You know that saying about it being the journey which is important rather than the destination? It can be rather fittingly applied to video games, particularly when you consider a large open-world RPG or similar title. That end cutscene is a reward for the all the hours you spent questing, grinding and gathering resources over the past couple of months; and if the road to get there wasn’t enjoyable, there’s a chance you won’t persevere to see those final moments.
But perhaps endings are more important to us now than they used to be. Back in the distant past when technology was nowhere near what it is today, all most games offered you was a ‘congratulations’ text screen for your hard work and sometimes an offer to replay. Take Ghosts’n Goblins as an example, recently written about by TJGamingNerd: after completing it once, you’re told the room is an illusion and a trap devised by Satan – so you need to go through it all again to get the real conclusion.
In the years since, technology has advanced at a rapid pace and the landscape of gaming has changed dramatically. It was the action that took the spotlight in earlier releases but we now embrace narrative in all its forms, and want our titles to share epic stories full of excitement and emotion. A simple line of text sharing a congratulations message isn’t going to cut it nowadays: we want a cutscene that’s going to wrap up the plot nicely because we view it as both closure and a prize.
The sad fact is though that any ending is going to disappoint regardless of how good it is. Find a game you really enjoy playing and you’re willing to devote all your available time to it, wanting to jump straight back into the action whenever you have a moment to spare. Hundreds of hours are dedicated to fighting, exploring, puzzle-solving and conversing with NPCs; but when the conclusion arrives, you’re pushed aside as the protagonist takes over and you become a passive viewer.
It’s even worse when you’ve spent so long with your character, developing their personality and voice in your head, only to see them act out something you’d never imagined they’d do right before the credits roll and having no way to stop it. A title can suck you in to the point where you feel as though it’s your adventure; but this is the tale the developer wants to tell. As the two won’t always align, their pre-written endings mean not all of them go down in the way you wanted them to.
There’s also that melancholy that comes with the sight of an ending and I know this all too well myself thanks to my relationship with The Longest Journey series. I’ve managed to play over 23 hours but so far have actively avoided completing the Dreamfall Chapters instalment, because once I do then it’s over forever. This story I’ve become so invested in since the original game was released almost 20 years ago will be done and I’ll finally have to say goodbye to the characters I’ve come to know so well.
It’s for this reason I think I prefer beginnings rather than endings. Sitting anxiously in the cart at the start of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim before realising I’ve got bigger and more dragon-looking things to worry about. Standing on the porch of my home in the rain at the opening of Gone Home and questioning where the hell everybody has disappeared to. Walking to the lookout point in The Secret of Monkey Island and deciding where to head first on my journey to become a famous pirate.
Beginnings hold promise of a new adventure and endless possibilities. I love that feeling you get when you open a new video game and have no idea where this mysterious journey is going to take you, what obstacles you’re going to encounter and who you’re going to meet along the way. That initial hour with a title contains so much wonder and intrigue, because at that point your character and their story can be whatever you want them to be.
This is the beginning, and almost anything can happen.
This post is dedicated to Ian from Adventure Rules, who very kindly nominated Later Levels for the Sunshine Blogger Award last month. He’s one of my favourite people on the internet so make sure you give him a follow if you’re not doing so already!