15 great videogame endings: but are they worth the effort?

Very few videogames have great endings. We look at some of the best, and wonder if developers are wasting their time with them...

SPOILER ALERT: There’s no way around this. We talk about videogame endings in this feature. In particular: Halo 2, Mass Effect 3, Borderlands and, er, 1942. Also, the top 15 countdown below inevitably spoils the ending to each of the games mentioned.

They say it’s not the goal that’s important, but the journey to get there. This can be applied to many things, from life to sport, and also to gaming. In fact, there are few examples quite as fitting as gaming when it comes to this saying, as the journey is what the game is all about, with the ending a mere reward for all of that gaming you’ve indulged in. If the journey to get to the end isn’t enjoyable, you’re likely never going to get to see the final moments anyway.

This begs the question, is there really any point to big, grandiose game endings, and should developers put so much effort into an ending, or spend the time on the game itself instead? And, for games that have already been released, what are some of the best endings so far?

Congratulations!

Back in the early days of gaming, when technology was limited, development teams were small, and budgets even smaller, the sight of a proper game ending was as rare as the proverbial rocking horse pats. Most games wouldn’t even attempt a real ending, instead simply congratulating the player with a simple text screen (or conglaturationing, as an example of the many typos that plagued games back then).

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All of that effort – and it was effort, as older games are often far more difficult than modern releases – didn’t yield a spectacular end sequence, well-scripted cut-scene, or even catchy music on the credits. All you got was a “well done, why not play again?”. After shooting through 1942 for ages, you didn’t even get that. You just got a ‘game over’.

Some games even played nasty tricks on players that got to the supposed end screen. Super Mario Bros. famously trolled players, telling them the princess was in another castle over and over after each world, but the ultimate dig has to be the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins. On completion of this infamously tough game, you’re told that the whole thing was an illusion, and you have to replay the entire game again to get to the actual final battle, and in turn, the ending. Even then, all you get is a text screen congratulating you (again, spelled incorrectly). Great.

Does this make the game bad, though? No, of course not. Although a frustration-fest, Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a great game. Challenging and bordering on insanity-inducing, yes, but good nonetheless. This is a game where the journey itself, and pure achievement is the reward. This formula was the same for most games of the time, and would be for a long time.

The thing is, no one really cared back then. People played these games, both easy and hard, and the fact that the only reward was a text screen wasn’t an issue. Why? Because it was all about the games, and the challenge. Just playing through each game, advancing further and further was the point, not the end. In fact, getting to the end was bitter-sweet, as it meant the game was over. It’s only when we look back at older games now that we really consider the lack of endings to be a problem.

Happy endings

Eventually, as technology advanced and developers became more and more ambitious, games began to embrace actual storyline more and more. Instead of games simply telling you to go from stage to stage shooting everything, or jumping on the heads of enemies for no real reason, you now had an actual plot. With this came the inevitable ending, and a wrap up of the story.

These early endings weren’t amazing, and were often little more than screens of text with some pretty pictures, but they offered some actual closure, and gamers started to see them as a reward. Time moved on, and so did the technology; Eventually, games began to demonstrate bigger and better endings, with some being definite highlights, worth the slog to get there. Still, at all times, it was the journey that was important.

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These days, that same journey is still just as essential, as games are still just that. Games. We play games to be challenged, and to earn rewards. We’re now able to count all sorts of impressive endings as one of these rewards, and a few games have managed to end their stories almost as well as they told them.

This isn’t the case for every game, though. Even with all of the technology and power present in the latest PCs and games consoles, endings often fall flat, and earn nothing but criticism. Disappointment is rife here, and even games that focus heavily on story and characters can suffer. The most famous recent example is, of course, BioWare’s Mass Effect. The ending of Mass Effect 3, which tied up the entire trilogy and represented many hours of a gamer’s effort, was considered by many to be woeful at best. We wrote about it in detail here.

In short though, the culmination of the hours upon hours of adventuring and shooting led to a literal colour-coded ending choice, with each of these being fairly similar. Prior to the patch that added additional content to the ending, there were also many plot holes, and the whole thing was a major disappointment. All that time and money spent on the ending simply resulted in BioWare being assaulted by fans, and even more money being spent to try and appease the haters. Was it worth it?

Other endings don’t just fall flat due to a poorly told conclusion, but instead suffer from sequelitis. Halo 2‘s ‘finish the fight’ ending is a brilliant example. Bungie had intended a real cliffhanger to make fans drool in anticipation of the next big instalment of the series, and instead it got a major backlash of fans, who simply felt robbed. I for one, was one of those fans, and felt the ending was handled terribly, finishing the game far too suddenly. When the credits rolled I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Wtf?!” (although, not in abbreviated form).

The ending to Gearbox’s first Borderlands was similarly ill-received. After hours and hours of shooting, grinding, and looting, with the promise of finding a vault full of riches and amazing secrets, what did we get? A bloody big Cthulu-like monster, that’s what. Once this was killed, what was in the vault? Nothing. Nothing at all. A bit of a let down, and then some.

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It’s in the game

The simple fact is that, individual opinions aside, any ending is likely going to disappoint, even good ones, as you’re more often than not taken out of the action. After all that fighting, exploring, puzzle solving, and anything else you’ve been tasked with, the ending pushes you to the side and reveals what it has to offer. As you’re no longer involved, it can be very jarring, especially if the ending features an enemy being defeated by the protagonist, or some sort of action sequence, which would have been fun to actually play.

Additionally, unlike a movie, which is a totally passive experience where you’re told a story, in games you actively participate in the story, telling it yourself in many ways, especially in titles like Skyrim, Mass Effect and other open RPGs. So, when a pre-written ending is imposed upon you, it’s easy to feel a little disappointed if the ending didn’t go how you expected, or wanted it to. It was your adventure, after all. Some endings can fly right in the face of how you’ve played the game too, including the aforementioned Mass Effect. Your character can do something that you would never have done, and go totally against the character you’ve built up.

This doesn’t mean there can’t be a good game ending, though, and there are some great examples of endings that make the journey worthwhile. Sometimes even a bad game can almost, at least partly, make up the unpleasantness of its content with a good ending.

Here’s a quick run-down of some of our favourite game endings, ones that were undoubtedly well worth the effort, and make for a great reward for the player.

15. Assassin’s Creed II

Assassin’s Creed II was a massive improvement over the original game, practically a whole new title in some aspects, but it continued the same story arc the first started, with an ending that was as creepy as it was brilliant.

When Ezio finally finds the vault, he discovers a place not entirely fitting with his time period. However, it’s Minerva’s turn towards the screen, announcing she’s talking to you, not Ezio, that sends shivers down many people’s spines. In fact, she actually means Desmond, not the player, but for a second, it’s almost as if the game smashes the fourth wall.

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We also learn of the greater plot, about the first civilisation, and the greater threat that’s to come. Back on release, it gave the Creed series a far more interesting story undercurrent that would continue through to Desmond’s last outing in Assassin’s Creed III.

14. Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X is considered by some to be the last ‘good’ Final Fantasy game in the main series, and although that’s all down to personal preference, one thing that’s a certainty is the effectiveness of emotional sucker punch the game delivers as it’s ending.

Much of the game’s story revolves around the main characters of Tidus and Yuna, and their romantic relationship. What starts as a mere friendship turns, over the course of the game, into a bonafide romance, one that’s handled quite well too. However, when the ending reveals that Tidus is not actually real, but a summoning of Spira’s Fayth, it’s more than a little heart wrenching, as the two are forced to say goodbye.

13. Final Fantasy VII

It’s another Final Fantasy, this time the entry that’s by far the most popular in the series. Final Fantasy VII‘s ending is as crazy as the story, seeing everything Cloud and Co. go through being pretty much pointless, as the planet ups and rescues itself in the end anyway. Meteor is stopped by the power of the Lifestream, and everyone lives happily ever after. And we see Aerith one last time.

The major part of the ending that gets its place here, though, aside from Aerith’s appearance, is the epic fight between Cloud and Sephiroth. The actual final battle is great, and difficult, but once defeated in this form, you get to take on Sephiroth one-on-one in a higher resolution battle that culminates in Cloud hitting his Omnislash special to finish off his effeminate foe. Great stuff.

12. Killer 7

The ending of Killer7, a game I make absolutely no excuses for evangelising about, is just as, if not more bizarre than the rest of the game’s story. It’s certainly just as hard to accurately explain, but it’s also told in such a brilliant way, with such a large scope for interpretation, seeing the player assume the role of Garcian Smith on a fateful assassination he executed in the past.

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We discover that the Killer7’s personalities are, in fact, all assassination victims of Garcian, whom he killed in this one night. Garcian’s real name is Emir Parkreiner, a three-eyed killer. We then go on to decide the fate of the US and Japan, with Garian’s actions having global repercussions.

Now, that’s just one possible meaning behind the ending (and only a partial one at that). In actual fact, the story and ending behind the game is so complex and filled with possibilities that a separate book called Hand in Killer7 was released by Capcom that further delves into the story and characters of the game. This book changes the possible ending and it’s meanings, and even with this official information, people are still debating the true meaning of the game’s ending. Now, there aren’t many game endings that have that much impact.

11. Silent Hill 2

Considered by a good deal of survival horror fans to be one of the very best in the genre, Silent Hill 2 is arguably the best of the Konami series, and tells a very dark, grim story that’s relayed via the nightmarish setting of the American town no one would ever want to live in.

Silent Hill 2 doesn’t have a good ending, it has several, and they run the gamut of serious, weird and downright crazy. Depending on your actions during the game, you’d get one of many endings. Perhaps the most common first play ending is ‘In Water.’ This sees protagonist, James, commit suicide, whilst ‘Leave’ allows James to have one last moment with his wife. In ‘Rebirth’ James attempts to resurrect Mary, and ‘Maria’ shows that Mary hasn’t forgiven James for her death.

Others are, how shall we say, not all that plausible. ‘UFO,’ like in the first game, see James abducted by aliens, along with the first game’s hero, Harry Mason, but the best has to be ‘Dog’. In this bizarre, fourth wall-breaking ending, James discovers that a dog was behind the entire game, directing everything from a control room. Erm, ok.

Regardless of the ending you get (well, maybe not the last two), each has it’s own unique spin on the game’s story, a story which is left quite open to interpretation, and as such, is perfect for a multiple ending system. It rounds off an excellent game.

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10. Shadow Of The Colossus

With an entire game that’s a constantly emotional journey, Shadow Of The Colossus has an ending that is just as emotional as the events that lead to it. Although you play through the game initially thinking you’re the hero, fighting to save your love, you eventually find out that those, almost cute, giants you’ve been stabbing in the face are not actually evil. Instead, they’re holding portions of an evil demon’s soul, the same demon that’s fooled you into slaying them.

As you kill these giant creatures, the protagonist, Wander, gradually transforms into a pale, horned being, and after the emotional gut punch of the Neverending Story-style apparent death of your horse, you slay the last colossus and return to the shrine, only to be faced by Lorn Emon. It’s revealed that the evil force has possessed you, and Emon casts you out, leaving in your place a baby boy, who sports horns from his head. The girl, Mono, is also saved, and your horse limps back to the shrine.

It’s a brilliant, and touching ending, and one that’s also open to interpretation. What makes the ending even more noteworthy, it the possible connection to one of the all-time PlayStation greats , Ico, which this game is a spiritual successor/prequel to.

The horned boy is though by many to be Ico, and the shadow figures that appear in the game are thought to be the same that attack him in his game. This connection has never been officially confirmed (although the developer has said the two games are connected), and so it leaves fans to ponder.

9. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

It’s widely known that the storyline for Hideo Kojima’s flagship series is, to put it bluntly, a little complex and wacky, but that doesn’t stop the series from producing some great moments, and the ending of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a perfect example.

The last fight with Snake’s mentor, The Boss, is a fittingly solemn and tragic scene, as we find out too late that The Boss was never a defector, and never betrayed her country. The theme of love between to two, akin to mother and son, is prevalent, and as Snake accepts his commendation and codename of Big Boss, with the series stirring music in the background, it’s a series highlight. His salute to the unmarked grave of The Boss is another great moment.

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Metal Gear‘s storyline is often too much on the side of bizarre and melodramatic to be taken seriously or have an emotional impact, but Snake Eater’s ending is an exception, and is a clear stand out moment in the series, and one of the best endings ever.

8. Journey

The journey may be important in, erm… Journey, but the highly emotional and stirring ending of this masterpiece is simply stunning. After all that running, jumping and gliding, the masked protagonist finds themselves stuck in a terrible blizzard. Overcome, they collapse, and are seemingly resurrected by a group of god-like masked beings. The protagonist awakes in a heavenly world, filled with light, waterfalls and dragons. A final journey is made to the summit of the mountain, where the protagonist becomes pure light before landing and walking through the crevice at the mountain’s summit, as the screen eventually fades to white. The credits then show a star returning through the areas the player has travelled through, ending right back at the beginning of the game, where you can do it all over again.

Was the protagonist saved at the end so they could complete the journey, or did they die, and the end of the game is their spirit heading upward to some form of afterife? Is the whole game a simple take on life itself, that life is nothing but a journey we all take, with uphill struggles to climb to the end? It’s really up to you, and you take from the game’s ending what you will. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a fantastic ending as good as the journey that precedes it.

7. The Last Of Us

Much has been made of the ending to Naughty Dog’s incredible title, The Last Of Us. Some found the ending to be a let down, and ill-fitting, whilst others can only applaud the developers for such a brilliant climax to the struggle of Joel and Ellie.

I’d have to say that I belong to the latter of the two groups. Although I understand that many have trouble believing that Joel, the hero, would commit such acts, including the gunning down of unarmed doctors in cold blood, I see it as an inevitable event.

The whole game is about the pair’s struggle to survive against overwhelming odds in a horrible world. As they progress, they’re forced to do increasingly questionable things to survive, and even Ellie, a young teenage girl, is forced to resort to violence to survive. As they both have to endure all of this together, they unavoidably grow closer, and form a strong friendship. Ellie is obviously another chance for Joel, who loses his own daughter in the game’s devastating opener, to be a good father, and a good man. So, when she’s in danger, he reacts as best he can and does whatever it takes to rescue her.

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With a whole game as emotionally charged and as gripping as The Last Of Us, any ending was going to be difficult, and it certainly wouldn’t please everyone, but it earns its place here with ease.

6. Portal

Portal‘s ending is great for a few reasons. The final fight with GLaDOS is just the start, and what a glorious start it is. Continuing the great humour of the game right through to the end, this boss fight is typically Portal, and once defeated, we see both the remains of GLaDOS and Chell sucked out into the world. The scene then shifts to a swooping view that ends with a cake, multiple computer cores and a robotic arm snuffing out the flame. Then, there’s THAT song. Need I say more?

This ending has also been altered in later updates, and the scene where Chell is on the ground amidst GLaDOS’ wreckage has another unseen robot drag Chell off, thanking her for “assuming the party escort submission position.”

5. Zelda: Ocarina Of Time

As one of the greatest series of all time, Zelda is a gaming titan, one that’s graced every Nintendo platform since the NES. Arguably the best game in the series is the fantastic Ocarina Of Time, originally released for the Nintendo 64.

After the brilliant boss fight against Gannondorf, and eventually his monstrous form of Ganon, the sages seal Gannondorf away, and with Zelda now safe, she and Link bid farewell. Zelda sends adult Link back to his younger days, safe in the knowledge that, for now, the danger is over. After the credits, we see Link, now a child again, return to the Temple of Time, and Navi flies off into the sunlight. The credits end with bells ringing, as he camera pans over the Master Sword. Finally, young Link returns to the gardens to meet young Zelda.

The ending is good on it’s own merits, but compared to some of the others here, not incredible. So, why is it number five? It deserves this place as this ending is actually where Nintendo officially split the Zelda timeline into three, and this changed the entire series, and helped to explain the crazy, convoluted timeline.

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Three possible outcomes of the battle with Ganon were posed. In timeline A, known as the Adult Timeline, Link defeats Ganon, who is sealed in the Sacred Realm. Ganondorf escapes this seal, however, and causes a great flood. This leads to the Wind Waker timeline.

Timeline B, or the Child Timeline, sees Link preventing Ganon’s acquisition of the Triforce, which he does after defeating Ganon and returning to his youthful years. Here he alters events, and changes the future. Ganondorf attacks Hyrule, but is defeated and banished to the Twilight Realm. Link leaves Hyrule, which leads to Majora’s Mask, and in turn, Twilight Princess.

The final timeline, timeline C, sees Link fall to Ganondorf in the last battle of Ocarina of Time. With Link defeated, Ganondorf gains the Triforce, but is defeated by Zelda, and sealed away, along with the Triforce in the Sacred Realm. This realm soon becomes dark under Ganondorf’s rule. This leads to the events of A Link to the Past.

The fact that a game series needs such setup to explain its many different instalments and their relation could be put down to bad planning (which is quite possibly was), but regardless, Zelda is a mammoth series with millions upon millions of fans and this is the ending that literally changed the game’s world.

4. Deadly Premonition

Like Killer7, this is a game that has its lovers and haters, and it also has a great, surreal ending that fits in perfectly with the rest of this Twin Peaks-inspired story from Hidetaka Suehiro (Swery65).

After a long and far from run-of-the-mill case, FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan finds that the actual Raincoat Killer he’s been chasing in Greenvale is the town’s Sheriff all along. Other characters, such as Thomas had dark secrets, and the rotund flower seller, Forrest Kaysen, was the major villain, responsible for the similar killings elsewhere. Oh, he also plants trees in people’s stomachs! Nice.

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All of this made for a great ending to a truly intriguing story, but we wanted the answer to another question even more. Just who was Zach? Who was this invisible person York talked to all the time? Was he just crazy?

It turns out that Zach is actually York’s true self. After witnessing his mother’s death at the hands of his father, Zach’s mind snapped, and he created an alternate personality to cope. This was York. We also discover that Kaysen was actually involved in the death of Zach’s mother, and his father wasn’t a murderer, as he thought.

It’s all pretty crazy stuff, wrapped around all sorts of supernatural events and bizarre boss fights, but it’s one ending players won’t soon forget.

3. Red Dead Redemption

The ending to Rockstar’s much adored western tale is quite fitting, given the treacherous setting of the game. Despite struggling through the entire game, overcoming all sorts of crazy odds and deadly gunfights, the game’s hero, John Marston, eventually succumbs to the nasty Edgar Ross. After saving his family, and knowing he’ll never see them again, Marston confronts his killers, only to be cut down by gunfire. It’s a pretty gruesome death scene, and one that’s very well delivered. No dialogue is needed, just Marston’s last few breaths.

Jack, out to get vengeance for his father’s death, tracks down Ross years later, and kills him in a duel. The game then shows what happened to the rest of the story’s major characters.

Killing off the main protagonist of a several hour long story is a risky way to end a game, and unless it’s done right, it can be easy for such an ending to fall into the cheap shock category, and an easy way to fake an emotional connection. Red Dead Redemption, however, did things right. John didn’t die in a selfish or mundane, action way, he died defending his family, in a story that unfolded to this point very well, in a believable manner. You genuinely feel moved by Marston’s death as he gives his all to ensure the survival of his loved ones, and as Jack, you also get to seek revenge. A great ending.

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2. BioShock Infinite

As twists in gaming go, few have ever approached the genius that was the original BioShock (would you kindly?), but Irrational Games at the very least equalled it with BioShock Infinite‘s ending. After your long struggle against Comstock, during which you witness all of the worst flavours of humanity, such as greed, racism, segregation, exploitation and more, you find out that Booker is, in fact, Comstock! Wait, what?

Yes, Booker is a younger version of Comstock, who travelled between universes, each of which features versions of Booker and Elizabeth after different choices were made. Elizabeth is also actually Anna DeWitt, Booker’s own daughter.

At one point in the past, Booker became Comstock (during a baptism to atone for his sins during the war), and to stop his terrible actions in the future, Elizabeth explains that they must intervene. Booker proceeds to be baptised in the past, allowing several different Elizabeth’s (from different realities) to drown him, thus ending the atrocities that would be committed by his future self. Yep, that’s pretty heavy stuff, and made for one hell of a great game ending.

1. Super Metroid

Even with the limitations of the SNES, back in 1994 Nintendo created what has to be one of the greatest endings ever made, and the number one entry here. The final battle with Mother Brain is just so brilliant. The battle itself is tricky, but when Mother Brain drains Samus almost to death, only for the young Metroid encountered earlier to rush in to Samus’ rescue, in turn giving Samus a super-powered laser beam, you couldn’t help but sit there, almost falling off your seat. With Mother Brain destroyed by this beam, which was amazingly satisfying with each head-whipping blast, the whole planet is set to blow and Samus has a very short time to escape. It’s a mad rush to her ship, with the planet exploding around her.

Once off the planet, it explodes, then the game ranks players, and depending on how well you did, you’d see a slightly different ending, with the best rating showing Samus in a bathing suit.

What makes this ending so impressive is the amount of impact it has, even when using such limited tech. The final battle blends in perfectly with the ongoing story of the last Metroid in captivity, which sees Samus as a mother figure, and the seamless transition to evacuating the planet produces an adrenaline-pumping finale. Arguably, the actual ending is the rating and congratulations screens, but here Nintendo does what many new games fail to do. It puts you in control of the whole ending, making a final boss fight so much more. Pure brilliance.

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Now, I’m well aware that a mere 15 endings cannot possibly cover all the great endings out there, and there are many more to choose from. You may also disagree with the list here, and that’s fine. Why not let us know what your favourite endings are in the comments below?

The End?

So, after all that, and a look at some good game endings, the question remains. Are game endings worth the time? Do they offer enough, or should developers not worry too much about the end of a game, as we’re more than happy to play a game as long as its good?

As always, this is open to much debate, and is as subjective as anything else (again, head to the comments to share your thoughts), but for my money I’d say yes. I do believe a good ending is important in a game, as long as the ending is handled well.

Although the game is certainly the most important thing, a good reward and closure is also very important. Without one, you’re simply left with an unfulfilled feeling at the end of a game, just as you are if a game has a bad ending. You wouldn’t want to read a book that has no last page, or watch a movie that cuts off before the final scene, would you? Probably not, and games are no different. As I said earlier, though, they’re also not a passive form of entertainment, and endings need to reflect that. We need to be involved, and they need to take into account our actions during a game to be plausible. As long as these things are heeded, then game endings can be great.

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