When I take a good long look back over the years I've been gaming, all the way from the humble ZX-80 with Hunt the Wumpus, the ZX-81, Spectrum and so on. I've seen a bit of a trend develop as time passed by. Games began with very little in the way of reward, you got the satisfaction of beating them and perhaps to enter a high score Hall of Fame. You didn't really get anything but a small Game Over screen and a thank you for playing.
Titles back then weren't all that sophisticated really, they bumbled along in their own sweet way and it's only through the advent of bigger and better systems that we've been able to see a change in gaming trends. PC gaming gets bigger and better, console gaming moves on from generation to generation, with the current generation of consoles being pretty decent. With it, you'd expect the games to follow suit.
I remember completing Hidden and Dangerous, wondering where my cut-scene at the end was and watching the credits roll with a sense of growing irritation. There was just a short screen of text harkening back to the days of Ant Attack and Zombie Zombie to greet me and some guy on a hill smoking a cigarette. I have to admit back then when I was younger, I felt somewhat cheated by this.
As gaming technology grows, the art of storytelling grows with it. Some games approach their craft now with the eye of a Hollywood Director. Gears of War and Gears of War 2 are prime examples of a game with cut-scenes produced as if they were made for a movie. Epic's latest iteration of the Unreal Engine has brought with it a whole new slew of tools that provide perfect camera control and excellent opportunities to create some gripping visuals. Some of these tools are ahead of the curve in terms of cinematic game creation; Epic's tools in many ways rival those of the film industry.
So we have the tools and technology, game graphics are no longer an issue and creating a nice ending is not impossible. The ending that I'm talking about is one that effectively ties up the story for this part (if it's a multi-part game) and answers questions you might have. It may lead to other questions for the inevitable sequel but it finishes the current arc, ala Dead Space. I don't mind if it's a long ending cut-scene like Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy, since at least I feel as though I've gotten some kind of reward for finishing the game in the first place.
What I find are the most rewarding endings for me are the ones that lead to something else, perhaps a hidden level that you get to play after the credits (Call of Duty 4) or a game like Dead Space (again) that operates upon a reward system. Beat it and you'll unlock a round 2 play-through at the same difficulty but with the added bonus of some nice goodies at the end that you can use in the round 2 play-through. As long as the story is tied up in some way (Gears of War) I don't mind so much. It's when you've paid a decent amount of money for a game that might only last 6-8 hours and right at the end it flashes up.
Now that's when I start to feel really cheated.
I'd put that down to pure laziness in this day and age. I've seen what these new machines are capable of. The industry needs to hire decent writers who have a grasp of the ebb and flow of scenes; they can craft some pretty good ideas and some excellent gameplay opportunities now. Just look at what's gone by recently in terms of games. Bungie offered us a glimpse of a decent ending with Halo, they lead directly to a sequel with Halo 2 and tied it all up as much as they wanted to with the ending(s) for Halo 3.
I didn't feel cheated at all when I finished Halo 3, the ending was there and since I'd beaten the game on a harder difficulty I was able to view the whole series of endings and the tantalizing glimpse of something right at the end left me wanting another Halo game, so mission accomplished there Bungie. I don't mind having an unlockable extra ending for finishing a game on a higher difficulty as long as it's substantial enough or interesting enough to warrant the extra play time.
I know roughly where the ideas of no endings or short endings come from, way back on the first generations of consoles where you had games that were so fantastically hard that you were lucky if you ever got to the end. The developers as an afterthought decided that it might be a good idea to drop in a little screen that said, GAME OVER so that you knew the game was finished and then a timer that gave you a few moments before the game restarted again and you were thrown right back to square one after several punishing weeks of joypad related pain.
At some point a developer must have thought: you know they've gone through all this agony and gained several weeping sores from playing, perhaps lost family members who have given up in disgust at the obsession with SuperMegaTowelBlaster3000part3 and gone to live with their more interesting in-laws whilst this game was completed. Maybe, just maybe they need a tiny reward for getting to the end of the game, something a little better than THANKS for PLAYING or GAME OVER.
So they created a scrolling credits screen with a guy on a hill smoking a cigarette. To which they added GAME OVER just so we'd know it was the end and not some hidden reward where we watched a soldier in World War 2 smoke a cigarette as a list of people scrolled on by. I shouldn't complain about that since it was miles better than being told the game had ended and would start again in about six seconds time, yet I still think it could have been avoided if they had bothered to just add even twenty seconds of an outro.
I recently finished (after waiting for a long time for it to be released) the Witcher Enhanced Edition. Now CD-Projekt Red have obviously understood the art of storytelling and reward since the intro to the game is probably the most jaw-dropping cgi since Blizzard and Squaresoft, the outro is likewise just as good and you really feel rewarded for getting to the end of this epic quest. It answers a lot of questions and raises even more for the player.
Mass Effect is a bit of a mixed bag in that respect. I felt the game's outro wasn't as good as the introduction but it was still miles better than just a few seconds of footage and a credits list. Unlocking New Game+ and several rewards for achievements in the game was a masterful stroke of insane genius since it meant I could go back and play it again to gain new levels. I made me want to restart the experience.
On the other hand the ending to Clive Barker's: Adventures into BDSM and shooters, aka, Jericho was like eating a donut without any kind of filling, without the donut, it was like biting down on fresh air and expecting a cake-like treat. It was an appalling waste of time and effort.
These days when we're paying top shelf prices for products, we expect to be entertained and enthralled by the intro, captivated by the gameplay and most of all rewarded for playing the game. For some of us it's not about gamerscore and achievements (unless they unlock things in game or for the next play-through aka Mass Effect). It's about playing the game, following the story and getting to the end of it to find out if it answers your questions and delivers a satisfying conclusion to the story arc.
Call of Duty 4 understood the whole cinematic approach to gaming throughout. It might have been short, but it was incredibly fun from the beginning to the end with a sense of immersion and reward that Infinity Ward delivered with a masterful stroke of genius. It is still one of my bench-mark storytelling games.
Hopefully, over time, other developers will realise that the Art of Endings is just important as having an eye-meltingly good beginning. Since you want the player to keep on playing through for that carrot at the end, and if they find out it's a turnip, you best hope that they like turnips as much as you do.
Until next time: GAME OVER.