He was dead all along. She was working for the villain. It was all a dream. We recognise these phrases from a catalogue of plot-twist endings that have become almost ludicrously ingrained in popular culture. Books, movies, and TV shows might have been doing it for longer than video games, but just because the latter were late to the party doesn’t meant there haven’t been some truly mind-bending endings. But what, exactly, makes the end of certain video games so incredibly memorable?
Getting the story right in a video game isn’t easy. It’s not just about writing a quality plot line: the impact of the story depends on the level of player involvement, and that’s an issue the game play has to address. On a very basic level, the player has to feel that they’re the one making things happen: it’s no use just having pretty cinematic cut-scenes, because then the player is just watching a movie (I’m looking at you, Metal Gear Solid 4).
I say all this because it’s intrinsically linked to how effective a plot-twist ending is. The player doesn’t care about a plot twist unless they feel like it’s undone or changed what they’ve been working towards for the whole game, and they won’t feel they’ve done that if the game play isn’t engaging. It’s a delicate balance to keep, but it’s what makes some endings truly incredible. At the same time, it’s what makes certain video game finales significantly more compelling than those of movies.
Of course, there are other things that make video game endings so enjoyable. Often they represent not just the culmination of the game’s events, but they’re also the part where everything you’ve seen so far is out done. Games with end ‘boss’ fights tend to have the best music, the best gameplay, and generally the most intense involvement for that absolutely hair-raising effect that substantiates why the rest of the game was worth it. I could list games that have fantastic final bosses for days, because it’s where the most effort tends to go in. Developers want to leave the player on a high note, irrespective of what they thought of the rest of the game: they make their endings exponentially bigger, better, and more badass than the rest of the game put together.
I suppose the most appropriate summary would be to say that video games, like all other forms of media, are complex and varied. Developers are constantly playing with conventions and coming up with new ways of tackling endings, and it’s these examples; this defiance of expectation, that makes the quality ending. Games like Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, Metal Gear Solid 5, the Persona series and Silent Hill have all provided solid examples of quality lying loosely within conventions, but it is genre-breaking games like Cave Story and Undertale that, for me, provide some of the most truly psychological, mind-bending and memorable endings.