Stories Need Endings
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The creation of serialized stories created an issue humanity had never encountered before — demand for more of the same. More of the same that wasn’t food, shelter, warmth, sex, touch, or a connection with other people. It was an ethereal demand that has been plaguing authors, musicians and artists for centuries at this point.
Arthur Conan Doyle had to deal with the demand for more Sherlock Holmes stories from fans, and contend with people writing and publishing their own. And he killed Sherlock Holmes off at one point!
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course on where you stop the story.” — Orson Welles
Games end. Or at least they used to. Most games be they board games, card games, sports or video games have a point at which they finish. That may be based on time, points, lives, or story.
But now we have games that don’t end. Some are positioned as games-as-a-service. Others are MMOs. And most are mobile affairs. Because video games are systems it’s entirely possible to keep them going indefinitely. This is not great for stories, because they need endings. Which is often counter to what we want as readers, viewers, players or consumers. We want more. Problem is, more isn’t always better. Plus games that never end aren’t immune from sequelitis, but more on that in a bit.
Destiny 2 is the epitome of games-as-a-service. Its every systems are designed to keep players in the game and working towards the so-called “endgame”. Other games that don’t end include World of Warcraft, Clash of Clans, and Pokemon Go. Four games that ostensibly are nothing like one another given their focus, stories and mechanics. Even their income generations is different.
Yet all of them are focused on keeping players in the game and thus spending more. Spending more time with a game isn’t a bad thing. And these games don’t even have the most atrocious aspects of free-to-play games and the plethora of monetization mechanics invented for that model. However, for our purposes, they are very instructive as to why stories need endings.
The first thing we need to ask is — Why Do Stories Need Endings?
The simple answer — resonance.
The complex answer — because everything will be lost otherwise. And by everything I mean the purpose of the characters, the focus of the plot, the messages of the story, the impact of it all and how it resonates with you the reader, viewer or player. Let’s go through that in the poorly determined order I put them in for the sake of some sort of continuity.
The purpose of the characters is without a doubt a tied to the focus of the plot. But before we get to that, let’s talk about Halo. The Halo series is about humanity in the future. Except it’s not so much, if we stick with just the games and not the rest of the extend universe. Halo is the story of Master Chief John-117. A character who’s sole purpose is to kick ass and take names. Only he doesn’t have a pencil. And the thing is he does kick ass. He kicks a lot of alien ass. To the point where there really isn’t any more to kick.
Except — there is. Because the story continues in Halo 4 and then Halo 5. And it’s set to continue in Halo Infinite. 343 Industries and Microsoft set out more for obstacles for Master Chief to overcome. And in doing so they had to ask, if he’s still relevant as a character. Thus they introduced the character of Locke, plainly stating 343’s and Microsoft’s belief that Master Chief no longer had a purpose. The reasons behind that decision we won’t discuss, because it seems that Locke has been shelved and the Halo franchise is returning to focus on Master Chief.
So Master Chief is meant to save the universe, not just humanity, but the universe on at least five occasions. And that may seem like a pretty good purpose. But what’s the value in threatening all life again and again and again. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Halo series. I’m down for any game 343 is set to release. And while I enjoy Master Chief as a character, I fail to see the value in his continued narrative being one where he’s always the hero. Because he’s so capable, because he’s always willing to step up, because he kicks ass the Master Chief is never allowing us to question our chances at saving the world.
Which leads me to the focus of the plot. Stories need to end to bring the plot into focus. Otherwise it results in no end to the conflict and so it becomes a war of attrition. Attrition through time and repetition dulls everything. In fact it changes the focus from the immediate dangers presented by the bad guys, to a commentary about war and conflict. And for a schlocky game about fighting aliens and space zombies I doubt that’s the focus. This is a problem all series face when they continually threaten everything. It’s why the stories of Halo: ODST, Halo: Reach or Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back stand out so much. Their focus is smaller, more personal.
Those last three examples all provide the perfect segue into my next point — the messages of the story. In the case of of Halo: ODST, Halo: Reach, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back each one on its own is about the losses we’ll experience through conflict, the cost of fighting, that the good guys don’t always win.
But those messages are hard to impart, maybe impossible, without an end to the story. Problem is this doesn’t always work. Why — well, it’s a matter of setting things up, building a relationship between characters in the story and the player. Basically, giving us a reason to care. Which ties into the impact and resonance a story has with the player. Destiny 2 is an example of this very issue. It wants you to go on this grand adventure, to save the Earth and its inhabitants. The game wants you to care about the people, the lore, the places. But it fails in all of that.
As Doc Burford said in his excellent article in US Gamer about Cayde-6’s death, This is a symptom of a problem with Bungie’s storytelling right now: it wants payoffs, but it isn’t putting in the work to earn it.”
What it does get players caring about is loot.
In Destiny 2 it’s killed off two characters, both off screen. The first, The Speaker, some weren’t even sure if he died or how. The second, Cayde-6, has his death come right at the beginning of the latest expansion, to spur us to action. A needless thing given we’ve always been characters of action in Destiny, so we’re always trigger-happy and willing to go punch some aliens in the face.
Bungie wants us to care about these characters, and even the enemies like Ghaul, but never has us spend any time with them. It’s so quick to dispense with them and send us on our way that there’s nothing to resonate with. And the impact of a new villain or death of a character is negated by the structure of the game. Things continue as they are. They change momentarily, for the equivalent of a single mission, before, as players, we’re once more at the top of our game and owning enemies left and right.
Comic Book Conundrums
It’s a problem comic books have long contended with — how to tell interesting stories that allow the world to persist as is. And the answer has always been to do one-shots, mini-series, or other formats that take you outside of the established continuity. And that continuity creates a lot of problems. It’s off putting for new people who are interested in getting into the universe because they don’t know where to start. For creators it can be difficult to keep with the canon, or track the movements of characters. And for the publishers, there’s the whole issue of the sunk-cost fallacy of rebooting or starting anew.
Soap Opera Solutions
Soap Operas get around this issue by killing off characters. Or at least retiring them. Sure there are some characters that have years long runs on some shows, or even return from retirement. But we don’t see the same thing in video games or comics for that matter. But games and game developers don’t have that option, especially those creating games-as-a-service. They can kill off, or retire NPCs but the same isn’t true for player characters. Doing so would be seen as a punishment by most players, and not what it would be, which is conducive to good storytelling.
Getting rid of NPCs has its own problems from a design standpoint. All of the content tied to that NPC becomes unusable or irrelevant, so players going through earlier stages in the game either have to be segmented off or that content has to be redone to account for the new systems. Destiny 2 in this case goes for both approaches.
The Dragon Age series has benefited from not being games-as-a-service but rather individual installments in a series. Each one focusing on a different protagonist at a different time in the history of the world, albeit a very short time span for that universe. In doing so, Bioware has been able to build relationships between the players and NPCs and develop the world in a way that’s meaningful and ultimately resonates with players. The change in systems and approaches between games may not be to everyone’s liking but it’s never be a hindrance to the stories the Dragon Age team is telling.
And more series need to learn from that decision.
Wrestling With Heroes
Hulk Hogan has had a long and storied career in wrestling. One which has seen him go from being a hero to a heel and back again. Why?
Because as Harvey Dent said in The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Hogan couldn’t remain on top because it’s boring. And that’s the same problem never-ending games and stories face. Always being the good guy, always succeeding never makes for interesting stories or engaging games. I’ve spoken about this before in previous episodes. The lack of failure on a story-level, not just in moment to moment gameplay, is the equivalent of drawing a straight line. It’s dull, it provides no surprises, and ultimately doesn’t leave one wanting more.
This is a large aspect of what makes The Empire Strikes Back so appealing. It gives us more of what we want, which is Star Wars, but it does so in surprising ways. The story isn’t the guys overcoming the bad. Rather, it’s them learning more about themselves while still having an adventure. The thing about adventures is they end. Otherwise it’d just be another day in the life of the hero — which is the title of my autobiography by the way.
The fact is that stories don’t ever truly end, even the made up ones. People persist. Their actions have consequences. The world keeps turning. Our stories are only a brief examination of what’s happening, and at that one which attempts to ascribe cause and effect. Take any book on history, for example The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. It attempts to explain the developments in Central Asia within the paradigm of the Anglo-Russo rivalry of the 19th century. In telling that story it’s taking a very macro view of what occurred, even if Hopkirk attempts to explain individual actions of actors.
Take A Look At History
The Great Game is a long book, and one worth reading for a look at a part of the world most don’t learn about. But it isn’t without its flaws. And one that all history books are going to struggle with is where to begin and where to end. Whatever the story being told, those choices are reflections on the author and not the subjects, because it’s the former that made the choice. Not ending a fictional story is always going to be just as reflective on the creators.
The thing is that in a way these games-as-a-service stories do end. They just revert back to the status quo. Itself unending in these games and ultimately what undermines any attempts at storytelling. Yes some stories are about returning to the status quo. It’s often a down side to the idea the hero’s journey. More on that in a future episode. But really it begs the question, why even bother?
The player character isn’t actually improving or changing the situation. They’re perpetuating it and enforcing the powers that be. So how heroic, how legendary, how epic can one really be if we never manage to actually save the day, save the world or save the universe because the same old enemy is still there. It’s the Batman problem. We’re not actually solving any problems. We’re not even killing the big bad, when in fact all we do is kill in a game like Destiny. Okay, yes we defeated Ghaul and then Xor with some Vex in-between. But all of those enemies and their minions are still there. The problems we faced before continue to be the problems we face now.
So what have our efforts been for?
It isn’t the story.
Endings give us closure, yet a yearning for more. Endings leave us satisfied, but asking questions. Endings let us appreciate what was and is, while not being concerned with what will come.
Stories need endings because they’re not stories otherwise what are we telling?