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October 31, 2009 11:57 pm

“Wow them in the end, and you've got a hit.”

So claims screenwriting guru Robert McKee (or rather, a thinly fictionalized McKee surrogate created by Charlie Kaufman) in Adaptation. But while it may be true that a compelling ending can heighten the perceived quality of an otherwise flawed film, I often find the emphasis placed on resolutions to be slightly perplexing. Looking back on some of my favorite books and movies, it's striking to realize how many of them either fizzle out toward the end (see The Long Walk, and most other books by Stephen King for that matter) or make a point of subverting or even outright mocking the traditional notion of a climactic conclusion (American Gods, No Country for Old Men, the list goes on).

I may be atypical in this regard. For instance, even if the writers of Lost were to completely drop the ball in the final season, it wouldn't negate my enjoyment of the entire rest of the series leading up to that point. With respect to my personal preferences for traditional media, the journey pretty much always takes precedence over the destination.

When it comes to games, however, trying to expand this same sentiment into a general principle becomes counterintuitive at best. After all, games typically require that a substantial amount of effort be made, beyond merely investing in a premise or set of characters, in order to reach the conclusion. As such, it is only natural for players who expend this effort to expect us to provide rewards that scale suitably in proportion to the struggle required to obtain them. This issue of justified entitlement is further compounded by the length of many games, as we are understandably reluctant to stray from our adherence to the balanced payoff model when players are spending upwards of fifty hours trying to reach the end points of our games. As a result, the potential to inadvertently disappoint players by providing a more elusive, offbeat, or even outright frustrating ending is anathema to most game designers, who instead opt to play it safe, even if the result is a less memorable resolution than it could have been if they had considered an alternative option.

Strangely enough, there appears to be an equal dearth of games that allow players to truly savor the flavor of their labors (sorry, I just can't help it sometimes). In this month's 'Blogs of the Round Table' discussion, Corvus Elrod posed the question of how designers can effectively incorporate the denouement directly into gameplay, rather than the more traditional approach of relegating any post-climax action to a brief, congratulatory cut scene. I'm a bit late to this party, so I'd like to start by addressing one of the responses that has already been posted before I move on to contribute a few ideas of my own.

The response that I want to discuss is one written by Emily Short, and I mention it here because I strongly agree with many of the points she made and, as usual, she expressed her ideas both succinctly and eloquently. To paraphrase, Emily writes that the challenge of having a playable denouement is that the 'climax' of the game typically coincides with (or at least, is analagous to) the accomplishment of the primary goal, so making the denouement playable would necessitate either tacking on a set of anticlimactic secondary or optional goals (a 'Scouring of the Shire' segment, if you will) or switching over to a more open-ended, sandbox style of play which risks being formless and causing the game to end with a whimper rather than a bang.

When I initially read Corvus' question, I was a bit wary of how seemingly cavalier it was in attempting to map a narrative concept directly onto the domain of games, but Emily's response helped me to move beyond this initial trepidation and begin to conceive of how the idea of denouement could be made relevant to a wider variety of games, even those without any especially prominent narrative elements. In order to expand the denouement analogy to encompass this greater range, I am admittedly stretching the definition into the considerably looser notion of “any actions that occur after the completion of the primary goal.” As with the more strict definition used for narrative, these actions typically involve sifting through the prior events that have taken place, either to sort out the ramifications or otherwise reflect upon what has happened over the course of the game.

So, having shamelessly altered the question into a much more nebulous one than the original, I would like to look at a few examples of alternative approaches that game designers can (and in many cases, already do) utilize to help shape their post-climax gameplay. Not all of these are playable, and not all of them necessarily fit even my own lenient definition of denouement, but they are all viable techniques for ending a game in a more memorable fashion than simply throwing up a 'Congratulations!' screen.

The Mood Piece (Example: Ico) – The 'Mood Piece' style of denouement provides players with a brief, playable coda that serves to reinforce some of the emotions or themes evoked by the main game. As in Ico, this can often take the form of a short vignette that occurs after the main antagonist or conflict has already been dealt with.

The Role Reversal (Example: Shadow of the Colossus) – In the 'Role Reversal', players suddenly find themselves placed in control of another character, often one than is far removed from their accustomed avatar or protagonist, and are provided the opportunity to experience the action from this fresh perspective. This technique is distinct from simply offering another playable character with slightly altered controls (such as Symphony of the Night allowing players to use Richter instead of Alucard), and can be used to create a greater sense of empathy, for instance with a character than was previously portrayed as alien or even adversarial.

The Recontextualization (Example: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater) – This technique takes the primary mechanic performed by the player throughout the course of the game, such as the simple act of pulling a trigger, and reframes it within a scenario that encourages the player to reconsider how they feel about this action. This can be particularly effective when used to get a player questioning what has essentially become a reflex.

The Smash Cut (Example: Station 38) – Also known as 'The Sopranos Ending', this is less a denouement than a willful lack of denouement, more akin to a sudden cut to black. While effective as a shock technique, this is undoubtedly one of the riskier ways of ending a game. When utilized correctly it can be surprising and memorable, but it has mostly been relegated to being used in shorter games and 'chapter breaks' such as the end of a level (players of Eternal Darkness know a little bit about this).

The Bait and Switch (Examples: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, BioShock) – Like the 'Smash Cut', the 'Bait and Switch' confounds expectations by building toward a conclusion that either never takes place at all, or swerves toward an unanticipated outcome. Also like the 'Smash Cut', it is typically used at a midpoint, level end, or some other locally climactic moment rather than during or after the overarching climax of the game; most game designers are brave enough to inform players that the princess isn't in the first castle, but there are far fewer designers willing to leave her out entirely.

Great Power, No Responsibilities (Example: Metal Gear Solid) – After the player has completed the primary objective, the game bestows on them a shiny, new toy that converts the game world into their own personal playground, then turns them loose to run wild. Since there is no reason to fret about breaking the balance at this point, these powerful gifts often remove any semblance of danger from the game and allow the player to waltz through previously challenging locations while experiencing the thrill of pseudo-omnipotence.

The Personality Test (Example: Silent Hill 2) – While still a somewhat nascent technique, the 'Personality Test' attempts to track player behavior throughout the course of the game using various metrics, and then analyze these metrics in order to present a conclusion that reflects the perceived personality they have exhibited. Rather than using the denouement to reflect on the larger plot (if any) of the game, the 'Personality Test' acts more as a direct comment on the player and a prompt for introspection regarding the choices they made throughout the game.

Naturally, this list is neither comprehensive nor definitive, and the individual categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many of the techniques mentioned can just as easily be used elsewhere in the game aside from the denouement.

Ultimately, it doesn't take much incentive to encourage players to continue exploring your world after the main quest is completed. If you create a compelling enough space, many players will still wish to hang around there even if you only provide the flimsiest excuse, such as exploring every corner of the environment in order to collect all the hidden Bafomdads (alright, bad example). 'The Quest for More Money' may be an overused form of denouement, but it remains effective.

For more traditional games, there is one final form of denouement that bears mentioning: the post-game discussion. Technically, it would probably be more accurate to label this a meta-denouement, but I feel douchey enough after having used the word 'denouement' so many times in one post, and the 'meta-' prefix is notorious for its doucheyness amplification properties so I will avoid it. Of course, contemplating post-game discussions is probably not the most useful exercise for designers given that they typically can't exert any control over them (unless they're extremely influential). Nevertheless, the discussions that take place among friends after a game of Magic: The Gathering or Settlers of Catan also serve as a kind of reflection on the events of the game, causing players to formulate new perspectives on what has already taken place – and that fits my lazy man's definition of denouement just fine.

Please visit the Blogs of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.