Wolfenstein designer Manveer Heir brought up an interesting point in a recent Twitter post. Is it possible, he wondered, for videogames to have "downer endings" without angering players by rendering the time and energy they've invested into the game "useless?" Obviously, he wasn't able to delve into the matter too deeply with just a Twitter post, but the idea intrigued me. Everyone likes a happy ending but it's not all that terribly unusual for a movie, book or television show to end on a sour note. Yet in videogames it's almost unheard of.
It's understandable in a way, because unlike other forms of media in which we watch others struggle against herculean odds, in videogames we are the hero and the struggle is ours. It's not the man on the page or the screen who stumbles, falls and fails. It's us. So it's not hard to see why game designers are hesitant to take "authorial control" and essentially bend the player to fit whatever story they want to tell.
Heir held up Half-Life 2: Episode 2 as an example of a game with a less-than-sunny ending but, with all due respect, I really can't agree with the choice. As unhappy endings go it's a compromise at best and, being the second part of a trilogy, not really an "ending" anyway. (There are spoilers immediately ahead, by the way.) Yes, Eli Vance is (apparently) dead, but so what? His character was a minor one, certainly not in the league of Alyx, Barney or even his far more memorable sidekick Dr. Kleiner. His demise was a quick shock but once it passed, nothing had really changed.
There are some games that don't wrap up with a dazzling burst of victorious glory, of course. Planescape: Torment, that literary classic of videogames, ends on what is arguably a bit of a bummer, as does Fallout 3, at least pre-Broken Steel. It was quite possible to screw yourself for good in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl was positively gleeful about giving people exactly what they deserved: Players can easily find themselves blinded, turned to stone or crushed to death when they "win" the game.
But in the final analysis, even those are cop-outs. Planescape is really a story of redemption, while the final moment of Fallout 3 is one of heroic self-sacrifice. Both Bloodlines and STALKER, meanwhile, make it relatively easy for players to rectify their missteps and earn a more upbeat and, I suppose, satisfying conclusion.