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Space for Rent: The History of Story Endings in Video Games


Tweet of the Day: Does Your Story Need Subplots?

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And what it can teach us about our writing.

History time children!

Back in the olden days of video games, where quarters and cartridges ruled, all you had to do was sit in front of the screen, drop a coin (or plug in a cartridge) smash buttons and waggled joysticks until you beat the game.

Simple, no?

Games had no story back then, but as more bits were added to the various systems (consoles, arcades, PCs) games matured and with that maturity came increasing amounts of story elements. Story evolved in the following order:

  1. Story as framework: The story, whatever little there is, serves as a frame the game, such as, “Save the Princess” or “Defeat the Evil Overlord.”
  2. Story as Connector: The story elements serve to connect one level or map to the next.
  3. Story as Core Element: The story suffuses and guides the game at multiple levels.

Noticed that I didn’t mention anything about endings, that because for most of the history of gaming (so far) ending have been either very poor or non existent.  In the first generation there was no space for a story (#1) the best you got was either a paragraph before/after the title screen or a blurb in the back of the game’s box. You were lucky if you got more than THE END PLEASE ENTER YOUR INITIALS. Things didn’t get any better under #2 (which is the current patter of stories in video games) and even games that follow #3 tend to flub the ending in what I call, “Getting nailed by the ending” as opposed to nailing the (landing) ending.

Part of it comes from the history mentioned above and the other part comes from how games are made. Simply put, writing is, at best, ancillary in the game creating process and it shows. Most games start with a concept either based on genre (which are defined by game play/game style rather than story elements)  and not with a script, like a say a movie or play. This is because games are an interactive medium with high demands on the way the player interfaces with the game.  A game can succeed with little or no story if the has great graphics and challenging game play but not the other way around. So story takes a back seat to everything else.

But how does this apply to writing? I mean, writing is about creating stories, not great graphics.

Well, have you ever read a book that has a great story, but an disappointing ending? Or one that has great scenes, be they drama, action or romance (or any combination thereof) but the parts in between seem rather hollow or disconnected. Happens quite a bit with long running novel series, as if the author forgot or simply did not know how to write the ending. Even greats like Stephen King (Dark Tower) and Mark Twain have suffered from this. More infuriating in long running television shows or movie trilogies. Almost as if the writers were surprised by the initial success and simply rode the wave until it crashed.

More likely than not they followed story method #2: story as connector.

And I have fallen into the same trap myself. When I think of story, the first thing that pops into my mind are several scenes that highlight what the story is about, but with little context between them. Practice taught me that writing a story was more than just connecting the dots. Each character, each scene, each plot point (and subplots) have to drive the story forward.

Forward to?

The ending, of course.

Which something game developers are still slow to comprehend, as are many writers. The ending is not a wrap up of everything that came before. It is not the words THE END. The ending is the anchor to the story and if a game (or book) tries to be more than collection of memorable action sequences, it needs a strong, heavy anchor to hold the rest of the story in place, otherwise it will drift away or worse, get smashed against the perilous shore as it happened with a recent game I played. Great story, great sequences (drama and action both) and yet the ending came out of nowhere, as if the writers didn’t know how to end it and threw everything out the window.  The particulars of how the flubbed the ending would take an entire post (or series there of), but suffice to say, they forgot to anchor their boat, and it drifted away from them.

Don’t let that happen to you.

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2 comments on “Space for Rent: The History of Story Endings in Video Games

  1. Fantastic post.
    When I think of my endings, I don’t actually think of them as such. Their lives are going to continue after the last page. Rather, I think, what is the best place/time to bring down the curtain? To stop talking about this part of their lives?
    Years back in school, we watched, “Daddy” about a teen whose girlfriend becomes pregnant. She decides to have it, and at first he tries to do the right thing. But when the realities hit, he takes off. At the end, he comes back saying he accepts his responsibility and really wants to make things work.
    Another student said, “that’s it?” The teacher replied, “How long do you want the movie to be?” And I realized then that the story wasn’t about his relationship with the girl. It wasn’t about their young marriage, how long it might or might not last…it was about him coming to terms with being a father and stepping up to the plate. Once he did so, that was where the movie naturally ended.
    Even though I didn’t particularly like the movie, that was a good little lesson.

    • True, the is always more to the story, but endings need to set a fix point where major plot points are resolved. Endings are tricky to say the least.

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