Video game developers are capable of telling innovative, revolutionary, and groundbreaking stories. Stories that capture the heart, light one’s imagination, and dazzle the mind. When done well, games and the stories they tell rank right alongside the very best and finest crafted tales out there.
Warning, this article does contain spoilers for Inside and Virginia.
Ambiguity can strengthen and refine some stories, not explicitly spelling out every tiny detail can add mystery and intrigue to the proceedings and let the players imagination conjure up what happens once the screen goes black and the credits roll. Most of all, ambiguity can provide a much-welcomed change of pace from the usual tired, stale, and cliche filled endings that video games so often fall back on.
That said, ambiguity in games is wildly misused by game creators. It far more often than not serves as an abdication of a storytellers duty to tell a complete and full story. There is a vast difference between a game leaving some loose ends and things up to a player’s imagination and a creator just walking away mid-sentence with no idea how to finish the story.
2016 was a great year for games, in particular smaller, indie-style ones. From Inside, to Oxenfree, to Virginia, to Firewatch, smaller titles soared in the past year. Three of the four games I just mentioned made it onto my top 10 GOTY list. That said, all four of those games, which delivered innovative and unique stories, largely ended with ambiguous and disappointing conclusions.
I would like to talk about two of them: Inside and Virginia. Each game represents a vastly different form of storytelling; innovating and distorting what it means to be a cinematic and compelling title. Yet, both ultimately left a sour and unfulfilling taste in my mouth due to their puzzling endings. Neither titles ending felt true to the story they had been telling up to that point and even worse, both ultimately felt like the developers had no idea how to end things, so they just threw fifteen different things at the wall and hoped something would stick.
Let’s start with Inside, the vastly superior game and thus the more disappointing finale. Inside is a masterpiece of game design, environmental storytelling, sound, art style, and the hard-to-describe “feel” of a game. In nearly every single way it is a powerful, immersive, stomach-churning, mind-bending thriller, until the moment it abandons everything that made the game special to begin with and instead delves into cliches and senselessness.
Inside is so magnificent because of its mastery in handling such a shockingly high number of different themes, genres, and tropes. Psychological thriller, sci-fi head trip, brutal takedown of totalitarianism, fascism, and more. Inside tackles everything and does so in a manner that builds and evolves from everything before it. It all makes sense. It all flows from one moment to another in a way that propels the game forward into newer and more dangerous territory. It’s simply astonishing how it does so. All of this ratchets up until you get to the game’s final act, where you finally get to the cusp of discovering just what has been driving your character forward, just what you’ve been chasing after this whole time, just what oh what has everything been about.
You drop down, walk forward and suddenly realize nobody cares about you any longer. Nobody gives you a second glance or tries to stop you, or give chase. Their transfixed by something else, by something mysterious. You can try to see for yourself, but you are too small to see over anybody, to weak to push your way through the crowd, and anyway fate is pulling you in a separate direction, you’re dynasty lays somewhere else.
So, you grab something to climb on, push ahead, and jump your way higher and higher. Where are you going? What mysterious thing lays ahead that’s captured everyone’s gaze? You go and go and go before suddenly you drop down into a tank of water with a propeller spinning rapidly below. Through attrition, smarts, and a fair bit of luck you stop the blades, and shoot your way through the top of the tank and into the wondrous unknown.
And smack dab into the middle of a giant blob. A giant mess of a creature is what has been driving you forward. As jarring and mind-bending as this discovery is, the game isn’t over. This isn’t the ending. You have to escape. After a few tries, you break out of the container that’s been holding this creature and charge through the building, causing mayhem and terrifying those around you. You seem to be running towards something again but what could that be? Flailing, rolling, and smashing through everything in your path, you eventually hit a dead end. You can’t go any further this route, so you run and run until suddenly you enter a room with sprinklers. The way you came is blocked, so you run towards the other side of the room, towards what’s waiting for you.
You see a furnace and suddenly it hits you like a ton of bricks, this is how the game ends. You have to sacrifice yourself to save everyone else, to rid the world of the monster that you are now a part of. That you now control. A brilliant, heartbreaking, and astoundingly noble conclusion to the game. With tears welling in my eyes, I grip the controller, take a deep breath, and walk towards the flames.
Except, the dang game won’t let me fit into the furnace. But that has to be it right? This is how the game ends, so how do I make it in? Stumped, I wander around for a few more minutes. That clearly must be the ending? Except of course it’s not. Playdead wouldn’t allow that, instead you must grab a box push it into the furnace so it catches flame, and toss it over each one of the sprinklers until you get back to where you were stuck. You then proceed to set that aflame so that it opens up a new area for you to access. You know, because obviously. After more running and puzzle solving in this last act, which for the record is far, far longer than it should be, and basically destroys the games impeccable pacing, you finally smash through that one final barrier and roll down a hill to your freedom, to salivation.
Except, you’re dead. Well maybe, that’s not made clear. It’s also not made clear: if you should even be rooting for the monster or not. Is it a good creature simply wanting it’s freedom and to end the experiments being done to it,or is it a force of terror and destruction who rightfully has instilled fear in those around it? Where did this monster come from? Why does it exist? How exactly is it connected to everything beforehand? Nothing is made clear. Instead, with a slow pane away from the creature, the game ends. With no answers, with nothing resolved, with nothing having now made sense.
There are lots of theories about what happened, a lot of ideas of what Inside was really about, a lot of talk and discussion and debate about what everything meant, about what the ending really held. None were given by the game, none were given by the developers and creators of the story. A story has a beginning, middle, and an end. You can create an ambiguous ending, a vague, and incomplete finale. What you can’t do, is bring up more and more questions, lay more and more threads and clues, and tell 90 percent of a stunning, breathtaking story, and then walk away because you have no clue as to how to effectively and compellingly tie it all together. Yet, this is what Inside’s conclusion does and nobody, least of all the game is the better for it.
Virginia on the other hand is nearly none of the things Inside is, indeed in many ways the only similarities the games share is that each feature a wordless story and each imbue a very art-house style vibe.
Whereas Inside is a stunning tour-de-force of gameplay design, atmosphere, and tension, Virginia is a largely overly ambitious, messy, and in the end sloppy and disjointed tale that never quite nails it’s tone. Virginia is basically six or seven different stories mashed together and only two or three are very interesting. Still, I was very curious to see where Virginia would take me for it’s finale. Where would this murder mystery, tale of race, sexism, science-fiction, and betrayal lead?
Well, the God’s honest truth is I have no idea. I have no idea what really happened during the ending of Virginia. That’s because it’s gibberish. It’s utter and complete nonsense. It jumps between different timelines, characters, and even includes dream sequences, all jarringly cutting between each other with no clues as to which one you’re in. Virginia’s conclusion is basically a giant middle finger to all those who spent three hours playing it, only to come to the end and get slapped around for daring to presume that Virginia would offer any answers. How dare you ask for such a thing, Virginia seems to ask. Why would you possibly want a simple, easy, obvious, traditional, boring answer when instead you could get the piece of art that is this ending.
The problem of course is the ending is nothing. There are no stakes attached because you can’t quite ever figure out what is real and what is fake. There is no tension because it switches around and does so many fake out endings and twists that by the time the actual, final, very understated scene rolls around, you have nothing left emotionally to react with. You’ve been drained, jerked around, and taken for granted for the better part of 25 or 30 minutes. When the credits roll, you’re just happy you can finally stop playing.
There’s something sad and disappointing in that. Virginia for all it’s flaws does explore rich, topical, and important issues. It tackles racism and sexism in the workplace in ways few games do and measures out loyalty versus duty in compelling and thought-provoking ways. All of this is promising, as is it’s usage of a totally dialogue-free story. The problems only arise when Virginia jumps into science-fiction, conspiracies, and dream worlds. These things don’t elevate Virginia, they hamper and pull it back from an effective story.
Instead of the tight, short, focused examination into these weighty issues set against the backdrop of a murder case, Virginia tries to do far too many things and buckles under the massive task. It’s clever and innovative decision to forgo having any dialogue becomes a handicap when it introduces more and more characters, more and more plot lines, and more and more realities. The game simply can’t keep up with it all and thus we have it’s mess of an ending. Clearly meant to be ambiguous and art-house, it is instead just frustrating and numbing. Self-righteousness wrapped up in the guise of a weighty drama, Virginia and it’s finale is ultimately a cautionary tale of doing too much. Of never saying no at any idea no matter how much it detracts from the larger tale. Of unrestrained artistic vision at the detriment to the larger experience. It’s the story of something that should have been great and much welcomed in 2016, ultimately becoming a second-rate tale with a shockingly off-key finale.
The sad ironic truth is that I liked quite a bit of what both these games did. Particularly with regards to Inside, I loved the dark, atmospheric, and brilliantly innovative and creative ideas they had with regards to stories and the many different ways that they can be told. That’s what makes their finales that much more sad. They built themselves around such weighty and important topics – the two games together tackled such far ranging and fundamental issues as race, sex, free will, authoritarianism, duty, mind control, and more. They staked themselves to these issues, to the clever and seemingly important things they had to say about them and then in the end, at the 11th hour, didn’t ultimately have anything to utter about them, let alone something new, different, and important.
These games and their “ambiguous” endings bother me so much, precisely because their endings were so needed and so relevant in this 21st Century world, precisely because they were so adamant in being games about something important. Their endings matter more because they were supposed to be the culminations of the larger points and issues they were making, instead they were simply the designers indulging every single artistic whim they had and thus were simply yet another tired, try hard, lackluster, and senseless video game ending. To the detriment of everything else, Inside and Virginia got the lofty, thought-provoking endings they wanted, I can hardly imagine it was worth the collateral damage to their stories.
Ambiguity in games isn’t a bad thing. It shouldn’t be driven out, panned, or overly criticized. However, neither should it be used as a crutch for developers who trapped themselves in a box by introducing too many questions, plot lines, or themes. Ambiguity and games as a whole are best served by finales that honor and serve the larger story being told. When a game suddenly at the last hour changes fundamentally that serves no one, not the player, not the story, and not the developers who spent so long making a game only for people to be divided and focused about what the ending meant. Ambiguity and a games ending should enhance what came before it, add shades of gray, and reflect the broad possibilities, and limitless quality of people’s imagination, anything less and they’re simply doing themselves and their audience a disservice.