Endings are tricky. A good ending can resonate with you long after you’ve finished an experience and live on in your conversations and memories. However, an unsatisfying one can cast a cloud over an otherwise solid story. So much can hinge on a finale that writers often struggle to bring everything together to leave a strong statement. Writers across all media can relate to the dilemma, but video games present a unique challenge.

[This feature originally appeared in Game Informer issue #249]

Decades ago, many cared only about one thing: playing the game. Games like Super Mario Bros. started with just pure gameplay, throwing you into the game without any story beats. Only later did you realize you were rescuing a princess. It was about the fun and the challenge of platforming, not what the ending would reveal.

As the nascent industry grew, games started venturing further into narrative with character development, overarching themes, and full story arcs, making endings a bigger deal. It makes sense; an ending is the last thing the player is left with, a culmination of everything achieved in a game, and where the story reaches its shocking reveals and resolutions.

Developers are getting even craftier and experimenting with new techniques, which has led to the explosion of creative approaches we’ve seen over the past year. Are you still trying to figure out what Ellie’s last statement meant in The Last of Us? Have you pieced together everything in BioShock Infinite? Are you still haunted by that final scene in The Walking Dead? Maybe you’re still echoing your disappointment with Mass Effect 3’s ending on forums. The point is, gamers are talking about endings more than ever. They clearly have power, whether it’s to evoke emotion or sour an entire experience. So, just how difficult is it to deliver a satisfying end for a video game? 

A lot harder than you think.

Note: We were careful about spoilers, but details about different game endings are brought up in this article. Discussed games include The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Gone Home, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Braid

The Difference With Games

Unfortunately, developers can’t just devote all their time to story. While other forms of media are passive experiences, developers must always consider what a player is doing. Cutscenes can’t go too long, and interactivity needs to be the driving force whenever possible, even during the ending. Ken Levine and Irrational Games had to overcome this challenge when executing BioShock Infinite’s final moments where Elizabeth enlightens Booker.

“You have a very narrow gauge of storytelling compared to a book or movie, because long scenes with people talking to each other are really tricky,” says Irrational Games co-founder and creative director Ken Levine. “The whole ending we could have had as a cutscene with people talking to each other. Elizabeth could have explained everything, like her and the tears and the lighthouses, but we had to make that whole sequence interactive. That was really tricky because it wasn’t just complicated from a development standpoint, but it was also conceptually a complicated notion.” 

The Last Of Us’ Infamous Last Word

Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann didn’t always plan for the game to end on the word, “Okay.” Ashley Johnston, Ellie’s voice actress, would often inject the word unscripted into Ellie’s interactions, which got Druckmann thinking about how it would make an impact for the finale. “I thought it would be interesting to take that simple word, but the way she would play it would have such a different subtext, and people could interpret it in different ways, even though in our discussions she played it in a very specific way,” Druckmann says. “In the whole game we tried doing this, having dialogue that doesn’t tell you much about how the characters feel, but it’s more about how you’re going to read them and their expressions and delivery about how they truly felt about something.”

The ending Levine tackled dealt with quantum mechanics and string theory, so the interactivity of walking you through the concepts as Booker was essential in making players grasp these challenging notions. Levine’s team presented the many-worlds theory without a hitch by showing all the different interpretations of the lighthouse and the world surrounding it. The “constants and variables” not only tie the story together for Infinite, but deftly ties Infinite to the original BioShock’s world of Rapture.

To make sure these interactive tales work, though, writers must be in constant contact with level designers. Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druck mann found out just how much of an asset this could be when working on the final moments of The Last of Us. Remember that hospital scene where you’re carrying Ellie that harkens back to the game’s opening? Originally, that was one big cutscene from the moment you entered the hospital. “There was one designer, Peter Fields, who kept arguing that that sequence should be playable, and he was right,” Druckmann says. “Even though that scene was already being animated, we threw it away and reworked that sequence to make it playable.” 

The studio’s stressing of interactivity also helped establish another key moment to the The Last of Us’ ending. Did you resonate more with Ellie’s point of view than Joel’s as you entered their final conversation of the game? It was deliberate. Druckmann shed some light on it, saying, “I don’t think the ending conversation with Joel and Ellie would work outside of a cinematic for us, but the whole walk-up to that point, you’re playing as Ellie, now emphasizing as Ellie, and you’re viewing Joel now from the outside,” he says. “We’re using interactivity to give you a certain perspective. I think a lot of players enter that scene with the viewpoint of Ellie, kind of looking at Joel [saying], ‘What have you done?’”

One of the more successful interactive experiences achieved in an ending recently was Starbreeze Studios’ Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Director Josef Fares made it a point to put interaction front and center and thinks it helped make his ending mean more to players. “If the ending of Brothers happened in a cutscene, people wouldn’t react at all,” Fares says. Fares twisted the way players experienced an ending by making the controls play into a young boy dealing with loss, but not everybody was instantly onboard. “From a technical perspective, people were like, ‘Can’t we do this as a cutscene?’” he says. “But for me, no. The interactivity is extremely important for making the player feel something emotional and strong.”

Up next: Getting a glimpse behind the scenes...