Published on July 13th, 2012 | by METC0
Game Design Corner – How Not to End a Game
I can already sense that some of you might be groaning in your chairs, assuming this to be about Bioware’s recent attempts to appease the gripes with the ending to Mass Effect 3. This week’s piece won’t be covering that, as this particular topic has been done to death concerning the Mass Effect trilogy. Instead, I will be once again writing and comparing two games I’ve finished recently, examining their strengths and weaknesses in their endings. The games in question are Gravity Rush, an open world superhero game for the Playstation Vita, and Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, a platforming game for the Nintendo Wii which brings Kirby back to his roots, namely those established in Kirby’s Adventure and Kirby Super Star.
Gravity Rush is a great game. Any qualms I have with the repetitive missions and irritating combat are qualms and nothing more simply because character movement and animation was so well done, and the story felt new and refreshing in most respects. I’d been dubbing it “a Japanese inFAMOUS” up until I reached the end, only ceasing because of how the game ends. To keep things relatively spoiler-free, the game ends incredibly abruptly with the destruction of a robot. No explanation on the origins of the shifters (the people with the power to shift gravity at will), no explanation of Kat’s plot-convenient amnesia, not even a mention of the cause of all of Hekesville’s sorrow and bizarre fate of being stuck in the middle of a gravity storm. There was all this build-up to something great here, but it felt like something teetered off at the end. The game just ends. This, for me, was truly the most disappointing aspect of such a fun game, which has soured any attempts to try and play the post-game messing around bit. At least the folks at Sucker Punch know how to make their amazing games end so well; a truly difficult skill in any story-based medium.
Conversely, you have Kirby’s Return to Dreamland. I beat this game over vacation last week (all energy spheres collected) with a group of friends. This game resolves itself by beating the final boss (we all saw the reveal of the big baddie from a mile away) and a conclusion worthy of the narrator from The Powerpuff Girls. I understand that Kirby games aren’t known for their record-setting plots and complex story arcs, but that’s okay because the game never presents itself as something complex or in need of a deep storyline.
For all you budding designers out there, here’s the moral of this segment. The secret to formulating a satisfying ending that won’t get your player base knocking on your door with torches and pitchforks is to always know exactly what the relationship is between your game’s story and its means of conveyance. This may sound tricky or unnecessary, but it’s one of the bigger things to kill perfect experiences from a player perspective. Gravity Rush presents itself with a rich world and several intertwined character arcs that are pretty well-imagined. At the beginning we learn of Kat’s amnesia and the strange monsters attacking citizens out of the mysterious gravity storms, and by the middle we know of the government plot to subject the city by manipulating the uncontrollable monsters as weapons. By the end, only one of these threads is resolved. The game positions itself as a quest for Kat’s memory and where the shifters come from, and these threads do not get resolved.
The idea here is not to go and explain every single plot thread, since that can actually be counter-productive when trying to make the player contemplate the game they just played. What should be done more is to provide a fitting end for a fitting plot. Kirby’s Return to Dreamland presents a simple plot (bad guys destroyed the alien’s ship, let’s eat the entire population of Dream Land) and concludes it equally fittingly (let’s kill the bad guy and save the day). The ending in Return to Dreamland was satisfying because it was a fitting end to a satisfying game. If the game had ended like Gravity Rush did, it would’ve ended with Kirby beating a miniboss then going back to his house and falling asleep. If this article had ended as abruptly as Gravity Rush did, then—
Aaron Sky is an incoming freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Game Design and Development bachelor’s program. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is writing his memoirs atop a mountain of jumper cables and canoe paddles.