Warning, beneath lie spoilers, I can’t even tell you what games I spoil, because that itself would be a spoiler. Read on at your own peril.
I don’t know how many of you have played Ubisoft’s loquaciously named Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Offical Game of the Movie (yes that really is it’s full title). It’s a clever little game by Michel (Rayman, Beyond Good and Evil) Ancel, it has a minimal HUD, a clever ‘ecology’ system where creatures eat one another, and an ammo light philosophy which often sees you improvising with thrown spears.
And you die at the end.
In telling the iconic King Kong story, Ubisoft were forced to tackle something few developers had before, a sad ending. Nowadays more and more developers are choosing to take on the challenge of ending a game in defeat, putting their story above standard gameplay win conditions. Who are they? How successful were they? The mother of all spoiler collections lurks beneath the cut.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare:
See, I told you there’d be spoilers.
Modern Warfare actually has a downer opening, you start as the victim of a coup, driven through the streets of your country and dragged to your execution. It also has a downer middle, when the American invasion goes horribly wrong as a nuclear bomb detonates. Finally, the end of the game represents only the mildest of victories, you do indeed finally get to gun down Zhakaev, the man behind it all, but the end implies that, even though you may well survive your wounds, the rest of your squad did not.
Call of Duty is one of the great examples of the downer ending done right, while the first time is merely expository, the nuclear explosion kills off a character you’ve played for half the game at this point. And it doesn’t just simply kill him, no you play as him as he stumbles out of the helicopter into the apocalyptic streets, staggering his last few steps before finally dying far from his home. It’s an astonishingly brutal twist, and one that, in retrospect, feels so necessary to setting Call of Duty apart. The US Marines in the game are something of a throwback to other, less real war games, with their bravado and cries of “Ooorah!”, in showing them screwing up so badly, CoD 4 firmly distanced itself from the more common, action movie aping games around.
And it is this preparation that enables it to pull of it’s ending. When Zhakaev closes and the dying Captain Price tosses you his pistol, you know that, kill him and his two guards as you might, you’re still going to die, but you’ll die doing your job dammit. The rescue seconds later is an unexpected bonus, but one which the game had to earn, in any other game we’d expect survival, but after that nuke, we were fully prepared to die. We had made the choice to finish what we started, dead or alive, something so few games have managed to pull off.
If Call of Duty is the classic example of how a downer ending should be done, then Fallout is the ‘how not to’ guide. A lot of people were angered at the ending of Fallout, so much so that the developers changed it in the Broken Steel DLC release.
When you reach the end of Fallout, you first get an absolutely amazing set piece as you fight your way into Project Purity, accompanied by a gigantic, commie hating robotic war machine. When you make it in you can take revenge on the man that killed your father, or convince him to walk away… at which point the reactor overloads and you have to sacrifice yourself to stop it. The alternative is to get one another character to sacrifice themselves, characters who could actually survive the radiation won’t do it, no matter how much Rad X you take, you’ll still die.
Gamers reacted against the very concept of self sacrifice and a real end to an open world game here, something which I disagree with. I think Fallout’s ending was a noble concept, a fitting end to this particular wasteland wanderer’s tale, but it was so rushed and sloppily written it diminished its meaning. The overload happens without warning or explanation, several rational ways around the situation are ruled out without clear reasons. Where in Call of Duty the gamer arrived at a point at which he felt he could sacrifice himself, in Fallout the feeling was that you were being backed into a corner. Instead of dying the noble death, succeeding in the goal you had always worked towards; you were arbitrarily killed off after you had already completed your goals. Dying wasn’t an integral part of the ending, it felt tacked on, unnecessary.
Dawn of War 2:
Dawn of War contrasts with both of the above, in such a way that those amongst you who have finished it will be wondering why it’s here. Don’t worry, I’ll explain soon.
First, for the others. Dawn of War sees your gallant Space Marines trying to hold their home systems against a massive Tyranid threat, meanwhile the Eldar are trying to stop the Tyranids in their own way, by blowing up several of your worlds at them. The Orks are also involved somehow, I’m not sure why. It’s possible they just heard there was a fight going on a invited themselves.
There’s a lot of back and forth in Dawn of War as you push against the advancing fleet with your handful of squads, only to lose ground while fighting elsewhere, eventually you begin the path towards manufacturing a toxin which which to infect the main Tyranid hive, stopping them in their tracks. Early on your commanding officer is mortally wounded, and appears later sealed inside a Dreadnaught, more machine than man, he occasionally references great secrets about your order (which are oddly enough never followed up on). You are in contact with a relief fleet speeding towards you as you try and hold off the threat, but when the time comes for the final mission they’re still too far away, and communications have gone dark.
So you’re dropped down into the world, with all six of your squads instead of merely four, plus some imperial guard NPCs the dialogue convinces you this will be an enormous battle, and one from which you are unlikely to return. The majority of the fight involves running around poisoning pools in a rather undramatic fashion. You eventually end up on top of a small hill, with waves of Tyranids coming at you, you poison the last pool, you’ve won, you’re told, but you aren’t getting out. Instead this will be your last great stand, but it won’t happen in cutscene either, no you instead keep playing, as wave after wave of Tyranids try and wear you down. I loved this moment, after the tepid mission before we would get to go out in a blaze of glory, I hunkered my men down, ready and waiting, I would take as many of this fiends with me as I could, hundreds of Tyranids came at us, but we held.
Then, after a short length of time, it turned out the fleet had made it after all. They beamed down, complete with their commander, and kicked the asses of the Tyranids. We were then informed their was a boss nearby and went and beat the crap out of it. And that was it, standard boss fight. The end. I can’t help but wish Dawn of War had been brave enough to try the Downer Ending, fighting against increasing hordes until we dropped would have been a fitting way for our heroic marines to go. But instead we got the same boss fight we’d had in most of the levels before then, only slightly harder, unmemorable, standard.
Which brings me back to where we started; with King Kong’s final level, which features you hanging from the Empire state building, swatting away airplanes that will only ever increase in number until they eventually wear you down. It wasn’t perfect, it didn’t really pull the atmosphere off right and the final “twas beauty killed the beast” line was delivered in an extremely static, Spartan cutscene that robbed it of it’s impact. But it did try to do it, it stayed faithful and it attempted something new for the medium.
There’s another ending to King Kong, if one gets a high score on all the levels. I did, and I was rewarded with a strange spectacle. In this version, if you hold the airplanes off long enough you switch control, taking over a plane you shoot down the other pilots, take out some spotlights and help Kong escape New York under cover of darkness. As if merely getting him out of there unseen wasn’t ridiculous enough, the final scene shows him back on Skull Island, beating his chest as you circle around him in your bi-plane. It’s clearly only meant as a joke, but it stung nonetheless, part of it said to me, this is what they think gamers want in their endings, silly Deus Ex Machina. It said to me that they didn’t think they could handle the original ending, that might not have been perfect, but was new and daring. I can only hope that the games of our future look at the first ending and not the second, and see what I saw.
All games give you the chance to lose, but this one let us lose with dignity.