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Making the Ending Matter

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Photo by Flickr user Chris Phutully

I’m a big fan of modern computer games. Or, rather, I’m a big fan of modern games with well-written and developed narratives and story arcs.  Okay, being completely honest, although I am a fan of narrative arcs in computer games, it’s kind of in the same way that Hansel is a fan of Sting.

Nonetheless, I read a lot of articles and watch a lot of YouTube videos about narrative structure in games. And a few weeks ago I was watching an entertaining deep-dive into the problems with ‘Fallout 3’ when I was blindsided by a piece of story-writing wisdom that came out of nowhere.

To be clear, this information isn’t new. It wasn’t new to me, and I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t be new to you. But sometimes hearing the same advice — the same wisdom– from a different perspective can hit you in just the right way, at just the right time. So today I’d like to share that little bit of wisdom with you.

But first…

Narrative Games

Anyone who’s played a computer game since the days of Donkey Kong and Pac Man will have come across narrative games at some point between then and now — even if it was as simple as donning your plumber garb and rescuing the princess from the castle. But modern games — particularly roleplaying games — have stories as intricate and detailed as any Hollywood movie or (dare I say it) novel.

Not only do these games need to present a narrative that makes sense — one that includes an inciting incident, plot points, reversal, and climax — they also need to provide increasingly challenging enemies to kill and/or puzzles to solve. And, in many games, all of this needs to be accomplished in an open world environment. One where players can choose to take their characters in any direction, and complete quests and missions in the order of their choosing.

If you think that sounds difficult… Yeah. Sounds difficult to me, too. There’s a reason that games have such a huge team of people working on them, and still rarely manage to get all elements working together perfectly.

The Fallout Franchise

The original Fallout game came out all the way back in 1997. That was at least a million years ago in gaming terms. Nonetheless, many gamers will tell you that the game story (if not the graphics or controls) holds up even today. The game turned into a true franchise, with three sequels and a handful of spin-off games set in the same universe.

The universe….

The game is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future full of retro-futuristic technology and settings. The series overall makes some interesting points about technology and greed and the future of humanity. There’s combat galore, but also plenty of problem-solving and the occasional opportunity for some lock-picking and computer hacking. But the game elements aren’t the most interesting things to me.

I’m here for the story.

The Man in the Room

This entire post came about because of something YouTuber Hbomberguy said when describing the story purpose of the Man in the Room at the end of both Fallout and Fallout 3. (You can watch his entire critique here [2].)

In describing Fallout, he talks about how the tension builds and builds through the game until you finally go to confront the enemy. You fight your way through minions until, finally, you face The Master — the leader of the enemy. As Hbomberguy explains:

Everything has been pushing you towards the moment when you have to tell the man who thinks he has the solutions to the problems you’ve been facing that he’s wrong. These are the crowning moments of Fallout. They’re the culmination of their story, their themes, and all of your character’s choices, too. … The entire game has been preparing you for this moment.

In comparison, he has a much lower opinion of Fallout 3.

Fallout 3 pits you against Colonel Autumn. Autumn has been a **** to you personally, but he doesn’t represent any major flaw in the world of Fallout 3. He isn’t the culmination of the problems you’ve seen. He just sort of turns up halfway through. He’s just a guy standing there saying, “Well, I guess it’s time for us to fight now.”

 A Culmination

There’s nothing in either of those comments that is new or different. But they hit me in a completely new way.

It’s not easy to get the climax of a story right. It has to feel dramatic. There needs to be plenty of tension.There often needs to be explosions. (Fireworks count as explosions.) But, more than anything else, it needs to feel like a culmination of all the problems the character has seen throughout the story.

It should feel like every single thing that has happened during the story has been seamlessly pushing the character to that moment. Every challenge they’ve faced, and every choice they’ve made, should have been preparing them for the climax.

Because there’s nothing more disappointing than a story that ends with the protagonist facing off against some random person who seems to exist solely for the purpose of saying, “I guess it’s time for us to fight.”

How do you make sure your ending is a culmination of the story? Do you have any tips or tricks to share?

About Jo Eberhardt [3]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.