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Storytelling: Climax is God
by Alexander Kerezman on 05/24/10 03:00:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
(SPOILER ALERT! The following is about the importance of endings, and thus will involve heavy spoilers. Specifically, spoilers for the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and the games Psychonauts, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, Sonic Adventure 2, and Portal.)

 

There is nothing, absolutely nothing more important in a story than its ending. Endings are sacred. Endings are powerful. I've started this blog post with a spoiler tag because endings are just that precious to people.

But, for some reason, people still seem to underestimate the power of endings, and specifically a story's emotionally charged climax. Either that, or - as Robert McKee admits in his book Story - a story's climax is one of the most difficult things to create.

The climax of a story does several things. It expresses the meaning and emotion of the story in its purest form. It settles the state of the story's world once and for all, and puts the protagonist and everything else in a place where there's no going back. But most importantly, the story's climax will shed light or cast shadows over everything else in the story.

As audience members, we're trained to expect this. We sit there in front of our TVs or in the theaters waiting for this grand meaningful climax that great stories give us. And when we're done, the quality of the story's ending will determine its memorability. If so, that final image will permanently stick in our minds, ready to remind us of the whole story when we recall it.

This applies to everything that tells a story, whether it be movies or games. A high-quality climax will make bad stories perfectly memorable, while a lackluster climax can put a sour taste on an otherwise excellent experience.

Climax is everything. Climax is God.

 

Sherlock Holmes

The latest Sherlock Holmes film.

The recent movie Sherlock Holmes was an interesting experience. The story itself was nothing too special, but the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Watson as played by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law created an irresistible chemistry that's a joy to watch over and over again.

But the film is let down by its climactic image. At the very end, Sherlock Holmes explains the mysterious events of the last 100 minutes while Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) hangs at the edge of a bridge under construction. Finally, Lord Blackwood falls, gets tangled up in a bunch of chains on the way down, and ends up hung by the neck.

"But hold on!" the entire audience is thinking. "He was hung before at the beginning of the movie, and he survived that! How do we know he won't survive this too? How do we know??"

And so that final mystery is explained in the film's denouement, assuring the audience that the antagonist is well and truly dead, but the damage is already done. The final, most meaningful moment of the movie is tainted by overwhelming uncertainty. And when we remember that movie, we remember that painful sensation. Thus, a rather interesting story is reduced to mild entertainment.

 

Psychonauts

Raz, the main character of Psychonauts.

On that note, let's talk about a game. How about Double Fine's Psychonauts?

I bought Psychonauts because it's been talked about everywhere as a shining example of Tim Schafer's sheer creativity that didn't sell very well. And to its credit, it deserves almost every bit of praise. The gameplay is engaging because of its ties to the story, which is told extremely well. Characters are well-defined and enjoyable, and the game's aesthetic matches its tone and mood in everything.

The story is told with impressive intricacy. There's mystery, suspense, danger, betrayal, and humor all along the way. The main character, Raz, has an interesting backstory that is almost brought up in full force in the story's climax. For one, he ran away from the circus and his psychic-hating father, and two, his family was cursed by gypsies to die in water.

The water curse is used to great effect throughout the game. If you fall in water, a big watery hand jumps out at you and tries to grab you. Whether you automatically escape or not depends on how close you are to shore. But one boss sends you deep underwater within an air bubble while you fight a mutant lungfish. The curse hands would appear just outside the bubble when you got close to the edge, reminding you how close you were to death and emotionally tying you to Raz's fear of water. It was insanely effective.

But then, the ending... The final level is called "Meat Circus," where Raz's memories of the circus merge with the antagonist's memories of his butcher father. Raz ends up in a confrontation with his father, who hates him and what the psychics have done to his circus. There's even a sequence where you have to ascend a platforming sequence while water rises up from below, battling both Raz's father and the water curse at the same time.

But right after that, do you know what the final dramatic shift is? Raz's real father breaks into his mind, and it turns out he doesn't hate Raz and just wanted the best for him, and together they defeat the twisted nightmare father boss and finish the game...

Not exactly the mind-blowing climax I'd been set up to expect, was it? I had been expecting something big, something intricate, something ultimately meaningful that pitted me against the full might of the antagonism that defined my player character... and instead, I got a rather weird sort of deus ex machina.

The storytelling up to this point was wonderful, even within the final level. But this moment, where tensions were running highest and emotion was instantaneous, fell short with less meaning than I needed. It wasn't horrible, it just wasn't enough.

And now I can't gloriously praise Psychonauts like everyone else. The game was excellent, but the final moment taints everything else that came before.

Perhaps it's a testament to how difficult endings are to make.

 

Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core

Zack Fair in FF7 Crisis Core.

And now the opposite. The gameplay in this PSP prequel was somewhat interesting but a bit of a slow grind, especially if you were doing the mission mode. The storytelling throughout was odd, and many of the characters justified their inconsistent behaviors with infuriating, illogical rationales.

But the ending. Oh God, the ending.

Zack Fair, the main character, ends up fighting the Shinra army that wants him dead or alive. He fights them until his health drops to 0, with only a few soldiers left. While doing so, memories of all the friends that inspired him flash before his eyes. Finally, as he stands his last ground against three soldiers, his memories of Aerith flash by.

The game then puts you into Zack's first-person perspective as the soldiers open fire. You hear and watch as the camera shudders and collapses while taking bullet after bullet. You're then on the ground, watching in double-vision as one soldier comes up to your body, aims, and fires a bullet straight into your skull. All goes black.

Then the final cutscene, rendered in full-motion Advent Children-style, lets you watch as Cloud slowly crawls to Zack's dying body and inherits his legacy, his sword - which has a great legacy of its own. All while you hear nothing but the rain washing away Zack's blood.

It's powerful. It's moving. It made me cry.

This is a game that literally had me pacing around my room shouting about how stupid the characters were. But this ending moved me so much that I can't help but look back on it all with great fondness. The ending gives everything that came before new meaning, new emotional charges. I'd happily replay it again.

It's a bad game, really, but the ending makes it all completely worthwhile.

 

Sonic Adventure 2

Sonic grinding in a level of SA2.

You wouldn't expect a franchise like Sonic to have a moment of dramatic brilliance, but it does.

Sonic Adventure 2 introduced Shadow the Hedgehog, a serious, angsty opposite to Sonic. The story was structured by creating two parallel playable storylines - one with the Hero side with Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, and one with the Dark side as Shadow, Dr. Eggman, and Rouge the Bat, Knuckles' new rival.

Thus, the line between good and evil was drawn. Each hero had a direct antagonist, and each villain had a direct antagonist... wait...

The line was blurry. Sonic and Shadow played almost exactly the same way, as did Eggman and Tails, as did Knuckles and Rouge. And their levels covered the same ground and used many of the same textures. Every level in one story has a counterpart in the other one that looks and plays similarly: Hidden Base and Sand Ocean, Green Forest and White Jungle, Wild Canyon and Dry Lagoon, City Escape and Speed Highway, Prison Lane and Iron Gate, Meteor Herd and Mad Space, Final Rush and Final Chase...

And above the subtext, the game insisted on this illusion of the good vs. evil dichotomy.

But then, when both storylines were completed, the Final Story showed up. In this last act, the line between good and evil disappeared. Every character stood on their own, independent of their rivals. Then it went beyond standing independently to teaming up, working together to save the world. And the final climactic image is of Sonic and Shadow powering up with the Chaos Emeralds simultaneously, ready to charge into the final confrontation in full force.

That image has lasted in people's minds for nearly a decade, and the characters that had been introduced are now prominent in the Sonic universe.

It was sublime. It was a dramatic system that completely paid off and delivered everything it promised, charging the final boss with spirit and emotion. While FF7 Crisis Core used shocking imagery to move the player (which is totally legit), Sonic Adventure 2 used symbolism that was ingrained in the gameplay that came before it.

Thus, a pretty good game was made great and lasting through its climax.

 

Portal

GLaDOS in Portal.

And then there's Portal. Always Portal.

Portal can sort of be split into three different acts. Act I is defined by confusion and curiosity with some tension as you go through the beginning challenges. Act II kicks into high gear when your life is put into direct danger through turrets and deadly pools. Then Act III is all about high tension as you escape murder and dodge obstacles in the facility's backstage.

It all climaxes in the battle against GLaDOS herself. Everything else - the challenges, the Companion Cube - has led up to this. But having listened to her for so long, having spent so much effort trying to understand the cryptic things she says, it's hard to ignore her as she insults you and goes about murdering you one last time. If you played the game with the sound turned off, the final confrontation would look rather easy compared to what came before. But when you've listened to her all this time, the climactic encounter with her is tense to the ultimate level.

Finally, you beat her. With the resulting explosion, you finally get outside the facility. Your goal in life is complete. It's simple, but satisfying.

In this case, the climax is not one image or one dramatic shift, but an entire gameplay sequence. The emotional charge was built up slowly over time, through the obstacles that came before. Portal is essentially about one goal, one task. Everything before is just leading up to it. That pure focus and payoff makes the experience memorable and powerful.

And then, y'know, they had to ruin it by adding that stinger to advertise Portal 2. Let me tell you, it sure as heck ensured my purchase. I need my ending back.

 

It's all about the endings. That climax of pure aesthetic emotion is what gives stories their power. And as game designers who are fighting to hold sway over people for hours on end, anything truly powerful is worth studying.

And if you have a great story climax, games can put that intense moment in the hands of the player. That's what puts games ahead of movies, all the time.

Yes, the player has to be interested enough to get to the end. But the quality of that climactic moment for the player will either enrich their past, present, and future experience... or cast meaninglessness over all their hard work.

The lesson here is this: games can be made or broken in their final moments. A strong, meaningful climax can make up for previous faults, while an ill-fitting or meaningless climax will put a sour taste on even the greatest of games. It's just that important.


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Comments


Chad Wagner
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I certainly see your point -- and have experienced it myself. However, I am also thinking of the "Journey" story genre. The ending in "Huck Finn" has it's place (of course), but see the following quote:



Writer David Bradley notes that many have criticized the ending of Huck Finn but "none of them has been able to suggest -- much less write -- a better ending. . . . They failed for the same reason that Twain wrote the ending as he did: America has never been able to write a better ending. America has never been able to write any ending at all."



The ending of Huck Finn's journey is not very important, in the grand scheme of things, because the power and majesty of that great novel is contained in the journey itself! The destination, or conclusion, is completely beside the point. (See also the countless "Road to" movies, etc.).



I have often asked myself, after completing an infocom adventure lasting hundreds of hours, "What kind of ending could possibly match the magnitude of what I've been through?" I feel that many games (maybe even most) follow the Journey story template, and are therefore subject to the problems of that form. The best ending seems to be: and the journey continues... Sigh.



Thanks for the blog!

JB Vorderkunz
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You write well but I couldn't disagree more with your conclusion:



"games can be made or broken in their final moments."



The analogy I'd use here is the old "bad late game call" argument in sports: one bad call doesn't (usually) when or lose a game. I think that's even more the case in games - to use an overused example: the final boss battle in the original BioShock is honestly pretty weak, both in narrative weight and mechanical difficulty, but in no way did that effect my overall response to the game. I've never played a game whose narrative I hated, only to have it saved at the last minute by an incredible climax. Nor has a story I've enjoyed completely been ruined by a predictable or uninspiring ending.

Alexander Kerezman
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Maybe it's just my values, then. Maybe I'm looking for something in games that few people are.



But I'd also argue that many stories in games at the moment are pretty weak and uninspiring to begin with. I've selected... genuinely remarkable examples for my argument here.



Psychonauts was brilliant, and I was expecting an equally brilliant ending that never came. I was expecting my head to explode as I got closer and closer to the final boss, as the stakes were driven higher and higher... and it never came. I was disappointed, and all the buildup that came before suddenly lost all the value I'd placed in it.



I'm talking about storytelling here. I'm talking about emotion. I'm talking about the rush of satisfaction that can come from a pure and meaningful climax. I'm talking about how that applies in games and how it can affect people.



@Chad: The Journey ending may be justifiable, but there are FAR more satisfying endings out there. I want to be satisfied by the games I play.

JB Vorderkunz
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I've rarely played a game that spoke to me emotionally that also took less than 10+ hours of play time on the first play through. Building an emotional connection in games is a slightly different process than in a film or novel, and it takes place over a longer period of time. So it seems to me that comparing the pacing of a climax in another media is of little use here - the emotional pacing of a film that lasts 2-2 1/2 hours is very different than the pacing in a game that lasts 20 hours. Maybe it's just not wise to speak in absolutes regarding subjective experience - there's never been a story told that has an ending everyone loves...

Alexander Kerezman
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"Of little use"? I just used it.



You're not telling me anything I don't already know. Yes, games are slightly different mediums. Yes, not everyone loves the same things.



But there are certain patterns to story that are universal forms that transcend mediums, that speak to how we create emotional connections through the telling. To say that the film forms won't perfectly translate to games is perfectly reasonable. But that isn't to say that the forms don't apply AT ALL. I firmly believe that the forms of story can be applied to the vocabulary and grammar of games, and I've spent a lot of time doing just that.



And no, not everyone will like an ending... But there are games that inspire the majority of people who experience it, like Portal and Half-Life 2. Critical acclaim wouldn't exist if there weren't products of exceptional archetypal quality that speak to a majority of people. I'm not aiming for perfection, I'm aiming for those forms that will inspire as many people as I possibly can. Perhaps that's "absolute," but I don't believe it really is.

Stephen Chin
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@Alexander



I think you just have very high standards and expectations combined with an idea of narrative set pieces similar to the cinematic explosive set pieces currently popular. You seem to be expecting a Fight Club or a Sixth Sense out of every game (or even a Shawshank Redemption). Which is valid - but that doesn't mean that having a Reveal is the only structure that provides meaning to a narrative nor is it necessarily the best story element for every story. Even very good books and films don't all have surprises like that.



What they do have is -memorable- endings and this is what having a Reveal is best at. People remember these endings but that doesn't mean they're good ones just like they remember gameplay set pieces. The payoff, emotional and narrative, is as much about the viewer as it is for the story. Out of all the examples given, the only one you seem to like is also the only one that exists based on existing well established characters with existing emotional attachment as far as a modern construct goes. Without the over-the-top dramatics, without the idea of Cloud, without the heroics already established, would it be as impactful? After all, its fairly similar to the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (to summarize, the two kick the door open of their hideout and storm out to face the Bolivian army at which point it's a fade to black). However, without the context and attachment, the mindblowing-ness really isn't there. The only reason Fight Club's ending works is because we're so attached to the narrator; the mere presence of the revelation is not in itself a strong significant element.

Alexander Kerezman
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@Stephen:



Good point. But I guess what I want to express is this: these experiences necessarily have a crescendo, a peak, and then a denouement. Whatever form those take, what matters is that the peak pays off the crescendo; that they achieve the desired effect in full force, to the point where the participant can imagine nothing greater. The event doesn't have to LOOK significant ("In the right context, one gesture or look could mean 'I'm leaving you' or 'I'll love you forever' - a life broken or made" - Robert McKee), but it has to be inspiring through the context and attachment that came before.

Chad Wagner
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As a counter example to my previous post: The original theatrical release of The Abyss was utterly destroyed by the conclusion. So terrible was it, that my stomach turned at each recollection. The corrected video release rescued a really great movie.

JB Vorderkunz
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"'of little use'? I just used it." Oh snap - ePeen alert.



Relax. I made an argument based on your conclusion, not the structure of Stories. As you have stated, and as has been noted by poets who died well before Aristotle was born, stories have parts that build an overarching structure. Your original post specifically states that the end is the most important part, and I simply disagree - Beginning and Middle are just as important. McKee and nearly every other Screenwriter stress "the first 5" as critical to engaging and audience - the great stories are great because they hit all the marks. Can a work, in any media, that has engaged the audience thoroughly through it's initial acts be a total failure solely because of its ending? It certainly won't be a Master Work, but I don't think it's a total artistic failure either - but that's just my opinion.



BTW The goal you state in your response is perfectly reasonable, as it's the goal of pretty much every game designer who cares about narrative immersion (you, me and lots of other cool people), and it's definitely not an absolute =)

Alexander Kerezman
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You know, all this reminds me of a revered Hollywood saying: "Movies are about their last 20 minutes." That is, if a movie doesn't have a satisfying last act and climax, it doesn't stand a chance. It doesn't matter what the last 90 minutes managed to do; if the final moment falls flat, the movie will commercially fail.



I know I'm invoking the controversial movies vs. games comparison but I think that stands true for games. But suppose we turn that into the language of games? "Games are about their final boss." That is, all the meaning and effort put into and extracted from the game is all directed toward the final act. The game is ABOUT "slaying the dragon," so to speak. Maybe it's not obvious at first, but it pleasurably becomes apparent in retrospect.



It's an almost unconscious tendency of ours to focus on the first level of a game, where we want to draw players in. But by focusing on that, everything afterward might become little more than supplementary to that first experience. But if we say "Games are about their final boss," we might try focusing all our meaning into the ending, to make the final climactic action totally satisfying for the player.

JB Vorderkunz
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@Andrew - that's exactly why I used the qualifier "rarely" ;)

S Stricker
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Good read. Good example for this case would be Unreal 2, the game was far from good and the story was mess, but through it all you did build up a meaningful relationship with your 3 shipmates. When in the end they all die they just sent you a last pre-recorded audio recording, saying goodbye in there own way, it reached me and made me actually feel bad that they died.

Christina Freeman
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Interesting read. It should be noted that player interaction is a big part of games, and this can make or break a climax in ways that doesn't really apply to non-interative media.



All of the games discussed have a set story, with a set goal, and set pieces throughout, that leads up to a set climax. This can make them little more than a movie that you get between gameplay elements. This can keep the player engaged, wanting to know the next part of the story, just like a movie or book.



However, this can also backfire because it can remove any direct impact that the player has on the story, and if the player doesn't understand or like where the story is going in the game, all the set pieces and set climaxes will fail. Once you start giving players freedom to direct the story, there are fewer set pieces to rely on to tell the story, and the climax risk becoming a lot more fuzzy and less satisfying from this, as it becomes harder and harder to tie everything up in a satisfying way for the player.



This is a real challenge that very few games have managed to resolve in a meaningful manner. It seems that currently you can either have a good game with significant player freedom, or a good story with significant emotional impact. Those that try to do both often end up as poor games with poor stories.

David Hughes
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I don't know if I put as big of an emphasis on climax as Alex here, but can't argue with the power of the phrase: "Climax is God".



Anyways, one game in recent memory that I thoroughly enjoyed up until a disappointing ending is Fable II. Now that game is really soured in my mind, and I'll probably still buy the sequel, but I'll wait long after release.



@ Christina. I disagree. Fallout 3, which I recently started over, has an enormous amount of player freedom, but the main storyline has an incredible climax. I was moved by it, especially quests right before the end.



Of course, the game doesn't really 'end'. And, in a certain sense, that is a weakness of Fallout 3 (and any Bethesda-like RPGs). But I enjoy being able to digest the main story at my own pace. If anything, I wish the designers had made exploration a little less optional, in the sense that I reached max level the first time through WAY before I'd seen everything. But it still doesn't knock on the management of the climax.



Because usually in a game like that, I explore and explore and explore to 'breathe' in the world. Playing Fallout or Oblivion on a regular basis really brings you into the world. Which only makes the main storyline that much more powerful.

Dan Felder
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It's not just you Alex, a satisfying ending can save a story - though it can't make it excellent on its own. I don't think that Alex was for a moment implying that the climax is ALL that is important - but I don't think that anyone can argue that some elements of stories or games have more power than others. A good beginning does more for an audience than a good second chapter - and the climax can be the most powerful moment in the entire game.



More than that, as a playwright I can assure you that - in my experience at least - climaxes matter tremendously. If you have a memorable climax, audiences will forgive hours of boredom. But if you have a silly or dissatisfying one... Many audiences will leave disgruntled and complain that all the other parts where there for nothing.



However, if we wish to create true works of mastery - every element must be perfect. Climax might be an incredibly important and powerful moment, but that doesn't mean a true artist should ignore the rest of the game. Just as a masterwoodcarver spends hours making sure the grains are aligned on the bottom side of the table, one that practically no one will ever see, as he or she does on the top - which is the most noticeable of all... So should we, as artists and designers, seek excellence in everything we do.



But, no matter what, climaxes are indeed King... If not all-powerful gods.



But a King does need his subjects to rule. A King without his subjects is powerless, just as a brilliant Climax with a poorly constructed story to support it is nothing like a game that excels in every aspect.



Excellent article Alex, you do me proud. And congratulations on your well-deserved win.





-Dan Felder, WhyGames Blog


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