Four Awesomely Wise Tips To Make Your Game End Well
It's important, and it makes you money.
I have finished a lot of games lately, and I’ve experienced a lot of badly done endings.
When you write a story, the ending is important. Writing the end should be really fun and satisfying. No more exposition! No more character development. Now more shaping a plot! You're at the end! You've won!
It's over. You get to blow everything up. Everyone who needs to die dies. Everyone who gets rewarded gets rewarded. Cue the orchestra. Send the audience to the exit with a song in their hearts!
At least that's how it should be. All the endings I've seen followed a common troubling pattern. Game writers have picked up some really bad habits.
So here is some advice. All of it should be obvious. Yet, here we are.
My Data Points
These are very good, recommendable, fun, successful games. I enjoyed them. I just thought they had endings that were too short, vague, confusing, or unsatisfying.
Honestly, I've played every Returnal ending, and I have no idea what that game is about, but that's OK because nobody else does either. Deathloop seems like it wants me to feel bad for finishing it.
I don't like talking trash about other developers, so I'll try not to harp on these titles too much. (Plus, I'm sure some will loudly disagree). Instead, I compressed my thoughts on their endings into four pieces of writing advice ...
Ending Advice One: Your Ending Should Be Long Enough
This is weird advice. 99% of the time, your writing can be improved by shortening it. Video game writing almost always needs an edit for length. (For RPGs, two edits. Get in there with a machete.)
However, I've encountered some endings that were WAY too short. Like, 30-60 seconds. Then credits.
Most people don't finish games these days. When someone finishes your game, you need to honor their time with an ending that feels like a reward. Or, at least, something that had thought and effort.
First of all, your ending needs a few seconds of transition to make the player realize they are watching the ending. They need a pause to switch mental gears from playing to watching and to realize what is happening. This goes double if they just finished a huge boss fight and are full of adrenaline.
Then they need an explanation of what happens and what the results of their actions are. This needs to take enough time to be clearly communicated. The end of the game is one of the few times when the player will really forgive you for it being overlong. Again, this is a reward.
Ending Advice Two: It Should Be Clear
I have often bemoaned that very few writers stay in the game industry long enough to become good at the craft. Writing is hard and takes time. Game writers tend to be very tentative (almost afraid) about showing their work and use all sorts of tricks to hide what they are writing from the player.
(Tragically, every young writer has one wacky M. Night Shyamalan trick ending they need to get out of their system. “But the main character was a ROBOT the whole time!” “Really? Oh. Sure.”)
One of the most common tricks to hide flaws in your work is to make the ending very obscure. No one can criticize it if they don't understand it. Incomprehensibility is deep.
If the player spends fifty hours on your game and the credits roll and the main reaction is, "What just happened?" then something has gone horribly wrong.
Do you want to know if the ending to your game is too confusing? Here's a test. Google "Ending of [Game] explained." If you get a lot of hits, you're in a bad way. If you actually watch those videos and they all end with, "We aren't sure either," your ending was DEFINITELY too obscure.
Ending Advice Three: It Should Provide Closure Without a Lot More Player Effort
There is an increasing tendency for games to have a "basic" ending, which is some combination of incoherent and sad. Then, if you keep playing and repeat content or do harder stuff, you get a "better" ending.
This is not, by itself, bad. The ending is a reward, and doing more stuff should get a better reward. Elden Ring does this fairly well. Each optional ending requires a side quest, but these quests are not too difficult and pretty fun (though you will need to find a walkthrough to actually do them).
I suggest two things: One. The better ending should be better. If nothing else, it should provide more clarity about what is happening and what was going on. Two. If you put in super-hard ultra-hardcore mode to test the player, this is awesome, but don't lock endings behind it.
Extra stuff should truly be extra, and all players should have a decent shot at getting the full story. If you write a good story, people should see it!
Ending Advice Four: It Should Be Satisfying
This is the art part.
If you tell a story, the ending needs to end it. The story has a place in your brain now, and the ending should make that place a comfortable one. When the player remembers your story, it shouldn't be with a feeling of confusion, of incompleteness, of work left undone. It should feel like you had a complete experience.
This is hard to explain. Like I said, it's the art part.
The Last of Us and The Last of Us, Part 2 had complete endings. You went on a journey. You fought humans and zombies. You made choices. Then, in the end, you knew where the characters were emotionally, what they had done, how it had affected them, and where they were at now. A complete ending.
I think the solid ending of The Last of Us is a large part of the reason the game was a success. That ending made them money. The ending of the sequel was drenched with blood and despair, but it was still a proper ending. You knew what the story was.
Important note: Your ending can totally be sad. It's allowed. However, a happy ending will leave players more likely to remember your game fondly and recommend it to others. Alas, sadness costs money.
I'd like to define a satisfying ending, but this is a case where you should let people finish your game, ask what they thought of the ending, and listen to them. What was confusing? What characters did they want to find out the fate, but didn't? What left them agitated? (Not unhappy, but unsettled. As in, they needed to find out a little more about what happened to be content.)
Seriously, The Ending Is the Easy Part! And It Helps!
You should care about your game having a good ending because your game will make more money.
When the player finishes your game, that is when they are most likely to review it and when they are most likely to recommend it to friends.
When the game ends, you want them to be excited that they played it. You want the customer to go away happy. That is the ending's job. It's the ending's ONLY job.
It costs as much money and time to make a bad ending as a good one. The rare players who bother to play your game to the end deserve to have their time respected.
Extra Bonus Advice
NEVER end your game with a cliffhanger unless you are ABSOLUTELY sure the sequel will happen.
And honestly? Not even then.
Edit (9/20/22) - Deathloop just released a patch which dramatically extended the ending. It doesn’t say enough about what happens to your main antagonist, but it is otherwise excellent. Nice when this happens!
Our next game, Queen’s Wish 2: The Conqueror, an all-new, innovative, Empire-building indie RPG, comes out for Windows & Mac on August 24. Wishlist it to be told when it is released!