Three endings you should hate more than Mass Effect 3′s

Writing is incredibly hard; a point, I think, that’s been ignored in this burgeoning landscape of Twitter, Tumblr, and repackaged Twilight fan fiction. I suppose a more accurate statement would be that writing well is incredibly hard, but I’m not here to argue semantics. It’s hard, okay! 

Let’s face it, designers aren’t writers. That might be an obvious statement, and yet many game designers still write their own scripts. Sure, it works out once in a blue moon, but for the most part we’re left with some truly embarrassing entries in narrative storytelling.

And therein lies the most amusing aspect of the recent Mass Effect 3 debacle The series has, arguably, some of the finest writing in the medium – a rare combination of unique ideas and engaging dialogue, all set against a mostly solid and coherent narrative. And yet, an unconventional ending (by triple AAA gaming standards) has some labelling the entire outing as a waste of time. Oh sure, it’s an overreaction on the part of a few passionate and misguided individuals. In time, they’ll cool off.

Until then, I’d like to submit to you three endings that truly deserve the kind of vile outrage perpetrated against poor Mass Effect 3. And to be clear, my choices are made purely on the basis of bad writing, not some subjective interpretations of the source material.

Spoilers follow, obviously.

Metal Gear Solid 4

Here is a fun party trick, ask anyone to explain the plot of Metal Gear Solid 4. Most will admit they never played past the first act. Others will take a moment, squint a bit, begin to sweat profusely, then spontaneously combust. I’m not kidding. I’ve done it several times and it’s awesome. My rolodex is really starting to wear thin.

In all sincerity, it’s quite difficult to explain exactly what happens at the end of Metal Gear. There is a climatic boss battle, that much is discernible. However, sandwiched in between is an hour or so of non-interactive video littered with heavy-handed exposition and animated flow charts. It’s a misguided attempt at tying together every loose-end and miscellaneous idea the series had proposed up to that point. It’s also a huge mess.

The mistake here, and really the same could be said of the whole series, is over-reaching ambition. Long time show-runner, Hideo Kojima, throws in just about every science fiction gimmick he can muster: time travel, paradoxes, clones, government conspiracies, future tech, demonic possession – and combines them with the deftness of a blind, armless, glass maker.

The most common mistake an amateur writer can make is biting off more than they can chew. As such, self-editing becomes an invaluable skill – the ability to suss out what needs to be said versus needless minutia often separates the talented from the average. Stupidly, some writers attribute complexity with intelligence. A series like Lost was initially intriguing due to its seemingly complex narrative. Yet, as its layers were exposed that initial mystery proved nothing more than a series of red-herrings. Similarly, Metal Gear Solid 4 proves that it had no master plan either, just a lot of half-baked ideas hidden behind some cutting-edge computer graphics – a frustrating reality for someone seeking resolution.

Halo 2

The story of Halo 2′s troubled production is somewhat legendary. Its predecessor’s insane popularity lead to a rushed production schedule that caused many features to be cut on the fly. The biggest loss: the ending. That’s not a joke, incidentally. The ending was literally abandoned to make release. As a result, gamers were left with a rather unsatisfying cliffhanger.

Halo 2, however, had one positive working in its favor – one that seemingly curbed a large amount of public outcry – the game was the middle chapter in a forced ‘trilogy’. A nice, and often overused, excuse for developers to wring more money out of a hot franchise. “Did we forget to answer something? No worries, brah, well address it in the sequel.”

For my money, forced trilogies are the worst trend facing both gamers and developers these days. Telling one story is hard. Telling one over the span of three games is incredibly difficult. It can lead to needless table setting, dragged out story lines, pointless b-plots, and general drudgery. Those who’ve played Too Human to the end will know what I’m talking about.

Forced cliffhangers are more commonly known as ‘sequel-bait,’ And you’ve no doubt experienced a handful of them in recent years. Iron Man 2, anyone? To be fair, Halo 2 wasn’t the first title to employ this gimmick. However, its success certainly helped set some bad precedents.

To that point, what developers seem to miss is that sequels are opportunities in world building. Gamers fall in love with settings, characters and experiences, not plot lines. If there are more stories to tell in your world (see The Elder Scrolls series) you’re all the better for it. If not, why force blood out of a stone?

Borderlands

On the opposite side of the non-ending spectrum we find Borderlands. The title certainly has a conclusion – it just doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day. Forget about sequel-baiting  or over-ambition, the game’s last few moments boldy pull the rug out from under you with a resounding “psych!”

Borderlands had a deceptively simple premise: You’re a bounty hunter tasked with finding a mythical, treasure-filled vault the opens every 200 years. As luck would have it, the story beings days before the Vault’s opening. Once the vault is opened you’re greeted by a giant Space-Squid who had been left behind as a security system of sorts. Killing him locks the Vault for another 200 years.And that’s it.No treasure. No nothing.Remember the first time Toad told you “the Princess is in another castle?” Well, imagine that was the ending to Super Mario Brothers.

A satisfying ending doesn’t require instant gratification, occasionally the resolution to a journey can be slightly more cerebral. Rocky Balboa, for example, might have lost his first championship fight against Apollo Creed, yet he won at life; overcoming much adversity and even gaining self-confidence in the process. It was a satisfying ending, albeit in a slightly unconventional manner*.

Borderlands, however, leaves you with nothing to chew on – save for some loot you collected along the way. In fact, had that been the twist, had all that experience, gold, and loot you collected along the way been the Vault’s promised fortune, then we’d feel some sense of purpose. Amusingly, the forthcoming sequel only mentions the Vault in passing, focusing instead on other characters and shenanigans.

Despite this one shortcoming, it’s quite easy to enjoy Borderlands. The journey, although pointless, was still immensely entertaining. That’s often the trade-off with video games. They are, after all, wearing many hats. It’s an interactive film, and also a simulator. In a world of rushed production schedules and large bottom-lines it can be difficult to give each section its proper due.

This brings me back to Mass Effect 3. It’s a pretty monumental achievement in hindsight. It offered the best of both worlds – a really solid story and really entertaining gameplay – all on a rushed schedule, no less. So cut the game some slack, it could have been a lot worse. It could have been Borderlands.

* Ironically, audiences didn’t quite support the ending to Rocky I. As a result we got Rocky II, where Rocky has a rematch with Apollo Creed, and wins. Subsequently Rocky never lost another fight again.

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Author: Paul Stachniak View all posts by
Paul Stachniak is a freelance writer and former correspondent for The Space Channel. He often says things people disagree with. He can be twittered @paulstachniak.
  • Giatonpotso

    I dont want to sound like “the random fanboy” but I guess you must be one of the ones that never got past Act 1 in MGS4. time travel??? demonic possession??? What the hell I’m I reading?

    I dont say its perfect too. There are a few plot holes and retcons in the history of MGS franchise.
    And for the most people will require a bit of research to find out “what the hell happened”, but the ending itself was amazing, if you “get it” that is.

  • El Homosapien

    if you watch the ending, the videos attempt to explaine everything in mgs4 and if you pay serious attention then you will understand. Borderlands ending wasnt great but it was better than mass effect 3 definetly. Cant remember Halo 2 ending. This article raises some good points but its subjectivity and the authors experience has a bit of a negative effect on what otherwise is a good read.

  • Invalidarguement

    hmmmmmm you must of fallen asleep during all those games….your argument is invalid

  • Nathan Holden

    Shaggy Dog [a plot with a high level of build-up and complicating action, only to be resolved with an anti-climax or ironic reversal, usually one that makes the entire story meaningless] endings aren’t a cop-out tho.

    With that said, having [theoretically] worse endings than Mass Effect 3 doesn’t redeem ME3 in some way.

  • wtfwtfwtf

    MGS4′s ending wasn’t bad just because you don’t understand what is going on. It is simple. Especially if you know what has gone on in the other MGS games. Snake is a super soldier. He fought his way through a radiation chamber to disable a device. He disables it. Liquid then fights, brother to brother, because Liquid likes the opera-like action stuff(you would know if you played the others or listened to him ramble on when he explains plans and stuff).

    Borderlands had a good ending. A great twist. The girl ended up being a satellite with an intelligent AI that just sits in space for hundreds of years.

  • Natsuko Tatsumi

    DON’T HATE ON METAL GEAR SOLID 4. I will have you fired.

    - Natsuko Tatsumi

  • Napoleon1066

    There’s no such thing as an article that’s not subjective. You can’t write from “no perspective.” That said, MGS4 was a narrative mess, and the fact that the ending had to be a full length feature film in order to wrap it up speak volumes for how poorly it was written.

  • Chris Scott

    The whole point of the article is to convey the author’s opinion.

  • Chris Scott

    “it could have been a lot worse. It could have been Borderlands.”

    Except it couldn’t have, Mass Effect 3 was the conclusion of a narrative driven series. People were playing Mass Effect 3 to complete their journey with the character. Nobody, or at least nobody I know, was playing Borderlands because it had a deeply intricate story. That’s not to say Borderlands didn’t have a shittastic ending but compared to what was expected of the two I can see why ME3′s ending comes across as much more of a letdown.

    That’s kind of the same thing with The Elder Scrolls games. Skyrim has an atrocious “ending” but most people don’t play TES for for the main quest story, they play to be able to play in the sandbox. Many games aren’t sandbox games and they don’t need to be. There are different ways to tell a story, sometimes being more linear in your delivery allows for a tighter storytelling experience, which is what Bungie delivered with the Halo series. Still Bungie acknowledges that the ending to Halo 2 was less than stellar, it wasn’t really what they wanted to deliver but Microsoft needed that game to get on retail shelves which forced their hand.

    Ultimately game making is a business and sometimes, sadly, business decisions take precedence over artistic ones. That doesn’t however seem to be the case with ME3. The way BioWare handled things after the fact indicated to me that they were somewhat prepared for the reaction and it was not because they ran out of time, it was because they wanted it this way.

    Even with all that said though, there are very few games that feature storytelling worth writing home about and none of these, endings or not, would fall into that category for me, which means I kind of expected the endings to suck in these games. I just expected ME3 to suck less. :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/lucas.gusmao.16 Lucas Gusmão

    SHITTY POST IS SHITTY!

  • XHN Scrapy

    Well Halo 2 Was still pretty good, it did in fact make XBOX LIVE Popular and what it is today…lol :) Wish they would toss out a Halo 3 PC already :/ lol