The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time was the first video game that I completed, and to a kid my age, I felt pretty smug. I had conquered all nine dungeons, faced (what I thought at the time were) hard bosses and in the end brought to king of evil to his knees. I was so proud, in fact, that I left this screen on the TV for the rest of the day, unwilling to let my achievement fade into staticky oblivion.
I have beaten Ocarina more times than I can count, but I never really got that sense of sheer wonder again. Perhaps it was just that I realized how easy that game actually is, but I think it came more for an appreciation that the game was meant to be beaten. Effectively, all games are made to be beaten, but even though my jaded eyes don’t get excited as easily as they once did, some games still do it for me.
What I’m talking about is game endings, something I feel a lot of games perform poorly in. Even my beloved Ocarina, in a larger scope, fails to stand up against many other works. One example of a fantastic ending would be Brandon Sanderson’s most recent novel, Steelheart (read it). Since it’s so recent, I’ll refrain from spoilers.
I want to ask what exactly makes an ending satisfying. The obvious answer is that it resolves the plot, which is true, but the oft-mentioned deus ex machina also resolves the plot, so there has to be more.
Brandon Sanderson formulates one metric in his First Law of Magic. If you like sci-fi more than fantasy, just replace “magic” with “tech” and everything still works. The law states that the more the audience understands the magic, the better able the author can use it to resolve the plot. However, understanding magic comes at the cost of the sense of wonder, so there’s always a trade-off. Games run into this problem less because the designer has to let the player know what they can and can’t do, but we need to keep in mind not to just pull a new trick out of nowhere to defeat the final boss.
There is one main exception to the last statement, though it hinges on the word “nowhere.” New tricks are fine as long as they are FORESHADOWED. Take Star Wars Episode 4. Luke had never done anything like turning a torpedo midflight with the force, but it didn’t take any of us by surprise because George Lucas had built up to it through the whole film. However, some endings can take this to the next level with a touch of subtlety. The most powerful endings I’ve experienced have foreshadowing everywhere, but hidden with a cover of normalcy. Then, when it hits the finale, it comes as a surprise, but you can’t help thinking “how could it have been any other way?”
My top example of this is Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic when Bastila reveals her little secret. In the sake of not spoiling too much, I won’t give it here, but boy, that is how it should be done.
Finally, the ending needs to be the culmination of the tension. It needs to be that moment where everything is on the line, and this doesn’t just have to be the character’s lives in an epic battle. We only need some source of exploding emotion that gets us to suspend disbelief that it’ll have a happy ending.
So for a preliminary analysis, I’d say the main things to make an ending satisfy are that it must resolve the plot, be consistent, foreshadowed, and explosive.
Another fantastic example is the final confrontation of Portal 2 (to do my analysis justice, SPOILERS will abound. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THIS GAME)
The confrontation (I don’t really want to call it a battle) starts of slow, but you always have that timer on the wall counting down until Aperture self-destructs. Wheatley may be an idiot, but he’s not the direct source of tension here. Throughout the whole game your goal has been to escape, and now you’re about to fry in the atomic fireball that little idiot…
Emotional tension, check
Portal does very well in the next department of using techniques your familiar with as your goal is to get GLaDOS back in her body. You did it last time by getting the machine to recognize a corrupted core and an alternate core, so it makes total sense for you to try to corrupt Wheatley to make the transfer go through.
The foreshadowing was beautiful in its subtlety. One offhand comment about using moon rocks to make conversion gel, and the moment the moon shows its face you know what to do.
Resolution: as you fly out the portal to the moon holding onto Wheatley, it seems that all hope is lost, but then GLaDOS saves you. GLaDOS of all people! The same AI that said “You will be baked, and then there will be cake.” The resolution is two part, the first that GLaDOS gets in touch with her humanity (resolution of character arc) and Chell escapes (resolution of goal).
Ocarina of Time I feel had a solid ending, though it could’ve been better. Really the only surprise in the Ganondorf fight is his trying to kill you after you’ve already beaten him once, but there isn’t much foreshadowing save Sheik being Zelda (and that’s strained at best). Really, the fight is about what you’d expect it to be, and though it works it weakens it.
So there you have it. If any of you guys know of a game that simply took your breath away, post about it in the comments, though try to refrain from spoilers.