Friday, December 10, 2010

The trouble with endings

In my last post (or my first, English is a funny thing) I discussed Sintel. After mulling it over in my head for a while, my interpretation of the ending changed somewhat. Initially I was so stunned that I had a hard time understanding it. But now I see that she was insane. She had become so obsessed that she had lost her grip on sanity, though we did not see it until the end (or in my case, sometime after that). I feel that there's meant to be a moral in there somewhere, but I can't really see it because the object of her search was her best and only friend. The idea that you shouldn't become too obsessed with something is undermined by the fact that the "something" in question is a friend, that she she never gave up searching out of loyalty. So what then is the lesson? That we must even let people go sometimes? I don't know, I don't really see it.

But that's not really why I'm writing. In a way Sintel serves as the perfect introduction to what I want to talk about today; the way our - or at least my - opinion towards a movie or book or game can completely change in just a few seconds. The ending is the always the most important part, it makes or breaks the whole piece. That much is known... or is it?

The reason I ask is because lately, I've run into a string of bad endings. Let me clarify that I'm not talking about the end of Sintel here, I'll get back to that in a moment. First I'll be incredibly self-indulgent and actually discuss each bad ending on my mind.

First there was Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom. I finished the game several months ago, but I hadn't been playing for some time before I finished it and haven't finished many games since. Now, the game itself was not bad, or so I thought at the time. Combat was more advanced than previous games of the type that I had played, yet your blows had more impact on the enemies than in God of War 3 (the other game I was playing at the same time), as a result I found it more satisfying. The problems really started near the end.

There are three characters you can choose from. I don't believe the story changes depending on who you choose (I played the first three levels with each just to check), the characters simply swap roles. I played as the Scout, who's speed was most fun in combat. Near the end of the game, however, one of them simply dies in a very disappointing way. A short time later the other betrays you and you have to kill them. Not very cheerful stuff, but OK. Finally you reach the end and kill the one responsible for it all. At this point you have single-handedly killed tens of thousands of demons, necromancers, and undead. Entire armies by any measure. So the protagonist is happy that they have finally... got revenge? What happened to saving the kingdom? Apparently that wasn't really the point. You see, after all that you are told that the kingdom has been all but destroyed, and in it's current state of disarray the neighboring lands will be see it as easy pickings - it's only a matter of time before it is invaded and occupied. That your in your efforts to kill the King you have unleashed a dangerous magical entity who may cause as much harm as the Kind himself did, if not more. That you yourself have absorbed a dangerous amount of evil demonic energy, and you don't know what will happen to you.

So not a very happy ending then. But that's not the problem. The problem is that it's not a satisfying ending. It made a mockery of all my efforts. After personally slaying every single evil creature that sacrificing an entire kingdom could summon, you would think that perhaps you'd get a pat on the back and a "job well done". But no, instead you're laughed at, taunted with the knowledge that it was all pointless. By the end of you even hate your own character. So did I feel happy that I had spent some twenty hours or so playing? No, I only regret wasting my time, and I certainly won't waste my money on another Untold Legends game. Nice job, Sony.

My point is that even though I more or less enjoyed playing the game, the end ruined all that. Borderlands also had a poor end, thankfully though it was not nearly as bad. The game itself is fun, especially played with friends. Thank God, it has split-screen! But as well as playing it with a friend I also played through the story on my own. I fought everyone, bandits, wildlife, mysterious aliens and evil corporations, all for the the chance to plunder an ancient Vault that can only be accessed once every two hundred years. After an extended final battle, the vault finally opens, revealing a hulking monstrosity that you must kill. Following that, you're told that the vault just closed, sorry, maybe you can try again in two hundred years.

It's not that it's terribly written, rather I can't say that the end actually was written, you just reach the end and nothing happens, the story stops. It's not writing, it's a cop out. Normally I would have blamed bad writers or limited budgets, but in this case I assume the reason was to sell down-loadable content. The thing is, I don't want to play any DLC because I feel the game was pointless. I may not regret the experience the way I did with Dark Kingdom, but the previous urge I felt to play the game is completely gone.

Now lets talk about some movies. A few weeks ago I saw a poster at the local cinema for Icarus, starring Dolph Lundgren. I was pretty excited just to see good old Dolph again; as I had been when I heard he was in The Expendables. It was only showing at 11:30 at night, not ideal. Still I dragged a friend with me to go see it at the earliest opportunity, fully expecting it to be mediocre at best (I figured I would have heard of it if it was particularly good) but hoping to be surprised. Actually, that's my standard attitude towards movies these days, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, sometimes not. Anyway, the movie was alright through most of the run-time, and the end was average except for one thing: we didn't actually understand what had happened. I don't mean what happened at the end, I mean that we were expecting the end to explain why everyone was trying to kill him, but somehow it didn't - or if it did then we didn't get it. In the end I walked out confused rather than mildly entertained.

And finally, I just watched Repo Men. Interesting concept, but I didn't think the movie itself was particularly good. The "surprise" ending might have been interesting, except that it was almost exactly the same as the end of Brazil. The fact that I personally didn't like the end of Brazil doesn't really help either.

But it's not only a bad ending that can change how we feel, a good end can elevate an experience to much greater heights. Take perhaps the greatest example, The Usual Suspects. I watched most of the movie out of inertia; there was nothing to stop me from watching, although there wasn't very much keeping me watching either. And then it ended, and suddenly it was awesome. The entire movie shifted; things you had already watched changed and took on new meaning, or raised new questions.

And here we come back to Sintel. Sintel is a short movie, and, like The Usual Suspects, it's all about the end. The end gives the whole thing meaning, throws it all into a different light. And, in this case, punches you the gut and leaves you speechless. Until I saw the end, I was enjoying the movie. Afterwards, I hated it - for a while at least. Now I respect it, I think it's an amazing piece of art, but I don't want to watch it again. Not for a while anyway.

Moving back to video-games, the Sands of Time had a brilliant ending, the perfect complement to a brilliant game. The second game generally was not as well liked, mainly I think because of the tone, but in terms of game-play I believe it was superior, and it had some story moments that were simply amazing. The third game, however, wrapped up the trilogy an a way that I would say is one of the best endings ever. I must have been ranting about how amazing it was for three days, boring anyone who would listen.

And then there's Halo 3. The game was good, the end was fitting, but the "Legendary" ending after the credits? Before I saw it I liked the game, after I watched it suddenly I loved the game. Does that make sense? Probably not, but there it is.

The reason I talked at greater length about games than movies is because games require a much greater investment, in terms of money, time, and effort. Furthermore, they potentially have the capacity to draw you in deeper, at the very least the end feels more like a result of your own personal efforts. And yet most games have endings that are just adequate - you've saved the day, everyone lives happily ever after. In all fairness, one reason for this is that the big dramatic reveal that happens in the end of some movies actually happens a level or two before the end of a game, to allow you to experience the results and deal with them, rather than just watch them. The final "ending" then is usually just the few moments after all the action has taken place.

I suppose that's one of the challenges in writing for games. All the rules are different; writing in games is an emerging art-form, it's still evolving, writers are still just starting to learn what works and what doesn't.

So the real question that I have is, if I enjoyed playing a game, if I like it while I am playing it, is it fair to decide that I don't like it after I finish it? Is my previous enjoyment erased somehow, retro-actively written out of my own life story? Does that really make sense? So I've decided to try something. I believe I am near the end of Alan Wake right now. So I am going to write a review of the game now, describing my opinion of it up to this point, and another after I finish it. Then if the end disappoints me, if my opinion of it changes, I can at least try to understand why.

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