Sticking the Landing

Red Metal and I have been going round and round these comment sections, complaining about when the plot turns sour at the end of video games for a long, long time.  And with good reason.  Dropping the ball on the plot like that is pretty much like giving the player a nice, delicious dessert, only hiding a big ‘ol rock in the middle of it.  You’re going along, enjoying yourself, and then bam!, all your teeth are shattered and you hate everyone who delivered that to you.

But, you know, plot is not the only way a game can fall apart at the end.  I don’t know if it’s even the most common way a game can fall apart.  Plenty of games fall apart gameplay-wise, as well.  In fact, thinking back, it’s hard to remember the last time I played a game that didn’t somehow just drop in gameplay quality at the end.

Fact of the matter is that most of the people who start your game aren’t going to get to the end.  As it turns out, not everybody can muster up the commitment that I do so magnificently all the time.  So, it makes sense that they’d put most of the quality up front.  That’s where the reviewers are going to focus, that’s where your first impression is developed, and really, that’s where you know most people are going to be playing.  From a pure dollar/value standpoint, of course that’s where you’re going to get the most impact for your operational inputs.

Of course, it may not be a conscious decision to focus on the start to the detriment of the end of the game either.  Oftentimes, if you’re making the end of the game at the end of the development process, you’re just running out.  Running out of funds, running out of energy, running out of creativity, it’s kind of natural you just wouldn’t be able to bring it the same way you were earlier.  Compounding this, one of the ugly truths of the video game industry is that crunch time is a standard practice.  When your game is getting close to being ready, your life will quickly become hell.  And you’re still supposed to squeeze out the magic there.  It just can’t happen.  So if crunch time is overlapping with you capping off the game, of course the quality’s going to suffer.

Just like a plot going down the tubes at the end can derail the whole experience, so to can the drop in gameplay.  I was actually enjoying Fallout 4.  I know not everyone enjoyed Fallout 4, but I did.  Until the end.  Which hit a really weird moment.  That was the point at which the plot was reaching its most tension, with all the factions I had been moving along having their irreconcilable differences finally coming to fruition, and with that pushing things forward, it really should have been at the game’s height.  The gameplay just wasn’t matching it, though.  The game completely ran out of anything new or different to deliver, leaving me fighting the same old goons without anything really special to it, glitches started popping up a lot more, and balance all went out the window.  The quests had the highest amount of emotional release in the game, but aside from the Brotherhood trying to get its troops at me through a toothpaste tube, which was kind of cool, the gameplay was all same old, where it wasn’t lacking.  It kind of made the experience feel a bit hollow.  Part of me was into it, part of me wasn’t, and I ended up suffering through the bad parts and not enjoying the good as much as I would have otherwise.

Don’t have much of a point here, just a bit of a rant.  But, while it’s easy to complain about a bad plot twist spoiling a game for you, and while a disappointing last level may not ruin the experience as much as a failed ending, it really amounts to a bit of lost potential.  I finished Fallout 4, and haven’t cared to go back, but a game that sticks the landing can have me coming back again and again.

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8 responses to “Sticking the Landing

  1. I have to agree. Lots of games never get finished because by the time you hit the end either the combat gets repetitive or they raise they difficulty too much, which can make an enjoyable title frustrating. Companies are pressured to make games that overstay their welcome, resulting in weaker endings, because reviewers will often complain if a game is too short.

    • Yeah, you can make an argument that you shouldn’t be introducing too many new ideas in the conclusion, but if you’re going that route, you do want to make sure what you’re delivering is at least solid. Honestly, if a game does have to stretch, I think I’d rather they do that in the middle, and leave me something to look forward to, than at the end, where just finishing is a slog.

  2. Now that I think about it, the original ending of Fallout 3 was appalling as well, so looks like Bethesda is going to have to break out the DLC to save themselves once more. I find I’m a little more forgiving towards gameplay taking a dive in quality at the end over the story doing the same. Maybe it’s because I’m just so used to this happening that, unless it’s a particularly egregious example, I find it’s usually not worth commenting on. It’s also rare for a game to end with gameplay – even when it’s clearly the forefront; the cherry on top of the sundae tends to be resolving the lingering threads and giving the setting and its characters a proper sendoff, so when it’s unsatisfying, that sour note, irrespective of the quality of the last areas, is your last memory of the experience.

    Personally, I wished more developers would make the beginning and ending of their games first so their worst ideas would be in the middle where they would do the least damage. I think the reason they don’t is exactly as you say; AAA gaming wants to impress the critics – many of whom will never see those credits roll due to the nature of their job. For the most part, this is the only medium where a work with a weak ending can still get critical acclaim; a film director attempting this would deservedly get bashed for their troubles. It’s also not a forward-thinking philosophy. As I’ve said in the past, we could see works that are currently lauded being outright despised by future generations of gaming fans in the event that they want to experience what their parents went crazy for only to be disappointed if they see it through to the end. If that happens, their reputation would take a blow from which a full recovery would be very difficult (if not outright impossible).

    I think this propensity of the AAA industry is yet another reason the indie scene has been so appealing as of late. Games from that crowd tend to be shorter, but not only is there a distinct lack of filler, creators of such games usually don’t have a deadline they have to meet. Not only that, but because there’s typically less fanfare surrounding their release, they often don’t even have to worry about impatient gaming fans. For instance, Undertale was a Kickstarter project, even including a demo at one point in its development, but until it was completed, I remained unaware of its existence. I can say with absolute certainty that I’m not the only one who never heard of the project until it was completed and subsequently became a big hit on the internet.

    AAA gaming doesn’t have this luxury; developers often have to deal with working hours that would be considered unethical (possibly even outright illegal) in any other industry. This is all for a game that, considering inflation and the sheer amount of money that goes into marketing, development, and employee wages, is lucky to break even let alone make a significant profit even if the critics love it (just look at BioShock: Infinite). In other words, it’s a lot of work for very little gain. It’s probably why we’re seeing talented creators leaving the industry en masse, whether it’s for a non-gaming software position that they can easily translate their skills to and get to work for fewer hours while making more money (with the added bonus of not having to deal with an often volatile fanbase to boot) or lending their experience to the indie scene, thus giving it even more credibility and appeal.

    • Story wise, the ending to Fallout 4 was fine. In fact, save for a few major oversights, one of Fallout 4’s peaks of plot quality came at the ending. It’s just the gameplay could not match it, so I just wasn’t feeling it as much as I should have.

      It’s pretty understandable to be more concerned with the plot turning bad at the end. A bad turn in the plot can actually go back and make the good points you’ve gotten worse, and can ruin future playthroughs, whereas if the gameplay’s bad… well, that’s just one bad level. The rest of the gameplay’s still good. Even if the game ends poorly, the rest of the game is still fun. You can divide segments of gameplay and take them bit by bit, but plot is all one contiguous whole. Indigo Prophecy’s a great example of that. The plot was so good at the beginning, so bad at the end, and because of that, I’m not even able to enjoy the beginning plot anymore.

      I agree, if you have to stretch your game somewhere, stretch it in the middle. Endings should be when games reach a peak. I remember going back to my old saves in Final Fantasy 6, Yoshi’s Island, and games like that and beating the bosses over and over again as a kid, just because the endings were so fun. I really miss that experience.

      I’ve been predicting big changes for the AAA model for a good long while now. I was sure it was going to happen before the next console generation. It’s astonishing to me that they’ve kept the same business model that sees them eating through so much of their soft resources for so long. Change is slow, but I still can’t see this being the way the AAA industry works in the long term. It’s got to eat itself from the inside out eventually.

    • Oh, so it wasn’t just me who thought Fallout 3’s ending was lame? That’s good to know. The final cutscene was just about the closest thing to a “Congraturation You Are Winner” I’ve come across outside of the NES.

      On the general topic, I completely agree. There’s a famous (so famous I can’t find it online… :/ ) quote from film producer Harvey Weinstein, something to the effect that a film can be 85 minutes of rubbish, but if the last five minutes are amazing, that will colour their impression of the entire experience. The same is true of games, and I wish more developers would follow that general philosophy rather than the front-loading we often see.

      My understanding is that with a lot of games, the developers design the second half of a game first, and do the opening half last. That way, the experience gleaned from doing the later stages of the game generally means the opening will be stronger, for the reasons you describe: most players, let alone reviews, don’t finish games.

      There really is nothing better though than a game that comes together and concludes in a satisfying way. Many of my favourite games start slow, then build momentum until the ending, which feels like a culmination of everything that has come before it. The first two Silent Hill games are great examples of this, as is one of my favourite games that almost no one has played, Shadow of Memories (called Shadow of Destiny in the U.S.) on PS2.

      • Fallout 3’s ending took me through the weirdest ride. I thought all that stuff with Liberty Prime was awesome, and I was so excited for what was to follow it up. But then you get to the purifier. The Fallout series hadn’t exactly given their final bosses a lot of build up before you got to them, but they at least had some sort of spectacle. The Master was just plain bizarre, and posed a completely new type of fight. Frank Horrigan was an absolute beast that you had to pull out all the stops to overcome, but they gave you a lot of resources for that fight, so it ended up being this huge bloody slogfest where used every ability and dirty trick you had to get through. But no, Fallout 3’s boss was just some guy who’d kind of been on the radar and you did have a personal beef with but who didn’t exactly have a whole lot notable about him, so all the cool build-up behind the Liberty Prime crusade just went away when it turned out you were just fighting a goober. And yeah, the ending after that was just wasted. The whole “Oh no you or someone else needs to sacrifice themselves even though this guy right there is completely immune to this” was infuriating, and then the slideshow that followed was just a bit heartless. Not a good way to cap things off, at all, and just opening things up again alone was enough to vastly improve the ending with the DLC.

        Is that right? The second half of the game is often designed first? Huh, I wouldn’t have guessed that’s so common of a practice. It does give yet another explaination for why things seem to fall apart at the end so often, however.

        I’ve got a great respect for games that are willing to take things slow at the beginning. That’s a great risk that doesn’t always pay out, as Final Fantasy XIII shows. And it does make it harder to get people into the game, and may impact the initial purchase rate. But when it does work out, and it’s handled well, man can it make for a better experience overall.

      • Nope! Although I have to admit that by the time I played Fallout 3, the ending had been fixed with the DLC, so it wasn’t really an issue anymore. That said, I can see why people hated the ending in the vanilla version.

        It’s interesting that you say you like it when a game starts out slow. I think it’s something of a balancing act. Introduce too much at once without giving the player a chance to connect with the characters and you get an average Call of Duty installment. Go too slowly and, as Aether hinted at, you get Final Fantasy XIII. I definitely prefer it when a game slowly introduces the characters and the setting, though. You need to establish the characters as actual characters in order for your audience to care about them. If you don’t, they’re little more than walking, talking plot devices.

        I can see why they’d want to impress reviewers by putting all of the best content in the first half. It really is a problem endemic to the medium of video games because it could very well be the only medium where you can count on a good portion of both fans and critics to not complete the experience. It’s not unheard of for people to not finish books or TV shows with a single, continuous story, but in those cases, you can usually count on critics to make it through to the end, so if the ending sequences are problematic, there’s a good chance they’ll make it known. Meanwhile, films are the opposite of video games because, unless they’re particularly bad, critics and moviegoers alike will probably make it to end regardless of how they feel about them when all is said and done. Therefore, if the ending is weak, chances are, it’s not going to fare too well with critics.

  3. That’s a good point you bring up. The damage bad segments of gameplay inflict on the experience is localized compared to when the story does the same. Although I have to say that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was a rare case where the elements that made the plot worse were in the middle of the story, and the ending was effectively sabotaged as a result. It’s a bit different from the three games I highlighted in that “Start Strong, End Strong” essay where the respective endings were independently bad, yet they still irreparably damaged the enjoyability I could ever have in subsequent playthroughs because I know there’s no pot of gold waiting for me once all is said and done (though it should be noted that System Shock 2 was the only one that didn’t have several strikes against it going into the endgame, so it was by far the most jarring instance). Indeed, knowing there’s a good chance I’ll be disappointed is the reason I haven’t even considered trying Indigo Prophecy. I remember one image floating around the internet where the title of the game is replaced with something to the effect of, “My dog ate the last twenty pages of the manuscript, I swear,” and judging by your testimony, it sounds like an accurate assessment.

    You’re not alone; I too have fond memories of repeatedly clearing the final bosses of Yoshi’s Island and Final Fantasy VI just so I could relive the endings. If anyone were to ask me why I’m such a stickler for endings, I point to games like those to prove my viewpoint. A good ending should give you a complex feeling of accomplishment, joy, wonder, and even a little bit of sadness knowing that it’s all over. For some reason, I don’t think you can convey that feeling when you’ve destroyed the world (except maybe not really), watched the bad guy win at the last second, or witnessed a particularly inept implementation of moral ambiguity.

    I think there’s a good chance the changes to the industry have already been effected and they just simply haven’t fully manifested. In the long run, no, I don’t see the AAA industry surviving with the tactics they’re using now. They’re staying afloat with a series of short-term victories, but that kind of mentality just means they’ll end up painting themselves into a corner once they’ve used up what little goodwill they have remaining. It’ll be very interesting to see what the state of the industry will be like in the 2020s, won’t it?

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