Tag Archives: endings

Spoiled Endings

I really liked Rise of The Tomb Raider up until the last thirty-odd minutes. Everything’s coming to a head, set ups are paying off, there’s a boss fight against a principal antagonist. You go to the next area and… There’s a cutscene, and in that cutscene the game ends, wrapping up most of the plot points with a tidy bow but still leaving a bunch frustratingly hanging for the inevitable sequel. You get another nice little plot button if you continue the game to find some more of the collectibles, but narratively, that’s pretty much it.

Which is a bit of a bummer. Everything has been rising to a crescendo, but the last playable moment is a boss fight that you’re pretty sure is just the prelude to that Epic Climax that, well doesn’t really happen (another tip: in video games that Epic Climax should be playable). In any case, it’s a fairly anti-climatic ending. Some of the more interesting plot points brought up (who/what is Trinity? Holy crap Ana is such a villain) don’t get much pay off within the game’s narrative (not with all that potential sequel money).

And the thing is, that bummer of an ending retroactively colors my entire perception of the game as a whole. I really liked it, but the lack of a return on my emotional/temporal investment leaves a poor taste in my mouth. I wanna go back and get all those collectibles and stuff, but right now I’m not sure I can be bothered.

It’s odd, the way a failure to stick the ending can affect your perception of a piece. Mass Effect 3 is really solid game, but it’s best known for its disappointing ending. Never mind some of the great highlights (and the brilliance of the Citadel DLC), Mass Effect 3 is known for reducing the game’s climax to a choice of color. I didn’t dislike it as much as some did, but it still took me a couple years to return to the game’s story mode and clear it with my other two characters.

This doesn’t just apply to video games; I loath the final half-hour-or-so of How I Met Your Mother, and that in turn makes it hard for me to revisit the show as a whole. I love how Lost ended, but some people hate the show just ‘cuz how it ended. And think about it, how many movies were ruined for you in the final act?

At first blush, this doesn’t make much sense. A really crappy middle doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie, not to the degree an ending does. But here’s the thing, the ending is how it ends. Duh. But it’s what the ending has to do: it brings together everything that comes before and provides that oh-so-important catharsis. Flub that and things feel unresolved; you don’t get the catharsis that lets you leave it behind and get on with your life.

I’m not really sure this blog post has much of a big point besides stressing the importance of an ending. Rise of The Tomb Raider is still an excellent game, exploring, hunting, gunplay, and everything else is so much fun – and nothing beats the aha! moment of solving a puzzle, but the disappointing ending took the wind out of my sails. In the case of this game it’s doubtless because of the developers’ want to provide a hook for the franchise, but there has to have been a better way to end the game than with its rushed climax. There’s a difference between leaving your audience wanting more and not giving them enough to feel complete.

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On Finales

So Parks and Recreation ended a few weeks ago bringing an end to a particularly great show that I got into far too late. The finale was especially wonderful, elegantly tying a bow on seven years of stories.

Rather than having some big hoorah, though, the episode has the former Parks Department take on an utterly inconsequential task (getting a swing in a park fixed) before going their separate ways. With the whole season serving as an effective wrap up to the current proceedings, there was no need for there to be a big artificially succinct Final Big Moment. Instead, Parks makes fixing the dumb swing matter by flashing forward with each character to see where they are in the future.

Parks is far from the first; How I Met Your Mother did it in their finale first year. I’ve talked about my many qualms with it narratively, but it was a structurally solid technique. We got some closure on characters and know what Ted ended up doing, even if it went against everything that’d been built up thus far. But Parks goes further and arguably does it better by going to several different spots in the future for each main character (and even some lesser ones). We find out many of the key points events happens to them in the years afterwards. Some of their bigger decisions are prefaced with vignettes showing off key character moments and their growth. At the end of it all there’s this strong sense of resolution.

If anything, Parks errs on telling us almost too much. It seems nearly as if we know everything that happens to these characters in the future. Little is left to the imagination, we know Andy and April have kids, we know Ron ends up happily in charge of a National Park, and we know that either Leslie or Ben became president. By the time the finale ends we’re left knowing that we’ve heard just about all the stories there is to tell about these people.

Which makes me wonder what we want out of a finale to a show. There’s something fun about an ending that implies the adventure continues: look at Serenity (effectively the finale to Firefly) which has since spawned a couple comics, or even Chuck which remains open-ended enough for more to happen. But an ending like Lost’s which firmly closes the door on anything else isn’t bad either. So what makes an ending satisfying?

I think closure is what really matters. The ending of Serenity left a few balls up in the air while still resolving some subplots, like Simon and Kaylee’s romance and what happened to River. But even though we knew Mal wasn’t quite out of the woods and that the crew as a whole were a little worse for the wear, we’ve got this sense of finality. This adventure is over; even if there’s more to come, for now the major issues are resolved.

What’s important is that the ending fits the story. Firefly’s works so well because the show has always been bittersweet. Lost is fundamentally mythic and Chuck was always about a romance and family. Parks’ fits because the show’s format has always been a little meta, so showing what happens ten to forty years down the line isn’t out of place. Lost couldn’t have Parks’ ending and it couldn’t be the other way round either.

It’s hard to get endings right. Don Quixote’s ending allowed for some guy to write a sequel, so when Cervantes wrote an actual sequel he had Don Quixote die at the end so no one would write another allowing him to have the final word on his knight errant. How I Met Your Mother undid (at least) a season’s worth of character development with its finale so even though we knew what happened to the characters we felt a little cheated out of our investment. Parks and Recreation had its cake and ate it too; we know that things work out for everyone in their own way, and we’re okay with that. We’re invited to fill in the blanks (is Leslie or Ben president?), but we’re told things are alright. And that’s good enough.

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The Ballsy Ending

I feel like Edge of Tomorrow has been out long enough that it’s safe to talk about the ending. And honestly, I feel like I could have discussed the ending much closer to when it came out because, well, it kinda just was. There wasn’t a big shocker at the ending, no moment that left you going “woah.”

Edge of Tomorrow ends with breaking the loop, as one would expect from a movie that’s essentially Groundhog Day with aliens and guns. But unlike Groundhog Day which ended with the next day, Edge of Tomorrow ends with a reset. To the day before, only this time the aliens are defeated and such. So yay, there’s a happy ending, everyone’s alive despite the heroic sacrifices made by Will Cage and Rita Vrataski. It’s a happy ending and there’s the hint that that undercurrent of romantic tension is free to blossom. Woohoo.

But it’s the easy ending. Everything’s tidy and neat and somehow destroying the alien Omega hive mind meant time/Cage’s consciousness being shot back to the morning before — the loop is reset. Which makes sense (kinda), but, again, it’s so typical. It was a great movie up till then; really pushing the concept for all it was worth. There was also some build up as to what they would have to do to destroy the Omega. Maybe by destroying the Omega Cage would becomes the new Omega and control the aliens. There were hints that in order to end the loop Cage would have to be willing to sacrifice himself and Rita. Ultimately he does, but it’s cushioned because he’s back to the start at the end.

I’m told the manga the film is based on, All You Need Is Kill, has a much ballsier ending. In it Rita never lost her reset ability, so both would ‘wake up’ after they died. At the end, however, they turn against each other since they’ve become antennae for the hive mind themselves and, thus, one of them has to die. That’s a cool ending and it’s one that plays all its cards. The film, well, played it safe.

I like ballsy endings when done right. District 9, for example, didn’t end with Wikus reuniting with his wife but rather, well, he become one of the prawns himself. It’s a weird ending, but one that’s appropriate given the gritty tone of the film. For it to end happier would be untrue to the narrative that had been presented. Furthermore, it’s one that sticks with you long after the movie came out

The Last of Us is another story that had to be ballsy. Given how the game progressed, it couldn’t have a bright happy ending — to do so, in the words of writer/game director Neil Druckmann “…didn’t feel honest anymore. After everything they’ve done and everything they’ve been through, that was letting them off a little too easy – especially for Joel.” The honest ending was the ballsy one. The one that left you a little uncomfortable and questioning all that had come before. It worked, and the game is all the better for it.

Now, there’s a time and place for the ballsy ending, just as there is for the safer one. The recent film What If ends much happier than I expected, though part of me did want it to step up and be the romcom that ended melancholically. But hey, it didn’t feel nearly as schizophrenic as Edge of Tomorrow did. I’m just fine with movies like The Guardians of the Galaxy or The LEGO Movie ending with an optimistic note. The ballsy ending is the one that defies conventions and provides a resolution that, though not necessarily unexpected, is one that’s unusual. Like having your two main characters turn on each other.

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On A High Note

There’s this quote I read once but for the life of me cannot find (no, not even on the legendary internet). Well, starting an essay with a quote is pretty trite and I think I’ve averted that, so there.

Anyway, CS Lewis was once asked why he chose to end The Chronicles of Narnia after ‘only’ seven books. He essentially said that it was better to end it when people wanted more than to end it when people were tired of it. Y’know, end on a high note (title drop!).

In 1995 Bill Waterson decided it was time to bring an end to Calvin and Hobbes. After ten years of adventures of the eponymous boy and his stuffed tiger it was over. Everyone wanted more. Seventeen years later we – I – still want more. They’re good stories, full of life and imagination, silliness and insight. But he ended it how he wanted to and when he wanted to. We got a conclusion, and it ended. Now it’s fondly remembered as one of the best comics ever.

Compare that to, say, The Office. The show is several seasons along and, by most accounts not what it used to be. Not to say it’s not still entertaining, it’s just not as good as it used to be. Fun as the show is, the general populace doesn’t really care too terribly much about it anymore. We’re (almost) tired of it (maybe). If it ends now in seventeen years we’ll be discussing how it was ran into the ground and how good it was at first. It’s not that it outright sucks anymore, it’s just that, well, it doesn’t measure up to what it used to be.

The Star Wars movies are another great example. When Return of the Jedi concluded the Holy Trilogy in 1983, that was it. People loved the movies. People wanted more. But we wouldn’t get more: it was over.

Only it wasn’t. Come 1999, we got The Phantom Menace; more Star Wars! A dream come true! But, for reasons that are for another rant essay, they didn’t measure up to the Holy Trilogy. Yes, we were excited for each new installment, but, well, we slowly realized that we didn’t need them. We got what we wanted and it wasn’t quite what we had hoped for. Look, the prequels aren’t the worst movies ever, they just, well, aren’t the Star Wars we grew up with. Maybe it would have been better to leave us clamoring for more.

It’s not always by choice, though. I would do quite a lot for a new episode/series/anything of Firefly. There were only fourteen episodes created before the show met its untimely cancellation. Each of these episodes was a terrific example of good science fiction; telling stories about people and their lives, the artificial family they formed, and the adventures they got up to. But it was canceled. And it ended, leaving us (you know what’s coming next) wanting more. We did get more, a very satisfying conclusion that brought it to a definitive end. But still, another few episodes of Firefly would be nice, wouldn’t they?

It doesn’t matter if we get more, though. The show was fantastic and the movie Serenity tied everything together. What better way for it to end?

Well, not ending would be a better way.

Point remains, though. It’s easy to follow the temptation to keep giving the audience more. It’s what they want, it’ll shut them up, and you’ll get money. Just keep doing it until the audience drifts away and loses interest. Once your source of income’s gone, well, that’s it then. Done is done, time to move on, right?

No. Think about posterity. Find a conclusion, end it well. Give your audience closure and leave them with fond memories of your work. Let them be satisfied with dissatisfaction.

The final strip of Calvin and Hobbes is arguably one of the best of the entire run. It’s Calvin and Hobbes looking at freshly fallen snow and getting ready to go sledding through the woods. “It’s a wonderful world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…” says Calvin, “…let’s go exploring!”

Now that is ending on a high note.

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