That’s It? Graphics Improve But Video Game Endings Still Come Up Short

Endings often undiscovered by gamers, neglected by developers.

Reynaldo Esteban is a gamer who cares about something most gamers don’t: how a video game ends. And he’s got a right to care — he says he’s finished 3,000 of them.

In 1990, when he was 11, he got his first gaming console: a Nintendo Entertainment System. He beat “Guerilla War” then borrowed his friend’s games and knocked off “Contra,” “Double Dragon” and “Mega Man 3.”

Then he discovered a place he could rent games: “That’s when the madness started, beating three to four games a week.” Esteban did it at first to brag, to show up a “snotty neighbor” who thought that he’d beaten even more games. “I didn’t really care if it was a long ending or if it just said ‘congratulations,’ I just wanted to have it on my list.”

A few thousand endings and 16 years later, Esteban says game endings are just not that good. Graphics may have improved in a decade and a half. Same for music and gameplay. But the way games wrap things up? “Today’s games definitely have more elaborate endings, but most of them still manage to leave you as empty as a single ‘congratulations’ screen,” Esteban said.

Game endings are one of the medium’s loneliest frontiers, undiscovered by most gamers and often neglected even by the people who make them. Few reach the endings, and the few who do are often left disappointed. How did it get this way?

“A game’s success is overwhelmingly more dependent on its beginning than on its ending,” developer Michael John told MTV News. John most recently helmed the development of the well-received PSP action game “Daxter.”

People talk about endings to movies like “The Crying Game” and “The Sixth Sense.” They celebrate the final moments of “Rocky” and “Braveheart.” But who among the millions who bought “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” even knows how it ends? It’s what players can do in the game’s early minutes that hooks them.

The games whose endings have been widely noted are few, and those few seem to have earned their attention rather notoriously. “Halo 2″ sped to a cliffhanger, leaving gamers hurting for closure and hammering “Halo” maker Bungie for more. “We thought our cliffhanger ending was going to be cool, but it backfired,” said Frank O’Connor, Bungie’s content manager, in an interview with MTV News in July.

The ending of 2004 role-playing game “Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords” got Internet buzz days after its release, not because it was something great, but because it was so poorly realized. So many subplots were left unresolved that some of the game’s most frustrated fans have been running a restoration project to make a mod to smooth the game’s rough edges.

Games have their roots in the arcades, where developers only had to entertain for the length of time a quarter could buy. That design philosophy made endings such a low priority that a game such as the mighty “Pac-Man” only terminated after level 133, not when the game’s thin story ended but when the programming faltered (see “Gaming’s Top Ref Pays Big Bucks For Record-Breaking Scores” ).

That approach influenced the design of many of the early games for home consoles, which also were often made to play on and on with no endings in sight. But as games developed characters and stories, some game endings began to make a mark.

Esteban hailed the surprise at the end of the first “Metroid” — helmeted hero Samus is a she! — as “the greatest story twist in the world.” He credited “Chrono Trigger” with pushing the idea of multiple obtainable endings. He praised “Earthbound” on the Super Nintendo for allowing the player to roam through its world for hours after they beat the final boss character, the antithesis of the clipped endings that so often grate. And he said the wrap-up to “Klonoa” is the first ending to make people cry.

Most gamers would have a tough time debating Esteban. Publishers, developers and gamers agree that only a distinct minority of players finish their games. Hard stats are hard to come by — game companies are far more capable of calculating the number of people who leave a store with a new game than how many people finish that game weeks later at home.

That may change. The Xbox 360′s Achievements system tracks milestones reached by the player, often including their progress through a game’s levels. A company representative told MTV News that Microsoft will release that information to publishers.

For now the anecdotal evidence reigns. Players don’t reach endings and therefore there’s not much reason to worry about them, the thinking goes. Developer John identified another obstacle: Even game makers barely reach the endings of their own games. “One of the biggest reasons developers make poor-quality endings is that we always end up doing the ending deep into crunch time and just don’t put the effort into it we should,” he said.

Esteban at least can verify that some gamers do care about them, and if anyone is not up to speed on them, he can offer a crash course. He is the endings editor at VGMuseum.com, where screenshots of 3,603 game endings are currently stored. Want to see how “Resident Evil” and “Q-Bert 3″ wind up? The site’s got the answer. More than 100 people have contributed endings, according to Esteban. And it’s an international effort. He’s based in the Dominican Republic. One of his best Commodore 64 contributors is in Germany. One of the top arcade contributors is in Serbia.

Esteban started using emulators to capture endings in the ’90s, contributing to an earlier site where an editor archived just the text of game endings. “I submitted so many endings that he ended up giving me free games for every 30 endings,” Esteban said. He scored 10 free games before hooking up with VGMuseum. He won’t let the new archive discriminate bad games from good: “Hey there’s got to be someone that would want to see a Barbie game ending, right?”

Esteban has plenty of advice for developers looking to make better endings. He wants the makers of fighting games to include endings for each fighter, role-playing-game makers to lay off the “fluff and concentrate on giving the story and characters some closure,” and he’d like to see a single good ending to a first-person shooter.

But there’s already a new reason for him to worry that game endings are going to continue to be neglected: online games. They are “great for having fun … but not great for those of us that like an ending, a finale, some closure,” he said. They remind him of the old endless games from the arcades and early consoles, with their focus on hooking players to keep playing without end. “I do not wish for games to go back to those Atari days when everything was endless.”

He just wants some good video game endings. And now he needs enough people to care.