Wednesday, September 30, 2009

EXP Podcast #45: A Real Downer

You've put in hours into a game, the final boss is just on the horizon. While the end might be nigh, it probably isn't unpredictable. Game endings tend to be repetitive success stories, lacking the ambiguous or downer endings readily available in other mediums. Menveer Heir, of Raven Software and Design Rampage, inspires us again on this weeks podcast with his post lamenting the lack of depressing games. Join Scott and I while we discuss player agency, dead avatars, Roman aggression, and authorial control. As always, leave your thoughts in the comments section below and we'll shower you with praise.

BE WARNED! This podcast contains potentially significant spoilers for about twelve games and two movies. These are listed in the show notes, along with Manveer's original article. If you are sensitive to spoilers and hear a game title, go ahead and skip ahead a few seconds.

Some discussion starters:

- Confession time. What downer game endings have tugged at your heart strings?
- Does character failure equate to player failure? What about failure and downer endings in non-character driven games like Civilization?
- So you've got a sad story to tell. How do you pull it off with out upsetting the all-powerful player?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- "Life is a Series of Down Endings," by Manveer Heir via Design Rampage
- Run time: 29 min 3 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks
- Show includes spoilers for: Prince of Persia, Shadow of the Colossus, Chronotrigger, Passage, Halo 3, Call of Juarez, Call of Duty 4, Eternal Darkness, Far Cry 2, Final Fantasy X, Bioshock, Braid, Braveheart, and Marley and Me.


  1. Every time there's a discussion of storytelling in games, I point to one recent game as the prime example of how to do it right. I'm going to do it again here: The Darkness. The ending is perfect. It allows for a sequel but doesn't explicitly set one up. And it's a total freaking downer, although it does retain just a sliver of hope.

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  3. There are some endings that I can relate to the last part of you'r podcast: Dead Space, Lost Oddysey, GTA IV. All of them good downing endings that not necessarily put the player in a loose situation (I'm not completely sure about GTA IV) Fear 2, as well, has a great ending in my opinion, similar to what Mitch Krpata said about the ending of The Darkness.

  4. It wasn't exactly at the end, but there's a moment in the PSP God of War game where Kratos has to push away his child, and give up what could have been a happy life to save the world.
    What struck me about this the most is that it wasn't just a single button press; you had to hammer on one of the buttons for several seconds, gradually pushing the child off of you. And if you stopped pressing before it was done, the child would wrap her arms back around you, forcing you to start again.
    The physical connection, as well as the animation and voice work in that one scene was very very well done.

  5. @Mitch: The ending of The Darkness is strange somehow, on the one hand I liked it for not being too cliche, one the other I somehow tend to find endings rather dissapointing when they don't end the whole game experience with some kind of climax(from a gameplay point of view). I mean the whole thing just...ends. Maybe it's that after years of watching movies and playing games we're so trained to expect something big at the end?
    Same thing with Far Cry 2, it ends the narrative in a "good" way but hey, couldn't they at least try to blow me away with something, I put a good 30 hours of my time in it goddammit. At least that was my initial thought.

    A downer ending that I liked by the way was Heavenly Sword and although it's a little more cliche I like the fact that they at least tried to do something different although they could've easily ended it in a happy go lucky kind of way.

  6. @Mitch,

    The Darkness seems like one of those games that got undeservedly lost in the rush of other games. I've read a few folks praising it, so I'll be sure to add it to the list.


    It's interesting that 3 of the 4 games you mention take place in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. I wonder if this is a coincidence (as many video games tend to take place in fantastic worlds) or if the setting is somehow conducive to ambiguous endings.


    I never was able to play GoW on PSP, but that example sounds amazing. GoW has always done a great job conveying physicality during both the gameplay and the story. Now that you mention it, both GoW I and II had endings that were less than happy for Kratos.


    I agree that we've been conditioned to expect a spectacle at the end of a game. In the best games, the ending challenges the player to utilize all the skills they've acquired over the course of the experience.

    However, it seems like we'll start seeing more games whose stories might contradict this tendency.

    Trying to make a game go out on a gaming high note and a thematic low note is a hard trick to pull off.

  7. Yeah, seems kinda hard.

    However, isn't there a better way to do this, than the Heavenly Sword or Final Fantasy X approach (blowing the screen away during the final battle and then simply give a downer cutscene afterwards).

    I wonder if this isn't also a ludonarrative dissonance issue (hell yeah, the LD word...)

    When I come to think of it, maybe that's why the Metal Gear Solid 3 ending is so freakin amazing(spoiler ahead obviously):

    So after the adrenaline rush of the Shagohod battle and the following chase you have this pretty epic battle with The Boss at the end(with some kind of a sad touch to it) and afterwards you actively have to kill your "friend" by having to actually press the button, while standing above her. Kind of the ultimate downer plus you have your cheap gamer needs satisfied because of the gameplay madness before that.

    I'm playing MGS4 right now and I'm excited to see what good of a job they do with the ending of the whole series(so no spoilers please ;))

  8. Hey guys, a really good podcast as always and I'm here with my late comment :) One pair of games that are downers from the outset are the two Max Payne titles. The voice of Max being almost detached from the events he describes as well as the creation of a hellish nighttime world all contribute to the tone of the game. The gameplay is still very engaging and definitely gives the player a sense of agency, but I think the characterization and narrative are so strongly forced on the player that they accept the almost suicidal goals that Max gives them. It seems that if the game imposes a "downer" theme and ending strong enough to make it feel justified in the context of events then gameplay does not necessarily need to follow.

  9. Hi guys, enjoyed the podcast. One game that loosely recreates the kind of 'shorter, denser' scenario you spell out could be Introversion's Uplink. In that failure feels less like a punishment and more like part of the game - it's one of the few modern games to actually feature perma-death! You can backup your save file, but as soon as you do 90% of the game's tension is lost..

  10. @Chris

    I'll be interested to see how you like MGS 4. I've had an off and on again relationship with the series: loved MGS 1, lukewarm towards MGS 2, actively disliked MGS 3, and was unexpectedly amazed by MGS 4.

    Looking back on MGS 3, I think you're right. That final battle, the encounter with Ocelot on the plane, and the whole EVA situation pretty much made a sap out of Snake, while simultaneously allowing for a sense of player accomplishment.


    Nice call on the Max Paine games. While I never played them, I always got the sense that they were tapping into a noir style, which is often conducive to dark, ambiguous stories.


    Thanks for stopping by! The difference between failure and punishment is a distinction, one that many games don't parse.

    Also, thanks for the tip: I'm downloading the demo for Uplink as we speak.

  11. You're welcome! I'd be interested to know how you get on with it :)

  12. You know I love you guys (and I'll still link you from this week's Context Clues), but did you really have to keep calling them "downer endings," and not something a bit better defined? I certainly wouldn't have minded a nod toward "tragicomedy" in there. :)

  13. Less snark: Sure, I would have liked "tragic" more than "downer," but I came back for this:
    "It's interesting that 3 of the 4 games you mention take place in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. I wonder if this is a coincidence (as many video games tend to take place in fantastic worlds) or if the setting is somehow conducive to ambiguous endings."

    Oftentimes genre works are expected to have one or two larger deviations from the genre's standard conventions. I wouldn't be surprised if working within a genre like sci-fi allowed the game creators the credence and confidence to make a big leap and end on note less than the Aristotelean definition of a comedic ending (you know, maybe all the characters merely get engaged instead of married).

  14. Scott, sci-fi definitely has a tradition of dystopic "downer" content. That's part of why Star Trek has been as popular as it has been; it's different and more interesting than mainstream sci-fi, since it's optimistic at heart, if a bit daft. (There might be some interesting social commentary and psychological studies on that tendency, actually...)

    Fantasy goes all over the map, though.

    Failure and punishment indeed need not be the same thing, but I think it takes a good writer to pull it off. Let's face it, most games only pay lip service to story, if even that much, and players want fictional power trips. If they wanted to be depressed, they mightn't be turning to games that offer narrative power in the first place.

    Beyond that, though, games do require player input, and when you give up that control, narratives change. If you present the game up front as the story of a character, more or less set in stone, and the player is just experiencing it at their own pace, that's one thing that could work... but it can also be unsatisfying.

    On the other end, if you craft a game where the player inserts their own ego into the game world, and you just let them experience the consequences of their actions, that could work as well. It's a lot more work on the dev side, but it would be interesting.

    I've written about it before on my blog, postulating something similar to what you guys came up with. Say you ignore a quest at the beginning of the game, and a young man grows up angry and alone. He learns to use The Force (or whatever) and eventually realizes that the player is the source of their pain in life. Cliche, certainly, but the "out of left field" Big Bad can make sense if you tie it in well enough. It all hinges on making the player realize that their actions have consequences, and they can't just go stealing stuff out of every kitchen they come across or kill indiscriminately.

    Of course, that's just one playthrough. In another one, someone else becomes the political head of a shadow government, and plots to destroy the player.

    This would *only* work with shorter, denser games. (Even if, and perhaps especially if, you could play as a different character each time, if you're going with the prebaked character route.)

    You'd also need to decide whether or not you want to be opressively pessimistic, or merely "realistic", where sometimes sacrifice really does matter, and is necessary. There is a world of difference between trying to depress people and trying to educate them or tell them something important. The motive changes everything. (Truth can be depressing, but depressing things need not be true.)