Now, I do have a fairly good idea of why so many games have disappointing and cut-down endings. For a lot of studios it would be a resource issue. Towards the end of a development cycle all the money for fancy cinematics and voice acting that seemed like so much eight months ago has dribbled down to an amount that would embarrass the snack machine. The ending will certainly feel the chop before the intro does, because the intro is what suckers the players into parting with their disposable income, and once they have your money producers couldn't give a shit about whether you leave the experience feeling enriched or not. And of course when it comes to make the ending all the actual developers will be tired and miserable and anticipating getting fired once the big project is complete. Well, they are if they live in Brisbane, apparently.
This last point seems odd to me. Speaking as someone who's done a bit of long-form storytelling in his time (buy my book), doing the ending is the point that I'm most energized. Doing the beginning, too. When I've developed games the work always starts off easy, then becomes tortuous in the middle, but towards the end we're over the hump and speeding gleefully towards the finish. The fact that this isn't evidenced in most mainstream game design is another sign of the culture of design-by-committee that is a permanent bugbear of mine, and of not enough people on game development teams taking a personal interest in the creative soul of the work. I made a speech on this subject to some developers once. In Brisbane. I guess it didn't take.
I thought I'd cite an example of games with good endings, and I got half way through typing the words Prince of Persia Sands of Time and Silent Hill 2 before stopping myself. I've cited these games so much it's getting boring for me. Yes, they have really good stories, and since endings are the most important parts of stories then the games logically have really good endings. Change the record.
It occurred to me to give an example of a fairly mediocre game that nonetheless had a good ending. And for some reason, what came to mind was Singularity. If any game illustrates the "beginning and ending good, middle bit dreary slog" rule, it's Singularity, because I remember quite enjoying the game at the start when things were a bit more BioShock-y and you didn't have fifty game-breaking weapons. But sat the end, while the plot twist was handled a little clumsily, there's three quite satisfying endings depending on your actions in the very last room. You can either shoot the nice scientist and join the evil one to rule the world together; go back in time and shoot yourself to prevent the game's events; or shoot both the scientists and bugger the whole business. Each course of action has a detailed epilogue movie and none of them give the impression of being the "proper" ending, which is how multiple endings should work.
I think what impressed me was that taking the first, evil option doesn't immediately result in the evil scientist betraying you. Rather, he turns out to be a proper evil gentleman and keeps his word. Turns out the asshole is you: Once you've ruled the world together for a while, you break off and form an opposing faction that plunges the globe into civil war over which one man will rule all. And I appreciated that, because it was exactly what I would have done in real life.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.