Open ended games: Yay or nay?

BioShockInfinite 2013-04-09 21-19-58-89

NOTE: First off, what do I mean by open ended games? Like with my open world games article, I’m using the term ‘open ended’ very loosely here to mean any game, book, movie, etc… that leaves some of the main issues unresolved or open to interpretation by its end and not necessarily something as completely open to different readings as say Inception is. Of course, that means that I’ll have to discuss the endings to a few games, but only in so far as to say they’re open-ended and in what way. I definitely don’t want to spoil anything for you guys, so rest assured that’s about as detailed as I’m going to make my descriptions of any endings.

It’s interesting, because when I was doing my research for this article, I realised that there aren’t a ton of open-ended games out there. The main three that I’ll be discussing are BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3 and Far Cry 3. There are others, but honestly, not many. I didn’t find this hugely surprising considering the reaction from the gaming community to many of the games that have left questions for players at its conclusion. All three of those games I just mentioned seemed to generate a lot of anger (not necessarily a majority in every case, but enough) about the open-ended nature of the game. With any games of this nature, there often seems to be a significant portion of fans who write off the experience simply because they wanted something more definitive or because still have many unanswered questions about motive, theme or just what happens afterwards. In the most extreme cases, it seems some people think that just because they didn’t understand the ending, it must make no sense at all. I don’t necessarily blame fans who think this way, because the history of games has done little to dissuade them from this line of thinking. Games on the whole have been uncomplicated pieces of entertainment about heroes and villains and end either tragically or happily, but at the very least definitely end. I’m not saying that all the open-ended games I’ll be discussing have amazing or even good conclusions or that all games should end that way. My thoughts on this matter are simply that this is another instance where I feel developers are hampered from being creative by the expectations of the gaming community and that to grow and mature as an art form there needs to be more games that aren’t afraid to leave much to the imagination.

It’s an understandable emotion. You sink sometimes 100s of hours into a game and you want your story to be concluded. I’m not talking here about wanting stories to have happy endings, because I think most adults realise that stories won’t always have happy endings and that’s a good thing. It’s more realistic and more poignant. Many stories worth telling are tragic. Just ask Shakespeare. What I’m discussing here is the perfectly natural feeling of wanting to know what’s going to happen to this world and this character that you’ve been following for all this time. That’s definitely how I felt about Mass Effect. That was my main problem with it, that it didn’t offer any closure after years of following the same characters and exploring their world. It wasn’t to do with any of the creative choices or because I expected it to end all happy-clappy. I didn’t like the creative choices made, but that wasn’t necessarily something that would devastate me in the way the ending did. I get it. You want to know what happens. However, the reason it bugged me was because ME wasn’t the kind of game that should have had that level of open-endedness. Up until the last ten minutes, the whole affair had been very straightforward, with most of the big twists answering your questions, rather than leaving you wondering. That’s why the Extended Cut and the Citadel DLC largely solved the issues I had with it, because I received the level of closure I felt was appropriate to the game even though nothing about the ending actually changed and even though there were still quite a few questions that were left unanswered. I still don’t like the ending, but it’s something I can deal with now. That’s what it really comes down to – suitability. Unlike Mass Effect, I feel there are games that work because they’re open to interpretation and leave you to puzzle it all out at the end of it, BioShock Infinite for instance. In essence, yes there are games that simply have bad endings and just because they try to be artsy, it doesn’t mean it actually is. There are tons of games that wouldn’t benefit from an open ending, but there are also many that I believe would.

It’s only games that seem to have this issue. Books, movies and other older forms of media have happily embraced open-ended stories. With movies, Inception is the perfect example. The whole premise of the movie is based on ambiguity and uncertainty. You’re meant to be confused at the end. That’s the whole point of the movie. It’s suppose to get you thinking and puzzling over all the main themes and wondering ‘what did this mean? Was that bit symbolic or was it meant to be taken literally? What is reality?’ It’s a movie that leaves you with more questions than answers in the aftermath and very few people really complained about that, because that’s what the movie was clearly supposed to be, a question-raiser. Like BioShock Infinite, it’s supposed to be scramble your brain thinking about it. That’s the beauty of those types of stories. My Own Private Idaho and American Psycho for example, are other movies that I believe are stronger for leaving the ending open to interpretation and wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact if they’d just had a clear-cut happy or sad ending. They stuck with me precisely because of the wondering. There are of course, also tons of open-ended books that work specifically because they were open to interpretation (I’m sure you can think of a few yourself). In literature it’s seen as a good thing sometimes and often makes the story stronger. It’s part of art and it’s a part of life. You don’t usually get all the answers given to you. By leaving you, the audience, to think about it, the point is often made much more poignantly than if the answers were spoonfed to you. Of course, sometimes there are simply no answers and that can be the point the author/director/artist is trying to make too. Its purpose might simply be to get you thinking about an issue. We accept it in other forms of art, so why not video games?

As I mentioned before, I do think the reason for this dichotomy comes down to what games have come to symbolise to us and is partially why many people still don’t take games seriously as a storytelling medium. We need to break out of this for the industry to grow. Sure, games are wonderful forms of escapism. You can be the own hero of your own epic or maybe you’re just a soldier blowing the crap out of things and that’s enough. There’s nothing wrong with games that aren’t particularly deep or meaningful. Games are supposed to be entertainment after all. However, imagine the possibilities if there were more games like BioShock Infinite that could introduce you to whole new ways of thinking. That game kept me up at night trying to figure it out and that, to me, seems like a huge success. Even weeks after playing it, I still think about it and obsess about it from time to time. It’s true that since games were created, they were mainly intended to be fun in a very pure way (Pong anyone?) Until fairly recently, games hardly ever touched any really deep or meaningful topics or issues. As a result, it seems that developers have been focusing on how to make a game satisfying and fun. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I think there are more ways for a game to be satisfying or fun than what we’re seeing with a lot of modern games. Fun doesn’t necessarily always need to be mindless, although that’s certainly one type of fun. Fun can also be sitting up with your friends late at night debating what the hell that ending to that game was really about or what it all really meant. Much as I love games like Borderlands 2 or Dishonored, they didn’t really get me thinking (they didn’t really try) and ultimately they didn’t really stick with me in the same way that BioShock Infinite and Far Cry 3 did.

As usual, what it comes down to for me is variety. It’s all about having options. It would be terrible if every single movie was an action flick with tons of explosion and fighting or every book was a sappy romance novel. Those may be enjoyable for large parts of the population, but in the name of art many thoughtful movies or books come into existence that don’t attempt to pander to you or to explain everything. They trust and expect the reader to figure it out for themselves and to take enjoyment from that process. Having open endings or leaving many of the main themes and issues open to interpretation is a part of creating thoughtful and intelligent works of art. Why should video games be any different? As an industry, its still maturing and finding its feet in many ways and in a similar vein to many of my previous articles, I think that means there’s going to have to be more experimentation. It means making sometimes unpopular choices in the hopes that a few people will get it. Of course that’s easier said than done, considering games companies are ultimately still businesses, but I think they might be surprised by the reception they’d receive for more open-ended pieces (as long as the game is well made and the story is well told). Sure there might be some people who would complain either because they didn’t get it or because they wanted a clear ending, but I think they’d also find they’d gain many fans (maybe even the same kinds of people who watched Inception and liked it). To me, it feels like the right time for developers to be even bolder with their creative ideas and spoonfeed us a little less. That was my main complaint with Far Cry 3, that it didn’t go far enough and that it didn’t make it clear that we were supposed to be thinking about the issues they raised beyond their superficial presentation. I think BioShock Infinite was a great first step along that road, but we still have a long way to go.

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9 responses to “Open ended games: Yay or nay?

  1. Great post! I agree that there should be more games that provoke real thought. I’ve always been a fan of stories with some ambiguity to their endings, because they’re the ones that inspire you to think for yourself instead of telling you WHAT to think. But as you pointed out here with the ME3 ending, it’s important that the ending is still satisfying in some way — and not totally confusing. Maybe tying up loose ends is good… but they don’t have to be tied too snugly! Personally, I think I prefer the physical story to come to a fitting conclusion, but the ideas behind it should leave my mind exploring for a long time afterwards.

    • Thanks!
      Exactly! It’s important that the ending to a story is satisfying in some way and doesn’t just leave you completely at a loss, but that doesn’t mean it has to spell everything out for you. Simple straightforward stories are great, but I also love stories that keep you thinking or wondering about it afterwards. That could mean something as open-ended as Inception or as you said a story that concludes and just leaves many of the main themes open to interpretation. I agree with you that I personally probably prefer the latter, but it would be great to have more of both I think!

  2. I definitely enjoy open ended stories, but only if they are done right. The fact that Mass Effect 3 was trying to do that at the very last second was a huge failure. The game should have had a very clear end with most of the loose ends tied up. If Mass Effect had been a series set up in the same way the movie Inception was, then having an ending that’s up to interpretation would have been fine.

    As you said, games have proven to be just as good as film and books to tell compelling stories. We just have a long way to go before games can reach that level of thought-provoking type of storytelling. I’ll be very excited when that day comes.

    • Yeah, I definitely think it’s all about how the open-endedness is implemented and whether it should be used at all. The most frustrating thing about the ending of Mass Effect for me was, as you said, that it just wasn’t the sort of story that should have had that kind of ending. There was no indication throughout the whole series that it was anything other than a straightforward sci-fi plot with a few twists. It just didn’t make sense to suddenly throw that kind of curveball at the last second. It was intended as a cerebral ending and was supposed to leave you thinking about it for a long time after you’d finished the game, but it just didn’t work.
      Storytelling in games definitely has some way to go and some maturing to do, but I’m definitely looking forward to the day more games start coming out that have genuinely compelling and thought-provoking storylines!

  3. Interesting topic and it has me thinking right now! I think it really depends on the game. It definitely works for some and not others. But as an option I agree it is something I am okay with happening from time to time.

    At first I had a negative view on this when I was thinking about it, but I think the games that were coming to mind were ones that felt like they were leaving stuff open just to have a sequel. Those are kind of frustrating at times (like every Assassin’s Creed game), but that is more of a cliffhanger ending than an open-ended one.

    Though I like when mysteries are unraveled over the course of say a trilogy too sometimes. Then it is kind of like the mythology of a good TV show (I think the Jak and Daxter games did this well, teasing elements in the earlier games that were ultimately answered in 3).

    I wish I had played Infinite so I could relate a bit to that example more. Maybe Shadow of the Colossus is a good example of one done right as well. It left some stuff up to interpretation but it didn’t necessarily feel incomplete. Cool topic.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it!
      It definitely depends I think. If not done well, it can feel like a story is incomplete, as you said, or just plain confusing. I probably should have specified in the article, but I think cliffhanger endings are different in that their main purpose usually seems to be only to set the game up for a sequel and to entice you to play it, rather than for storytelling purposes. I also find those kind of endings frustrating a lot of the time. Then again, I guess it seems to work, since it’s difficult to not play a sequel if you’re left wondering what’s going to happen.
      I enjoy stories that are gradually unraveled as well or have big reveals at the end that answer all your questions and I can think of quite a few games that do that well. I probably like them for the same reason I might read a mystery novel. Working things out is usually an exciting process! I definitely love both kinds of games and wouldn’t give up either!
      Although there are tons of good open-ended movies out there, unfortunately there seem to be fewer games like that out there. I would definitely recommend BioShock Infinite and Far Cry 3 as games that do ‘open to interpretation’ very well (not to mention they’re awesome games)!

  4. I think those with open-ended endings are asking for a sequel. I don’t really like open ended endings, not in books , movies, etc. I want a starightforward endings, and they don’t have to be ” happy”. I’m like, ” Give it to me straight.”

    • Hmm I’m not sure I agree with you there. There are certainly games and movies, like Assassin’s Creed that deliberately leave cliffhangers to get you wanting a sequel, but I would distinguish between these types of endings that aren’t really to enhance storytelling and endings like those of Inception and BioShock Infinite whose appeal lies in their endings that are hugely open to interpretation. In those cases a direct sequel would completely ruin them, because the whole point of it is to leave some of your questions unanswered so that you can mull it over yourself. Also, many of these stories, like Far Cry 3 do conclude in some way, but leave many of the issues open to interpretation, so that a sequel wouldn’t really make much sense. I can totally understand preferring straightforward stories though. In many circumstances I prefer them as well, like with Mass Effect where I just wanted some kind of ending whether it was happy or sad. However, I know a lot of people like myself, do enjoy a good stand-alone open-ended story, so I think the solution is simply to have more variety of content in games like there are in movies and books, so that people can actually choose whether they want a story like that or not. Of course which you prefer is totally up to you though! 🙂

  5. Pingback: My favourite games of all time or games you should play before you kick the bucket! | CheeeseToastieandVideoGames

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