are unsteady, even a little melancholy. If I wanted to visit the floating cities of Jirga Para Lhao and Hekseville, it meant stepping away from the game's bright conclusion.
Things weren't much better with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Yes, I love being able to explore the world, find more korok seeds, and complete the shrines I left behind... but where I really want to be is in the version of Hyrule that exists only in the game's "true" ending. I want the villagers to commend me for finishing the final quest and tell me how things have gone for them since then.
And then, at a panel I was on at Theorizing the Web 2017, critic Michael Thomsen really solidified this abstract feeling for me. "There's so much rhetoric about tutorials and about gaming people's brains through onboarding rituals," he said, "But there isn't any sort of obvious way in game design where video games kick players out, or begin a sort of deceleration of the brain, or begin a sort of preparatory ritual for returning you to life once you're done playing."
Other sorts of pursuits that fall out of the realm of mundane, daily activity often offer this to us, says Thomsen. Thomsen describes the little lobby and balcony spaces of Turkish baths, where clients decompress before leaving. In BDSM, he notes, there's aftercare, a variety of practices that offer comfort, attention, and security after intense sessions of play. But there is no aftercare in gaming.
Thomsen's specific argument is less about what happens after you beat a full game, and more about how you end a particular session, which is a totally legit pursuit in its own right (Imagine if Breath of the Wild had a special set of "wind down" shrines that you could access by telling it that you wanted to end your session for the night.) But for me, I'd love to see some sort of interactive period of decompression offered in large, sprawling epics that release so often these years.
Ironically, my biggest disappointment of the year— Mass Effect: Andromeda—is also the one to do this best. Instead of just dropping you back before the big final mission, it eases you into a world you've changed dramatically. You meet some other scientists and explorers who discuss what the game's closing events mean. You catch up with your crew and some of the game's major NPCs, exchanging words of camaraderie and respect.
Then, when you do go back into the open world to do some lingering side quests, everything takes on a different tone. One small scene included a shot of some space colonists playing a game of soccer. If I'd done that quest before the end of the game, it would've rung hollow: Hey, soccer is cool, but you know what's cooler? Not being incinerated by a genocidal alien theocracy. But in this post-game, that soccer game became an illustration of what I'd earned in the final mission.
Don't get me wrong—I kind of hate Andromeda's ending (for all the same reasons that I didn't enjoy the rest of the game). But I still managed to leave feeling a certain, base-level sense of satisfaction. However disappointing Andromeda was, my final memories aren't of an endless list of bland "tasks" I decided not to complete. They're of that soccer game.
So hey, game makers. Instead of simply showing me a brief glimpse of the world after my hero has saved it, let me wander through it—or even just a part of it! Let me meet the old fish seller again, or check in on that bickering couple. Let me call up an old friend and get a drink, or catch up with that party member I lost at the end of Act 2. You're so, so, so good at climaxes, video games. But I'd love to see a little more denouement.