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Opinion: When Should Games Say Goodbye?
Opinion: When Should Games Say Goodbye? Exclusive
July 21, 2008 | By Duncan Fyfe

[In this opinion piece, game commentator Duncan Fyfe takes a look at how and when games end - citing titles from BioShock to Portal and beyond to ask how to set expectations and deliver on them for game endings.]

In video games, the ones that tell the player a long, linear story, the ending is usually an uncertain proposition. Prose and film teach an audience to expect three-act structures and considered pacing in storytelling.

Instead, games have what Warren Spector calls the second-act problem; where act one is the intro movie, act three is the outro movie, and in between is the game.

Games are structured less like a novel and more like an anthology; an arbitrary number of assembled vignettes, thematically united in post-production. A collection of missions and quests that exist because one designer had a cool idea for a boat chase sequence and another designer had an awesome idea for a stealth mission. It's a problem of pacing, and it relates directly to the presupposed need for games to have fifteen-hour narratives.

I think this issue is compounded by another: players don't know how long a game is. You can hold a novel in your hands and feel the weight of the pages. An album has its track listing printed on the back.

A television season consists of a predetermined number of episodes with those episodes at a fixed length. A movie is somewhere between 90 and 180 minutes. No such guidelines with video games. They lack an intuitive metric: it'll fall between one and one hundred hours.

If players don't know when to expect the real ending then they'll have to guess. Maybe after this mission in GTA we'll get to the endgame. Wait, no, one more thing. One more thing after that. With these interminable games that try for an engrossing narrative, players just get tired. Will it ever actually end?

Fallout is based on the premise that the player must find this water chip. It takes a long time, it's an exhausting journey, you find it and return home victorious. And then... one more thing... and you're actually only halfway through.

Objectively, there's nothing wrong with the content. But expectations frame experience, and the game had just prepared the player to say goodbye, not to enjoy another ten hours. Having to take a game at its word, players feel betrayed and jerked around. We react to a piece of content differently if we know it's the ending.

When we watch the season finale of a TV show, we know that this time the characters are really in danger. With a video game the player has no idea. Is this thing going to go on for another hour? Or five? Or ten? Where the hell am I in this story?

I'm not sure many developers are aware that this can be a problem; like how Ken Levine has said he didn't anticipate the ugly comedown from the stratospheric highs of BioShock's Andrew Ryan scene.

Expectations are everything. The movie Gone, Baby, Gone has a fake ending at about the 70-minute mark, but the audience doesn't start leaving the theater. They know how long a movie is and they're mentally prepared for the remainder of the film. I don't think Fallout players would be as bummed out if they found the water chip at the 70-minute mark.

But no one knows how long Fallout is, like how no one knows if Return of the King's running time is three hours and two minutes or three hours and four minutes. The movie continues long past the point where anyone was interested.

One more thing. One more mission, one more quest, one more rung in a ladder carved from monotony and you have only the vaguest of assurances that the ladder ever stops. I wonder why people don't finish games.

Oblivion's core story is paced terribly, which is to say it's paced like a video game. One more thing. One more lost object to find. That's at least consistent with Oblivion's general M.O. as a treasure-hunting smorgasbord, and Mass Effect doesn't handle that dichotomy nearly so well; instead redefining 'sidequest' as a repetitive grind existing at the periphery of the story.

BioWare dumps a whole lot of extra content on the player for the purposes of making Mass Effect long enough to count as a conventional video game. It dilutes the tightly focused, very linear narrative that they're trying to showcase. It's also why games like GTA that measure game completion with a percentage stat don't really work, since it can take players five times as long to get from 76% to 77% as it can from 1% to 2%.

Subquests aside, Mass Effect is able to manage player expectations of length. After act one, you get on the spaceship and you're given a certain number of planets to visit.

Those are goalposts; checkpoints by which the player can measure their progress in the second act, and theoretically the third act should be as long as the first. See? Easy. Knights of the Old Republic did that, Monkey Island 2 did that. No unpleasant surprises and the player is never unintentionally misled through poor design.

Some games telegraph their length with exceptional results. Right up front, Portal tells you: 19 rooms. Indeed there are, and so the player never thinks that room 15 might actually be a plot-critical gameplay escalation instead of a puzzle chamber.

Portal continues after 19, of course, but here it works. It capitalizes on the players' perception that the game is over; the "epilogue" comes as an intentional surprise more of the same. When you anticipate player psychology as Valve clearly does, then you can work with it.

You know how everyone in the world is able to pinpoint the exact moment that A.I. should have ended? Spielberg kept telling the viewer "one more thing", and the more times he said it, the worse the movie got.

Unless you're Portal, unless you know what you're doing, when players think a game is ending, they should be right. If a game prompts players to say goodbye, then, one way or another, they will.

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Wesley Kenyon
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While pacing in videogames can often be very uneven, the false climax which you point out as being present, and terrible, in so many games is often meant to be so. It can be detrimental to the overall artistic impact of a game, or of any other media, if the consumer knows when the ending is, and in fact can ruin the whole purpase of the false climax. Spokespersons from Konami commented recently on the restrictions they imposed on reviewers as being necessary because they wanted the player to be able to fully experience each cutscene and each moment of gameplay and not to be concerned about how far they are into the story. The same could be said with the story in Fallout one, and its Faberge egg-like narrative adds a more global spectrum to the whole story. One could argue that the writers of "Gone, Baby, Gone" would much rather have had the audience not know at all how long the movie was so the whole false climax could have had ts desired impact, and because the player often is not aware of the length of the game, it is that much more likely that the false climax will hit home.

Steve Westhoff
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Duncan, thank you for writing this article. This concept is something that I have felt in a number of the games you have listed, but I hadn't actually considered the expectation aspect of it, especially in relation to movies. And now that you have solidified it for us, I will take this into account when working on the pacing of games.

Ryan Galletta
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The last paragraph of the article sums up my rebuttal to this opinion, and the author seems to agree with me. One of his last lines: the story will suck "unless you know what you're doing".

I disagree that people use the 'length' of something as a guide to help them through the plot structure of a story. Certainly it has some effect in an individual TV episode, but you're suggesting we're all conscious of how many episodes there are in a SEASON.

But lets suppose this were true. How many complaints do you hear about the plot twists in Lost? In Dexter? In The Simpsons? Or in movies that are extra long, like The Dark Knight? (and if you haven't seen The Dark Knight yet, why are you sitting there reading COMMENTS about an opinion piece???)

People continue to enjoy the very formulaic story telling in television shows because the story structure WORKS. We enjoy Hollywood formulaic films even though we have an inherent knowledge of how the story is going to end because the story structure WORKS. And we can tell when it doesn't work. I haven't seen a game yet where the story telling worked to the standard of these other mediums. *and I haven't played Portal yet. Perhaps that's what I should be doing rather than writing comments to an opinion piece.

The reason we haven't seen great stories in games is because in film, television, and prose, the script is king. It all starts with story. Not with design, not with a gameplay mechanic. From what I've read, the Portal team did give the story the attention it needed during development and perhaps that's why everyone quotes it as an example of great story.

Just because we see lots of great film and television doesn't mean this is an easy endeavour - we see plenty of crap as well. Crafting a great story is a difficult thing and if you're going to put a story in a game, the writer must be given the time required to make the story work with the design. Otherwise, you get poorly paced, poorly plotted, poorly told stories.

Bottom line, the length of the game has nothing to do with the quality of the story.

Bart Stewart
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I notice that the games criticized for not telling the player their exact length were large, exploration-oriented games like Fallout and Oblivion and Mass Effect, whose normal playing time can run for many hours. Games like Galaga and Street Fighter, on the other hand, don't seem to be mentioned.

So communicating story progress only seems to be considered a problem for large, world-y games with a story. That's not too surprising. If the game is so big that it takes multiple sittings to finish it, it's a good bet that there's a lot more content to explore than just the main storyline action. That naturally makes it harder to know how to communicate progress to the player. Do you define "progress" as how far the player has moved through the main story line? Or as how much of the world's content they've explored?

What moves me to write is the concern that being big, deep, world-y, and exploration-oriented will be unfairly tagged as the sole source of the difficulty in communicating story progress to players. If games like Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Deus Ex, Fable, Oblivion, BioShock, and Mass Effect are thought to do a poor job of telling players when they're near the end of the story, that's not solely because these games are big. It's because it's hard to pace storytelling in a game that tries to tell a relatively short, linear, author-oriented story inside a large, open, player-oriented world.

I wouldn't object if games began to explicitly construct and present their stories as "chapters" of gameplay, and players were told right up front (as in Portal, somewhat) how many chapters there will be. That might be useful as a convention in how games with stories are designed.

But I'd hate to see game designers conclude that the solution to more accurately communicating story progress is to make games shorter, simpler and game-ier. Trying to improve storytelling in exploratory games by removing exploration content would be like relieving a toothache with decapitation -- it solves the problem, but you don't care any more.

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"like how no one knows if Return of the King's running time is three hours and two minutes or three hours and four minutes. The movie continues long past the point where anyone was interested"

Did you just use a movie that won the Academy Award for best picture as an example of poor storytelling and pacing? If nothing else it certainly helps exemplify how odd your proclamations seem. Basically, it's as though your point is that games should be shorter and more tightly focused, and less broad and complex.

I'd agree that games fall victim to the classic "let's put this in just to make it longer" pitfall, but much like the Return of the King's 45 minute epilogue, if the story needs it to be complete, then leave it in. People will still pay attention if they cared up to that point, and that's what matters most: getting people emotionally invested in your narrative. Cut out the crap and the filler, and drive the player along with visible progress being made towards their ultimate goal.

GTA IV did this horribly, in my opinion. It was one mission after another, with seemingly no changes made with regards to finding your old enemy for the vast majority of the experience. Bioshock did a great job pulling me along because I wanted to get Andrew Ryan for screwing me over, but afterwards I didn't really care about Frank Fontaine.

Deus Ex is my example of a great video game narrative. It was a long game, but just about every mission pulled you in and kept you guessing at what was going to happen next, and how you were going to stop it.

My point being, games don't need to worry about length to be great and compelling, they just need to worry about creating that tangible change from one significant action to another towards a goal the player sincerely wants to accomplish.

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"Did you just use a movie that won the Academy Award for best picture as an example of poor storytelling and pacing?


GTA IV did this horribly"

Ah the irony.

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No one praises GTA as being a "thinking" or "story driven game" though. I believe the above commenter missed the point.

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Somehow I knew someone would point to that. I recall GTA IV receiving lavish praise from critics for its revolutionary gameplay, not its story. That's kind of the "go-to" thing when judging games, don't you think? On the other hand, movies (especially those that are nominated for oscars and such) are judged first and foremost by the way their story is told, and how successful the film is at conveying that story to a captivated audience, are they not? Now, had the author taken LOTR and told us why, exactly, being long had made it uninteresting, then he might have a point, but all he did was hold it up and say "this is a great example of what I'm talking about".

So no, I don't think it's hypocritical to take a shot at GTA IV for its lackluster storytelling, yet consider using a movie acclaimed for its narrative as an example of poor narrative a bad choice.

Hoby Van Hoose
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I would frequently appreciate something like a table of contents in most of the games I've played. Both for gauging my progress and re-playing parts before I'm done. And some games that have horrible levels (bosses especially), it would keep the fun-factor higher if I could "skim through" those dull spots and get to the next part.

Ryan Galletta
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re: GTA IV

Actually, I believe GTA IV was receiving lavish praise for its story. Just look at the TV ads. Were they advertising open world game play? Or were they advertising the story of an eastern European immigrant trying to make it in the big city? The story is actually the reason I bought it. I heard all this hype about how great the story telling was, and I thought I needed to play it to find out just how great it was (or wasn't) for myself.

If you look through the reviews of the game, you'll see that for most, the gameplay was actually a disappointment compared with earlier versions like San Andreas. I think the author is correct in his assessment of the frustration with the missions in GTA IV, but it had nothing to do with how long the game was and everything to do with the fact that the missions weren't part of the story - they weren't linked to the character's goal (which one of the above commenters mentioned). But that's a different discussion.

As far as ROTK goes, it won Best Picture, not Best Screenplay. Again, I think the author's criticism of the film is valid - the pacing at the end went on and on - but its length was not the issue, nor was the audience's knowledge of its length the issue. The writing was the issue. Whether they were right or wrong in keeping that long ending is another discussion as well.

Daniel Lam
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I don't think that the actual length of a game is what matters. I think what matters is the content of it.

The writer seems to be a bit confused with the whole "2hrs of a movie" combined with "one more thing". As he had mentioned about A.I., everyone knew when the movie should have ended. This is outside of how long the movie actually was.

A story can be contextually leading the viewer/gamer for as long as it wants to, be it 2hrs, or 200 hrs, as long as it's relevant.

The "just one more thing" is in reality, just bad story telling. Games can work around that design. Levels should be designed around the story, not the other way around.

Look at Beyond Good and Evil, for example. It plays exactly like a story would play, and elements in it get progressively more intense leading to an expected and well performed climax and conclusion.

He brings up a good point with Portal, but after the false climax in Portal, you're suddenly put in a situation where the player doesn't know when the ending will actually come.

What game design should incorporate is a hot/cold meter so to speak. Ways for the player to see that things get progressively more intense from beginning to end. This draws the player into continuing the game and knowing that the end of the story draws near, without the player feeling like a gopher.

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In my opinion the good thing about games (compared to movies/series) is that not everything can be foreseen. You can focus more on the story itself and don't think about the fact how much fun you have left.

Compare it to books: Most times when I read a book there comes the time when I think about the amount of left pages.

Sometimes I am sad that there are still so many pages to read. And sometimes I am sad that the story will end within the next 20 pages. But I have never been happy about how many pages are left.

If you wouldnt have that piece of information you would just focus on the story.

I dont want a story that stops at the wrong point. Too early or too late, but if the story is good and I enjoy following it, why should I want to know when the fun stops?

John Rose
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Return of the King? The Dark Knight??? Gamers truly aren't ready for real stories.

Anyway, I'm on board with this article because we definitely need to be more sophisticated about play time. As our games reach more people, people with real lives and time commitments, the traditional never-ending game only alienates more players. I also rent most of my games, so I have to know how far along I am when I think about stopping for the night. So communicating how much is left is just a really convenient thing for everyone.

Matt Glanville
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I don't have time to post a long response, but this article brought to mind the Half-Life 2 mod 'Minerva: Metastasis'. I'll try not to spoil it for people who haven't played it but the mod quite clearly adheres to a three-act structure, and it is very clear which act you are currently in and how much longer you're likely to be playing. It still pulls some surprises, but the ending is welcome as it occurs just when you feel like it should. The 'extension situation' that allows Act 3 to happen does not feel cheap in any way and it clearly defines the shift in plot.

I would recommend this mod to everyone. Its creator, Adam Foster, has even recently been hired by Valve to work on Episode Three (in case you've been living under a rock).

Michael Schurman
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Just because a movie won film of the year, does not exclude it from critique. I agree with the poster, Return of the King dragged on, and on, ending about 5 separate times. I wanted to walk out of the theatre. Saying that opinion is not valid because it won an award is the appeal to authority logical fallacy in a different guise.

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I strongly disagree with story-driven games giving as much as a hint of when they'll end, unless it's clear through the story that the act being played is the closing act, and even that is up for argument.

I was very happy to read from Kojima Productions' Ryan Payton on the obvious reasoning behind preventing reviewers from divulging the number of acts in Metal Gear Solid 4. I wanted to have no clue of how long I had left to finish the game while playing. I feel that way about any story-driven game I play. Even when the game was finished and all story elements from nearly 20 years ago to today were expertly tied together, I still felt like playing MORE. The story was explicitly divided into a number of acts, each strongly moved the plot forward without diverting, and it ended when it was expected. This was achieved by the narrative and bosses defeated, for the most part. Yet, with a story that followed a typical movie structure... I was disappointed there wasn't a "surprise last act," even if that would've hurt the story structure... because in the end, if the game and story are great, I want more of the game instead of the story ending "logically" based on the storytelling guidelines of non-interactive media. If a new act after a "fake finish" gives me a whole new level to play in at the expense of the story ending with loose ends, so be it. We borrow the strengths of other media to complement the weaknesses of our own, but we don't have to abide by their every rule.

Portal, as good as it is, had roughly a 3-hour playtime where it ended where it should have. I loved the game, but by the end of it had no desire to keep playing. It ended before becoming tedious, and congratulations to Valve in tweaking the length of the game to be just right. For those that crave the challenge Portal provides, there are optional goals to achieve outside the main playthrough, which I happily walked away from.

But I digress. When a game is entertaining to play, I'm actually happy that the game didn't end when I thought it would. If I get to play more of an entertaining game with added story and character exposition, it's preferable over knowing when the game is done merely because "it makes sense in the story". The same reasoning somewhat applies to watching a TV show. I don't want to know that 10 episodes from now the show will end.

Surely, if your point is to reach a big enough audience with the assumption that most people will ONLY BUY games they think they can finish, then it's a fair statement to make... but is it really true? Is that how people buy games, anyway? Aren't most story-driven games today, even the supposedly accessible and short ones like Portal, still dominated by the "hardcore gamer" consumer? Is the "non-gamer" or "casual gamer" (whatever that means) interested in non-licensed story-driven games in the first place?

Mostly, the only people that care more than anyone that our games get finished are us, since we worked on the content from beginning to end, and we'd like to see people play it all the way through and witness our grand vision. Tough luck. The player determines how much of the game they want to play, and if they're ok with paying for a full game and playing half of it (which I'll dare a guess and say the majority of buyers do that, even experienced gamers), then that's perfectly ok. Take comfort in that there are enough hardcore gamers out there that will finish our stories from beginning to end no matter how long or difficult they are to achieve. If you want to follow traditional story techniques MAINLY to reach a wider audience, give examples of the games the typical Wii-only cares to play as an example on how to improve those, and leave the story-driven, complex games out of it.

Sorry for the rant.

Yannick Boucher
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Unlike most other commenters, i'll be succint: does it matter if you tell people how long the story is ? All you have to know is how to tell a story properly. MGS4 is a great example. You DON'T wanna know how it finishes, and there are twists and turns at every corner, but you never know where it should end, so you keep going.

A not-so-good example, would be the new Alone in the Dark... ;)