Your ending sucks.
It’s kind of the universal complaint that accompanies most of the biggest games that have come out in the last couple of years. Human Revolution‘s ending was bland, Mass Effect 3‘s was a warcrime thematically, tonally, and structurally. Regardless, most of the endings I’ve seen in the last few years to games have been underwhelming to utterly grotesque. The exceptions stand out for simple reasons that most people haven’t thought about.
Fair warning, spoilers ahoy. If you haven’t beaten Deus Ex:Human Revolution, Mass Effect 2 or 3, you’ve been warned.
So, you’ve built a wonderful game- and all the games I’ve listed are great, shining examples of memorable games with good gameplay and phenomenal worldbuilding. All games can be broken down into three rough categories: event driven, character driven, and gameplay driven. Gameplay is the easiest to define; they’re the ones that are driven by the experience of play with minimal story, few to no personalities or characters and the focus on doing rather than talking. Examples of this type of game are generally classics like Super Mario or Tetris, but I’d also include some modern games such as XCOM: Enemies Unknown and the Sins of a Solar Empire series. They tend not to have ‘endings’, per se, and as such a ‘you win’ screen is as close to an ending as you tend to get. Event-driven gameplay is focused on the story and events; something like Starcraft 2 has excellent characters, but is still driven by the goings-on of the game world. You go rob a train or take on the Zerg because of events in the game universe, not simply ‘because’. Character driven games tend to focus on well written personalities, and their reactions to events in the world around them. In some situations, there’s even options for conversation with them, to get to know them. Examples include most every Bioware game, and some JRPGs.
So what does this have to do with games, and their endings? Well, the answer is simple: in an event-driven game, aren’t we playing to see the results of our actions? We fought so far, so hard to find out what the outcome was, which is where Human Revolution falls flat on its face. Instead of focusing on the results of your actions, the ending…isn’t. You pick a button, press it, and you get a lecture on transhumanism. After all you’ve done, all the prices you’ve paid, all the hard choices you’ve made…you don’t get to see the results. You don’t get to see whether your choices have an outcome, what outcome that is. Hell, you don’t even get to see what happens to Jensen. There’s essentially no conclusion to the story you helped write. You press a button, and fade to black. It fails in a very simple way: you wanted a whole story, and got the equivalent of ‘The End…?’ . There has to be some sort of result- not necessarily final, but something must happen as a result of your actions.
Now, among the very, very many problems with the Mass Effect 3 original ending was the fact that the story was really about the characters. The reapers were a reason to bash heads with Garrus, Jack, Zaeed and everyone else.The entire adventure is centered on them- for instance, look at how mandatory the loyalty missions were in ME2 for an optimal ending. You cared about your crew more than scanning planets, the Collector abductions, or much of anything else. You don’t remember the fights, even most of the levels as anything more than scenery- most people, when asked, remember the side of the game that wasn’t the combat, the missions, the fetch-and-carry. It was moments like Liara writing your name in the stars, or Zaeed’s stories in his trophy-ridden room. It was your experiences with the characters that shaped the game. When the original ending to ME3 came out, it was baffling that your entire crew, a cast of something like a dozen major characters and another half-dozen minor ones, weren’t mentioned in the least. Not only that, but your choices really didn’t seem to matter in a game centered around the theme of choice and consequence. In the second game, you made choices (who goes where and does what), and you got to see the results of both that choice and previous ones. Essentially, it was a false sense of choice- the ending was the same, plus or minus a few faces. However, you got to see the results of what you did, and its effect on your crew- and that was what’s important.
Games that take the ‘nature of the beast’ into account tend to have solid impacts that last a long while- The Last of Us is a prime example of how a solid, understated ending that takes the character-driven nature of the game into account can rattle you. Likewise, another game that exploits the nature of its story to full effect is Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm; while there’s heavy emphasis on character development the game is primarily event driven. You get a conclusion to a story you’ve been participating in, and its impact on the characters. The designers use the narrative structure to drive home the changes the characters have undergone, and what years of war have done to them.