It’s the mid-80s. I’ve spent many a tense hour in front of my ZX Spectrum, repeatedly playing Stop the Express. Using all the skill and dexterity I can muster from my youthful fingers, I navigate my blonde, spiky-haired character across the top of a moving train, ducking under some overhead power lines and avoiding some oddly coiffeured red men. Then, I manage to get inside the train itself, where I jump up and grab hold of some ring things to avoid more red men and some odd bog-eyed creatures.
Suddenly, I’ve done it. I’ve made it to the end. I’m elated. I wonder, with fists clenched with excitement, what visual treat will I be given for completing it? Some words. Three of them, to be exact: “Congraturation! You Sucsess!” I sit for a moment, my mouth slack with shock and disappointment. Three words, and two of them weren’t even spelled correctly. Then the game starts again from the beginning, and I reach for the reset button.
This scenario played itself out repeatedly throughout the 80s: I fought through five levels of bare-knuckle violence in Renegade to watch my rock-hard avatar get a peck on the cheek from his pixelated girlfriend; I hacked off limbs and chopped off heads in Barbarian, and was rewarded with a static graphic of a woman in a bikini sitting at my muscle bound warrior’s feet. Thrilling.
Fast forward to 2008, and I’ve finally completed Bioshock (yes, I know it came out last year, but at least I got there in the end), and that same feeling of gloom I got from all those games back in the eighties comes welling up again – after several hours of play time, I’m confronted with a brief and largely forgettable cut-scene that features a lot of hand holding. From a game that revelled in stark, disturbing imagery, it was a terrible disappointment. Interestingly, even Bioshock’s creator Ken Levine agreed, even stating in a recent interview that his ending was something of an anticlimax.
It was sort of understandable, given the technical limitations of the time, that an 80s game like Stop the Express or Manic Miner couldn’t end with a dramatic or awe-inspiring FMV sequence, but these days there’s simply no excuse for a rushed – or practically non-existent, in the case of Half Life 2 – denouement. And yet it seems that genuinely satisfying or surprising game endings are the exception rather than the rule.
But perhaps there’s a reason for the ‘rubbish game ending’ phenomenon: it could be down to the sheer length of modern games. It’s fair to say that most people either get stuck or just get bored long before a game is completed, so maybe developers can’t be bothered to labour over a game’s ending as much as they do over its introduction and opening levels. What’s the point of spending months scripting, programming and scoring a beautiful conclusion that only a small percentage of your audience will ever see?
If this attitude really exists, it probably originated back in the days of the arcade machine. Programmers then were very careful, particularly in the shoot-em-up and beat-em-up genre, to make sure the opening levels to a game were as impressive as possible, because these would be the parts that players would see the most. The quality of the latter half of the game was secondary at best, which would explain why many games of this ilk, including Dragon Ninja, Double Dragon and Final Fight, all recycled their graphics repeatedly as you neared the end. The practice became so common that you could almost guarantee that the last level of any late 80s/early 90s coin-op would force you into a tedious rematch with all the end-of-level bosses you’d already beaten. Incredibly, this kind of enemy recycling still occurs today – Zelda: The Wind Waker is one recent offender, with four bosses to re-kill before you can finally face the chief villain.
While this ‘recycling’ approach may not seem related to a game’s ending, I feel it’s certainly indicative of some developers’ lazy attitude. Why try to think of an interesting sixth level when you can simply re-use some stuff you came up with for level two?
Of course, many would argue that gaming is about the journey rather than the destination, and that a satisfying conclusion to a tricky game is little more than icing on some sort of cake, but I’m sure most would agree that there’s little worse than fighting through a twenty hour story only to be presented with a ‘game over’ screen or, worse still, some rolling credits.
I’m the first to admit that I’m not brilliant at video games, and it’s certainly true that I’ve played many, many more than I’ve completed. So on those rare occasions, when the planets are all in alignment and I’ve actually managed to finish one, it’s inevitable that I’ll feel disappointed with the final result; I’m so elated that I’ve finally saved the universe/won World War II/killed the dragon that I almost expect a bouquet of flowers, a knighthood and a statue erected in my honour.
What do I get instead? Little more than a half-arsed ‘congraturations!’
Ryan writes his column every week at Den Of Geek. Read his last one here.