I’m working on the last couple of chapters for Die By The Sword (or more accurately cursing at a mostly blank screen because words refuse to appear there) and I’m feeling the pressure because I understand the importance of the ending. It is the last impression the reader will have of your story (unless you write something so great that it warrants multiple readthroughs anyway, but that’s a topic for another day). A good ending can leave a reader thinking about your story for a while, and leave them with an overall positive impression (perhaps even causing them to overlook some of the weaker points earlier in the story; (*cough* Mass Effect 1 *cough*). A poor ending can cause a reader to leave your story with a sour impression, even if they had been enjoying the story thus far (*cough* Mass Effect 3 *cough*).
This is also true with stories in other mediums, with video games perhaps having the toughest challenge of it. Not only does the ending of a game have to wrap up the story in a satisfying way, they also have to produce a challenging experience for the players (often in the form of a final boss battle). In my opinion, there are few experiences more disappointing than fighting your way through 40 hours of content only to find a final boss who gets killed in two hits and whose only reason for doing what he did was becuase he was evil.
This brings me to Final Fantasy XV. For those of you unaware of the history of this game’s development, the production of FF XV would probably make a great story in itself, full of plot twists and ‘all-is-lost’ moments. Their was a shuffling of directors, of teams, hell, when the game started development it was something else entirely called Final Fantasy XIII Versus. It’s release date kept getting pushed back again and again, sometimes it felt like the game was doomed to never be released. Eventually they put it out. Unfortunately, the game they put out just felt…unfinished, despite its lengthy development time, especially in its latter half.
I’ll start by saying FF XV was a game I was enjoying, a lot. The characters were likable (once you got over the initial ‘boy-band’ impression), the story, while lightly told, was interesting, the combat mechanics were terrific, and there was something inherently enjoyable about driving around an open world as you hunted monsters and found camping sites. Then there were the little touches that helped make the world feel alive; I literally squealed with joy when I was fighting daemons at night and an imperial ship dropped off Arnea Highwind to temporarily join my party.
It is becuase I was enjoying the game so much that the second half of the game came as such a shock and utter disappointment. I know this isn’t exactly the popular opinion, but I can’t be the only one who feels this way. First you watch as one by one the things that made the game great were taken from you: first your car and the open world (you are literally put on a train, because SE apparently takes the term ‘railroad’ incredibly seriously); your cooking and camping (the only thing you can eat for the longest time is a crappy railcar meal); your party members; even the combat system is taken from you for the duration of a chapter as the game randomly decides its a survival horror now and gives you only a ring with which to defend yourself in a Resident Evil-esque monster filled ruins (although, in my opinion, this part was still less annoying than a short dungeon you were forced to go through incredibly slowly becuase the developers hate you).
Even the story takes a turn for the worse. The rest of the article contains spoilers; thus are you warned. After torturing the party by blinding one (and then torturing the player by forcing you to slow crawl through a dungeon while he tries to keep up), kidnapping another and nonsensically suddenly making him an experiment baby, and of course, all the crap that happens to Noctis (Gladiolus gets off pretty easy, despite the fact that he bitches the most), the party is finally reunited. The imperials you have been fighting for the entire game have already destroyed themselves, becuase fuck letting the players get any sort of accomplishment there. But fine, the main villain is still kicking, and the goal has been to fulfill some prophecy to beat the daemons anyway, so let’s do that…10 years in the future.
Yep, in what is possibly my most hated trope of all tropes, we get a forced timeskip, this time in a world that has already been destroyed by endless night and daemons. You end up fulfilling the prophecy and bringing back the light at the cost of your own life (and most likely the lives of your friends, although that is less clear it certainly seems to be what the ending implied) but by that point its really too late. The world’s population has been reduced to one small city and a handful of monster hunters.
I really, really hate ‘the villain wins; everyone dies’ endings; occasionally, done well, they can be a thought provoking way to end a story, but that is certainly not the case here. In this case, it was just a lazy way to further raise the stakes and take a couple of cheap emotional shots at the audience. The darkness of the second half of the story was also such a dramatic tonal shift from the first half; the story about how a group of friends can overcome anything through their brotherhood and bond becomes a story of, oh wait, no they can’t, get fucked. Noctis has to spend 10 years in a crystal and then fight the final boss alone.
It all felt so incredibly rushed, both the story and the mechanics of the second half. Taking the train around the second continent instead of being given an open world there to explore is big example of that; it feels like they ran out of time after designing the open world of the first continent, for the second they just rushed to give the game some impression of finality. You even take your car with you the entire time, like at one point the developers had planned the other continent to be explorable. The post-timeskip is only one chapter long, a short one at that, and one that also does not allow for any exploration into the new post-apocalyptic world. I understand that the game was in development hell for a while, and eventually they had to release something, but what we got just feels…so unfinished.
I have friends who are big fanboys of the Final Fantasy series, and they defend the game’s second half, though none of their arguments make sense to me. Yes, it is true you can return to the open world by talking to the dog and revisiting your memories, but this isn’t adding something to the second half, its merely letting your return to the part of the game that was good with the exact same content. The other common argument is that the story is less dark / much more sensible / just plain better when you include all the extended media: the anime, the movie, the character profiles, even the damn developer posts. I have one friend who even argues that with all the extended media it’s implied that by restoring the light Noctis sent the world back 10 years, thus undoing the apocalypse. To me, this is worse than an argument. The fact that there is so much lore to the world and its characters that can only be understood by reading/watching a bunch of other stuff is silly and frustrating; if you decide you are making a game to tell your story, the entirety of your story should be told in the game. This goes back to the ‘unfinished’ feel I’ve been talking about.
I’ve been bitching about FF XV for much longer than I intended, so I’m going to switch gears and talk about my favorite ending sequence in a game: That of the original Mass Effect. For the whole game they are building up the conflict with Sovereign, Saren, and the Geth, and it all comes to a head when the Geth invade the Citadel to try and open a path for the other Reapers to begin their invasion. Everything about the sequence, from the time you crash through a portal into the Citadel, to the final confrontation with Saren, is both epic and impactful. The gravity of the situation is underscored with cuts to the starship battle against Sovereign, the weight of Shepard’s role is played up in his decision whether or not the spend human lives to rescue the Council, the battle against waves of Geth feels important and massive. Even the song as the credits rolled felt perfect.
The original Mass Effect suffers from quite a few flaws (uninteresting side quests with reused maps, clunky teammate controls, repetitive Mako segments) but after playing through the ending the first time I found myself unable to think of any of that. Mass Effect went immediately on my favorite games list and it wouldn’t be until I replayed it years later that I realized that if it wasn’t for the ending the game probably would not live so well in my memories.
The same effect has happened with Final Fantasy XV with me. I was so let down by the ending that all my good experiences with the game seem completely overshadowed by it. I remember the excitement and joy I felt during points, but I can’t remember why. Now I immediately look to the game’s flaws (particularly regarding its underdeveloped characters, again, making the game feel unfinished). I have no desire to play any of the DLC or complete any of the side content I had set aside for later.
And this is why endings are so important. just as important as the opening that brings people into the story, the ending is how people will remember it best.
Now if I could just get the right words finish Die By The Sword…