Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thoughts on writing endings

*SPOILER ALERT: for any of you who actually read Amish fiction and play Xbox's mega-hit Mass Effect, you have been warned.

I completed playing a video game trilogy last week: Mass Effect 3. Each game in the series has taken approximately 40 hours to complete, and the decisions from the previous game are imported into the next. Characters who die in the first game are dead in the second and the third. They don't come back. They are dead. Kaput. And the whole story has been building (since 2006) to a final conclusion, which millions of fans were able to play starting March 6th. Tiny problem: the ending - which we've all spent more than 120 hours building toward, carefully crafting the story, interacting with the characters, making things exactly the way we think they should - is a stinker of an ending. It's bland. Confusing. Depressing. Nonsensical. A violation of it's own canon and internal logical consistency, and flat-out unsatisfying. Reminiscent of the third Matrix film. Nothing happens. And what does happen, is depressing. No matter what choices you make, the story is ushered down a cattle pen toward slaughter. There are tiny, tiny variations among the 16 possible outcomes, but none of the 16 are satisfying, and all of them are depressing.

Out of fans polled (more than 60,000 at this point) 98% hated the ending, with only 2% thinking it was even remotely satisfying. So, why is this a problem? Video gamers have shown themselves incredibly receptive to creative, literary, and even flat-depressing endings to video games. So what's wrong with the end of Mass Effect 3?

I did some research on endings, and found a pretty universal theory about what makes an ending good: People have no clue.

The closest anyone has come to expressing what a good ending should look like is this: "A good ending should feel both surprising, yet inevitable". That's all well and good, but it's a bit like telling someone, all you need to do to solve this puzzle is be smarter. Thanks for nothing.

So I assert this: The key to great endings is pretty universal. If you look at the most popular story and film endings you will discover a universal trend: rebirth.

Every story has an end. Yet every human being really knows that the ending of one matter is simply the beginning of another. Yesterdays enemies become today's friends. Today's friends are tomorrow's enemies. The tragedy of now, are the seeds of a much brighter tomorrow. The cycle begins again. Rebirth, and the freedom to imagine a new tomorrow.

Great endings: The Sixth Sense, Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Matrix. Every one of them ends with the promise of something new beginning. Romeo and Juliet ends with the tragedy of romance ending, but with the brilliant rebirth of two families leveraging that tragedy into restoration and reunion. As one thing ends, something new and bright begins. More to the point: the world has the chance to become what it was always supposed to be. That's what makes it inevitable - the fact that this is the brave new world we've been working toward all along. Which is also why the ricocheting redirect/bailout of the third Matrix film does not satisfy. It doesn't bring anything really new - just the end of a great many things. There is no true rebirth--just death.

And what makes it surprising? The cost your characters must pay to get there. There are million things they might have to sacrifice to get to where they're going. A million things that can die. But in the end, there's something inevitable about the new life which comes at the other end.

Rick and Elsa part, but the fight for freedom is born through renewed relationships. Neo dies, but is born again as a hero for those who need one. The Deathstar might be destroyed, but Luke is now on a new path to become a Jedi. As I walk out of the theater, or put down a book, I'm involved as an audience member, my own imagination working like mad, caught up in the story. I am no longer watching - I'm co-creating. I am interacting, and I'm also, on some level creating.

Because - to quote the final line of one of the 20th century's most beloved films - "Tomorrow is another day."


Greg Mitchell said...

Ha, I was actually thinking of writing a blog post about writing endings based on my playthrough of Mass Effect as well!

I'm torn on the ME3 ending. I won't go into it much because A) Spoilers, and B) I figure most of the people reading this won't have any idea what we're talking about anyway :p

On a personal "knee jerk" level, I didn't like the ME3 ending because I didn't see the fruits of my particular decisions and I really wanted a longer epilogue--though, in its defense, there is provided a hint that "Life goes on in a new and bright way" (at least with the final choice I made). It did remind me of the Matrix a lot though, with a bunch of philosophical musings that seemed to come out of nowhere and existed only for the sake of "Let's turn this action game...into art!". It was left field, but you play the cards dealt you, which I suppose is a sobering reality that Bioware was trying to "teach us", but I was not wanting in my entertainment. Especially after, like you said, I had spent over a hundred hours developing this story. I wanted something a little more personally uplifting (or at least to find out what happened to Miranda :p)

As for endings, it's a tricky balance: What loose ends to leave dangling? Which ones to tie up? How much resolution is needed and how much is TOO much? These are all things I hammered pretty hard while writing the ending to my series. I guess only time will tell if I succeeded, though I'm quite proud of it.

Conlan Brown said...

ME3 hinted at 'Brighter Things To Come'. But after I invested three work weeks in a game, it's disrespectful of the developers not to give me more than sixty seconds of a hint. That, and the destruction of Mass Relays theoretically will destroy all the planets in its solar system. Huge plot hole/continuity error. Sad day :(