Skip To The End

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Spoiler warning.

Endings are hard to get right. Bringing a story to a suitable  conclusion requires such a deep understanding of everything that’s come before, as well as the skill to tie it all together into a satisfying climax. With gaming, as in film, good endings often come down to keen pacing – no one likes a game that outstays its welcome, or indeed, drags for interminable periods of drudgery. Guinness World Records, venerable chroniclers of the impressive that they are, have seen fit to rank the top best videogame endings, despite that being something in no way quantifiable. To be fair, the list was the result of a poll carried out among gamers, so I suppose it has some kind of public seal of approval on it. Unfortunately, most people are idiots and the list is marked by some staggeringly bizarre inclusions:

  • 10. Heavy Rain
  • 9. Final Fantasy VII
  • 8. Metal Gear Solid 4
  • 7. Portal
  • 6. Red Dead Redemption
  • 5. God of War
  • 4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  • 3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  • 2. Halo: Reach
  • 1. Call of Duty: Black Ops

The fact that Heavy Rain is in this list at all is an absolute travesty. No offence to David Cage (though I’m sure if he ever read this he would take some), but the ending of his murky, rain-soaked sleuth ‘em up pulled a bit of a cheap trick, and having the killer in Heavy Rain turn out to be one of the four playable characters just doesn’t make any sense.  Bear in mind that the guy who ends up being the killer is a private eye hired to catch the Origami Killer, so he’s basically trying to catch himself. But instead of sitting around on his ass and chalking that one up as a freebie, he goes off and develops a relationship with the grieving mother who hired him. Maybe it’s kind of clever in a totally theoretical postmodern way, but it’s also another example of a game’s story and the player’s objectives tugging in opposite directions, diffusing any narrative power the game could hope to have. Roger Ebert, who is basically the equivalent of a war criminal in gaming culture, often says that twist endings only work if the writers play fair with us; audiences will resent you for yanking their chains. And while misleading your audience about the intentions or objectivity of your protagonist works great in an Agatha Christie novel, it doesn’t really fly in a game where you actually are that dude. Every decision had dramatic ramifications for the outcome of Heavy Rain’s story, but Cage et al. missed a trick by having the same twist no matter how you played through. If somehow the identity of the killer changed depending on the choices you made throughout the narrative, then that would have been brilliant. I’m not sure how that would work in terms of game design, but that’s why I’m not a game developer.

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Also in the top ten we have Halo: Reach, which makes sense to me because the moment the game ended was my favourite bit as well, and Metal Gear Solid 4, which makes less sense to me because an eight-hour cutscene filled with incessant verbal vomit doesn’t really strike me as a strong narrative climax. I assume that by God of War the list means the first entry in the series, because the second and third games didn’t really end so much as reach a point where Kratos had to stop murdering because there was no one in the entire Greek mythological canon left to kill. Taking the top spot was Call of Duty: Black Ops, a predictably populist choice, and though maybe not worthy of the hefty best ending ever accolade, it’s still got quite a gripping conclusion. Ok, the secret underwater base level was a little bit over the top, but at the heart of the ending was Viktor Reznov, a man who had taken vengeance on his enemies from beyond the grave. Treyarch cunningly took the whole concept of the NPC and flipped it on its head – what if the character that supported you throughout the whole game wasn’t even there, and was instead a figment of your imagination, a phantom that infiltrated your mind through a mindbending cocktail of mental conditioning. This is signed off nicely in the game’s Manchurian Candidate flavoured coda, with the implication that your character was successfully brainwashed into assassinating JFK. It’s a dark, sombre conclusion that perfectly rounds off a violent, disturbing game.

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It’s usually a good idea for a game to let you blow something the hell up at the end, because that at least gives the finale a sense of catharsis and climax (God, I wish I didn’t have to use the word climax so much in an article). This is why Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s ending is still one of the best endings in a game ever. At the crucial moment when your team has fallen and all hope is lost, Price slides you a gun across the tarmac, you take aim at the villain, and with a satisfying pull of the left-trigger button you save the world and beat the game. I always think it’s better if games end with some kind of crescendo; the interactive element means that games can’t really go for more downbeat, contemplative conclusions.

As with pretty much everything else in the game, Half Life 2’s ending is the rare exception to the rule. After a dizzyingly intense physics fracas at the top of the Combine Citadel, you blow the reactor and….everything stops. Your companion, Alyx Vance, stands frozen beside you, her arms raised to shield her eyes from the explosion. Inexplicably, the G-Man appears out of a door in the fabric of existence, and calls time on the game. Time? Dr. Freeman? Is it really that time again? The sinister, ambiguous monologue that follows will linger hauntingly in your head as the screen fades to black and the credits roll. It’s one of the boldest finales to a game I can think of.

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Apart from those, it’s actually kind of difficult to think of games that have truly great endings. I’d say that Mass Effect 2 had a great finale, but then that would be singling out one moment of brilliance in what is essentially an interactive cavalcade of joy. Besides, the story’s not over yet. Bioshock’s ending is perhaps one of the finest endings of any story in any medium, but to explain why would require words more eloquent than mine. It’s quite hard to come up with videogames that end in a thrilling and emotionally satisfying way. That’s the thing about endings, though. Endings are hard to get right.

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