On endings

D and I have an Xbox 360 and play the occasional video game. We just recently wrapped up Mass Effect 3, the conclusion of a three-part series we’ve enjoyed. We played the first one long enough ago that it’s hard to remember our impressions of it, but we both felt the third game was much better than the second.

With one exception. The ending sucked.

Throughout the game, decisions and actions you take influence the outcome of events later on. Two and four-fifths of the series is all about choices and their consequences. In the second game, the choices you’ve made along the way influence how its conclusion plays out. So imagine my surprise – and disappointment – when the final, and arguably biggest, choice you have to make ends up having essentially the same exact ending (aside from a couple very minor tweaks). And on top of that, it didn’t even tell you what happened to the universe after the climactic moment.

I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Fans apparently made such a big deal of it that Bioware, the game’s developer, ended up producing a free Downloadable Content that expanded on – and differentiated – the endings. I watched them on YouTube, and am more satisfied, but wish that that had just been in the original game in the first place.

Having taken some time to think about it, I think I see what the original writers were trying to do with the ending. It was definitely non-traditional. I think the fact that they were all the same was supposed to suggest an inescapable fate, that while the means might differ, ultimately the result will be the same (the counter-reflection of the story that’s been told all series, that the Reapers are an inevitable fate that plays out time and again; the civilizations might differ, but the end result will be the same). Some of the consequences of the final decision were implied but it left a lot to the player’s imagination. The very closing scene that plays after the credits suggests that, whatever happened after, the galaxy was saved and life continues on, oblivious to the secrets and marvels beyond the edges of their solar system but hopeful as ever, as we ourselves are (I think it was trying to draw parallels, here; or maybe suggest that we, too, could be one of the isolated societies). But just like the story of the entire game was shaped around what we the player chose, so too was the final ending – what happened after Shepard made his/her decision could be whatever we the player chose.

It didn’t work, of course, because most people expect a resolution to their stories. They want to know what happened, not imagine what happened. There are too many what-ifs in not knowing to allow us to be satisfied. We can picture an unhappy ending just as easily as a happy one, and while we may tell ourselves it went one way, there always remains the possibility it went the other. We want to know it didn’t.

There is responsibility in being a storyteller. Your audience agrees to give you their time, to listen to your story, in exchange for the promise that they’ll be entertained and leave satisfied. You can get away with many things that are perhaps nontraditional or break a rule or two, as long as these two criteria are met. And this generally means providing a resolution that answers enough of the questions created by the climax (and without introducing any more) that the audience feels closure.

Interestingly, this was something I fell short on in my very first draft of Secrets. I ended the story too soon, and left too many questions open. One of my CPs pointed out to me that it was lacking that sense of closure, and after I’d had some time to consider what she said, I agreed. I ended up adding another 8000 words to the end of the story to (hopefully) give it that resolution it needed. The new version of the story is out with CPs again; we’ll see if I succeeded when I receive their critiques.

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