Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Bad Endings and How to Avoid Them

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mass Effect 3 lately, for three reasons: I’m a huge giant Mass Effect nerd, it’s just come out, and most of all, I just spent the past three-four months doing QA for the bloody thing! When one’s job involves playing through the game multiple times (I lost count at ten), one has lots of opportunity to consider where a game goes beautifully, amazingly right and where it drops the ball just before the goal line. Thus I was able to come to a difficult but inescapable conclusion.

I don’t like the ending(s) of Mass Effect 3.

I won’t spoil it for those that may still be playing, and I won’t say that it’s entirely without merit, but I will say that it doesn’t really live up to the level of narrative excellence in the rest of the series, or even the rest of the game. It comes a bit out of nowhere, drops a bunch of mysterious information on your lap without proper explanation, and changes the entire nature of the world and the conflict without a proper followup. There are also a few logistic issues such as where certain characters are, how they ended up there, etc. The result is that large sections of the fandom – a dedicated bunch if ever we saw one – are up in arms and on the warpath over the conclusion to the tale.

Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect 3 is still a glorious game with a fantastic story and great gameplay; even after playing it solidly for three months, I still went out and bought it, day one. But it’s fascinating how a mere five minute sequence can retroactively frustrate and even cheapen the experience leading up to it, just on the merits of being at the end. It’s driven home the importance of a good ending, whether it be to a long running AAA video game series or an epic Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and how we can ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of a lackluster ending.

 The Anti-Climax

There’s something about a bad ending to a good story that is immensely frustrating. It feels like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Hooray, everything is fantastic, the story is going well, we’re heading towards the most epic of all epic endings, and… wait, what?

It can often be depressingly easy to fall into a bad ending, even at the end of a great story. One of the most common ways to do it is to suddenly drop confusing plot twists at the last minute in an effort to give depth or mystery; while this can work, it has to be handled well or the player is left with a large helping of WTF JUST HAPPENED at the end. Another is by having an unsatisfactory emotional climax to the conflict. In many cases, this climax can be served by shooting Bad Guy McGee in the face many times with a gun, but really, it needs some sort of sense that the protagonist has satisfied themselves in terms of the conflict; making vague handwavy gestures in that direction can often feel like a letdown. Most of all, however, a story can just fail to live up to itself. If a narrative has been promising THE MOST EPIC OF EPIC endings and goes too far, it can often mean that whatever the writer or designer (or GM!) comes up with, it just doesn’t live up to the hype. Result: a cap to an otherwise sublime experience that leaves the player, reader or viewer quivering with frustrated hopes and might-have-beens.

Some of these endings have become legendary, spawning memes or private jokes. For example, the ending to Assassin’s Creed II, an otherwise solid and engaging tale of revenge, free will, and life in the Italian Renaissance, became such a headscratcher of an anti-climax that you usually only have to say SUDDENLY ALIENS to a fan (or, at least, THIS fan) to produce either hysterical laughter or frothing fangirl rage. Again, a great leadup to a frustrating and lackluster 5 minutes that make you wonder, “Wait, what was the point of all that?”

Don’t think this is only a video game problem either; there are plenty of TV shows and anime series that fall into the same trap, which can feel even worse as you’ve invested a year or more’s worth of your time and energy into the story only to be defeated at the last minute. The first Full Metal Alchemist was chugging along at a very brisk and respectable pace, crafting an excellent story with a well-thought out world… and then suddenly the last episode or two introduced all sorts of gate-related shenanigans, a bizarre real world crossover, and more WTF than you could shake a stick at.  I was also let down by the Dukat plot in Deep Space 9; 7 seasons worth of plotting, conflict and character development, and we get a mustache-twirl and a shoving match? DUKAT, I AM DISAPPOINT.

Of course, to be fair, for every letdown ending, there are those that more than live up to their legacy and deliver a satisfying ending that actually raises the bar of the entire story up until that point. Games like Portal 2 (sublime as always) and Mass Effect 2 (which, despite some fan dissent over the larger narrative, has a really heart-pumping and satisfying ending) and both the anime and manga for Death Note provide a great period (or exclamation point) to their stories that match their mood, intensity and narrative flow.

 The End of the Campaign

If you’re a regular reader of Geek’s Dream Girl, chances are that you may be a pen-and-paper GM or possibly even a writer or video game designer. And chances are that, if you are one of these, you may find yourself wanting to find the right ending to your epic tales and campaigns. How can you avoid the pitfalls of these other works and their bad endings? Here are a few tips and tricks that I think would have helped them and may help you:

  • Foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow. Note that this doesn’t mean you have to beat things into players’ heads or be screamingly unsubtle about it, but if you are going to introduce some sort of plot twist or new faction or aliens or whatever, please don’t drop it out of the sky without any setup. Drop tiny hints, or allow thorough players to stumble upon something that will suddenly make sense when the ending twist is revealed. There’s a sort of satisfaction when players can look back at a campaign or story and say, “Oh yeah, now I know what that inscription was all about…”
  • Consider the expectations of your player and plan accordingly. This doesn’t mean that you have to follow them entirely – just because your players want a happily-ever-after where they kill the bad guy and ride off into the sunset, doesn’t mean you have to give them that! – but it’s important to pick up on which narrative beats they want closure to. In other words, if they are all itching for a final showdown with Angsty McDarkDark the Dorky Vampire, don’t just throw him away in five minutes in favor of his secret master, Lord  Sudden O’WheredHeComeFrom. At least give your players’ rival a decent send-off, even if it’s not quite what the players envisioned.
  • Consider the ending ahead of time and try to keep your scale in mind when planning. It’s way too easy to get caught up in crafting an epic plot to beat all epic plots then realize that there’s no way you can come up with an ending to match that.
  • Deux ex machinas SUCK. For those that may not be aware of exactly what a deus ex machina is, it means “ghost in the machine” and refers to a trope in bad Greek tragedy where, at the last minute, some stage machine would make a god appear who would wave his hands and solve all the problems, or at least bring closure to the plot. If your ending revolves heavily around some random NPC appearing and delivering exposition, explaining plot points, forcing certain decisions, granting certain powers, or doing the narrative equivalent of waving a magic wand, please reconsider your approach. An effective ending will have the players be the active agent for change, not a creepy little glowy kid suddenly spouting about how this is all part of the larger plan and hey, here’s this nifty thing you can do to save the universe, no need to thank him.
  • The climax of a campaign, indeed of any story, should be the emotional high point. If nothing else, keep this in mind. Whether it’s through an intense action sequence or the culmination of a long personal journey filled with relationships and character development, the player should CARE, or be made to care. 

What are some of your least favorite endings to your favorite stories? How do you craft your stories in your writing, GMing and game designing?

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