I can’t read minds, but I imagine that, if we would stop to think about it, most of us would agree that the quality of the ending of a game means a lot to us. We might fall in love with the characters, or fall into the trap of aiming for one-hundred percent completion, but we’ll be left feeling unsatisfied if the ending doesn’t measure up. It’s in the spirit of considering this that I would like to draw your attention to a pair of, in my opinion, quite powerful ending sequences. They came from the same series, although they were a few years apart in time.
Let’s begin with a look at the original Final Fantasy, particularly as released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. You’ve traveled across vast stretches of land, acquired an airship, and restored each of the four orbs. After a little time travel, you manage to reach the final room of the Temple of Fiends. Inside, you find Garland, an old foe from the early game. You were able to beat him then, but this time he appears as a hideous monster, referred to as Chaos. After a potentially hard battle, you triumph over him. The game displays that familiar message, “Terminated.” Unlike all the other monsters you’ve fought so far, however, Chaos does not simply disappear. Instead, the entire screen display begins to shake, as both he and the background of the temple begin to disintegrate. Instead of the final battle ending rather abruptly, you are treated to the cathartic sight of your enemy slowly falling apart before your eyes; allowing plenty of time for the gravity of what has just happened to sink in. I don’t know whether you’ve had any experience with this game. If you have, I don’t know if you share my opinion on this experience. Personally, though, that was the high point of the ending sequence. Sure, they include some extra text thanking you as the player for playing your part, but it was that sense of achievement and emotional release as I witnessed Chaos disappearing that really did it for me.
Jumping ahead a bit, let’s take a look at the ending to Final Fantasy VI (or III, as it was originally known in North America). Having adventured for a while only to witness the destruction of the world as you knew it, you eventually make your way to the final confrontation with Kefka. He has absorbed the power from what was originally the source of all magic, and is claiming godhood. Of course, you are eventually able to best him in battle. However, your victory comes at a cost. Through his actions, Kefka had become the new source of all magic. As a result, with his defeat, it begins to cease to exist. The pieces of Magicite that you have collected (the last remains of deceased espers- magical creatures) begin to vanish, as the universe no longer has a place for them. Provided she is with you, Terra, a half-esper, half-human ally, begins to weaken as she attempts to help you escape. Eventually, all ends seemingly well. Terra loses her magical powers but, on account of a strong link to the human world, survives the end of magic. You are even treated to some scenes of the world beginning the process of rebuilding.
Where I said that the ending of the original Final Fantasy allowed for an emotional release, I would say that the impact here comes from how your emotions are both released and triggered. Once again, you are treated to a feeling of satisfaction when Kefka begins to disintegrate. However, it is shortly replaced by a, dare I say, sobering realization. One of the key points of the game has been the idea that magic is, for the most part, the domain of a separate sort of creature than humans. By collecting what’s left of them once they’ve passed on, your heroes have been able to learn magic for themselves. Now, your victory over the forces of evil means that a vast number of real people, different than you in some ways but real nonetheless, are going away forever. The game doesn’t even grant us the satisfaction of knowing that they will be departing to some sort of afterlife. For all we know, it’s just going to be as though they never were, and they will leave no trace behind. Perhaps you did what had to be done, perhaps things end on a bit of a happier note with the knowledge that the world is beginning to rebuild. Even so, it’s probably a rare game that’s able to lay claim to as emotionally triggering an ending as that one.
Two games, two generations, two endings; but both arguably just as satisfying in their own way. Perhaps endings like those wouldn’t work well for every genre of game. However, I think we can all agree that endings of similar quality, similar level of payoff, should be something that all developers should strive for.