Are Video Games Meant to Have Happy Endings?


Whenever a game with a “controversial” ending comes out, I almost always see tweets or posts from players lamenting a common thread saying: “they play video games to feel good, not to make them depressed.” I thought about this for a while, and I realized how players have been used to winning or a victorious end goal since the early days of video gaming.

In Pac-Man, you simply had to eat all the pac-dots to win a level. It’s a victory in the sense that you beat the bad guys by either eating them or outsmarting their attempts to kill you. We have games like Mario where you saved Princess Peach by the end by defeating the bad guy Bowser. Even with games like Galaga, there is still a sense of victory by amassing the highest number of points even if you lost all your fighters. Essentially, we feel good because we are at the top or we saved a city. As gamers, we are used to the whole idea of ‘winning’ by triumphing through obstacles and ultimately a boss fight in the end. Most games want you to save the day or the girl, but what if we can’t? Is that okay? Or do we always have to be the hero in the end?

Note: Spoilers for The Last of Us and Mass Effect 3 will be mentioned here. Proceed at your own caution.

I’m writing about this because I’m confused about why the argument “games have to be fun” still exists. I mean it’s not an entirely fresh concept, since I have seen a lot of video games that didn’t have happy endings. However, most of them were sad because someone died but in the end it was a sacrifice made for the greater good. However, a recent game called ‘The Last of Us’ by Naughty Dog garnered some controversy for their ending. I also had people tell me that the game made them feel depressed, which is not what they wanted out of a video game. That was the same reaction that I got from players when they played Mass Effect 3 during the ending. A lot people envisioned Shepard saving the galaxy along with a cut scene that shows him with his love interest and Normandy crew celebrating.

In the video game The Last of Us, some people were upset with the fact that the protagonist Joel chose to sacrifice humanity’s best chance for a cure to save Ellie’s life regardless if that was what she might have wanted. He even lied to her when she confronted him about it. However, I’m not going to debate about the moral issues of this because that’s for another discussion. Anyway, I guess this might be different because the player didn’t do anything ‘heroic’ by general definition. Unlike Mass Effect 3, this ending wasn’t criticized because of the numerous plot holes fans mentioned. This game really had a solid ending, but it just wan’t the type players were expecting to have. In fact, it was revealed that test audiences and some of the staff from Naughty Dog didn’t react well to it either. I was actually expecting a typical Hollywood ending where both of them lives or they could have gone the bittersweet route and let one of them died. In both variations, they were able to produce a vaccine because that’s what the game was about right? But no, they both survived in a whole different scenario. In my opinion, I thought they made a bold move that made The Last of Us a truly enjoyable and unique experience.

I always thought the video games were great mediums of storytelling like films, novels and television shows but more on the interactive side. These other mediums all have their share of tragedies like in Shakespeare’s works or in Greek mythology. Who can forget films like The Mist? I love that ending regardless of what other might say. Requiem for a Dream’s ending shocked me at first because  there was no happy ending for the characters and it was the first time I’ve personally seen something like that.  Yet, I feel that people are more acceptable of tragic endings in these mediums more than in video games. I think it’s probably because we are used to being heroes or reaching an end goal in video games. If you think about it, I guess it can be disappointing to have a poignant conclusion if you’ve spent your time and effort trying to beat a game. Films, television shows, and books don’t seem to require the same level of immersion.

I’ve also heard people say that they use video games as a form of escape. That’s not really a unique thing, because people say that about other mediums as well. Maybe it’s just people who don’t like sad things in general who think video games are always meant to have happy endings. However, I personally find it a good thing if creators don’t give audiences exactly what they want. They only give what is needed. I think this evolves video games into a whole another level because it breaks the mentality that video games are simply for simplistic and brief sources of entertainment. Pushing the envelope just like what Naughty Dog did helps elevate video games into an art form expression that is beyond a simple toy.

What do you think?

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  1. It’s important to make it clear that there is a difference between fun and emotional weight. I had the same kind of fun playing the game as I had watching a movie like 28 Days Later. Both were “fun” while making me feel exhausted. Sometimes I want to play a game to forget my troubles by jumping around and collecting things. Other times I’d rather participate in an experience that would normally be inaccessible.

    In retrospect, The Last Of Us ending gave me an uncomfortable empty feeling. The same sort of feeling that I felt when I was younger watching a main character die at the end. I remember a time when the impact of a lead’s death weighed on me. The same way I felt walking away from The Last Of Us. I realize now that any other ending would have been expected and that the only way the game could have legitimately surprised me would be to offer a lack of answer rather than the answer to any problems, which it did with flying colors.

    Joel’s lie to Ellie was more powerful than a death, cure, or destruction of a cure every could have truly been.

  2. I absolutely agree that The Last of Us truly elevated gaming into an art form.

    The opening sequence was really powerful an only continued to improve as the game continued. The writing and performances were on par with a major network drama and the animation work was superb. The little movements of the character’s faces that revealed so much about them, like when Ellie says she is afraid of being alone.

    This leads right into the ending. It was the only way to end the game, even if it initially made me question it. But much like many of the events of the game, upon further reflection, it is all the more powerful. Joel turning Ellie into his surrogate daughter, while Ellie realizes that Joel just lied to her, shows just how fractured this experience has made these characters.

    The fact that you play as both characters offers players a unique perspective into the ending. As Joel, the longer the game goes on the more you are willing to do anything for Ellie. As Ellie, you find yourself doing whatever it takes to make it to the Fireflies and hopefully a cure. With the ending you understand both sides.

    Amazing game. I can see this being turned into a movie…but would be way better as an HBO miniseries.

  3. I really enjoyed Mass Effect, but did get a twinge of sadness when I knew that was the end of my character, particularly after taking her through all three games.

    I was almost tempted to go for the destroy ending simply to keep her alive, but thought that the ‘greater good’ was ultimately a more satisfying option (I’m still not sure about it though to be honest!).

    That being said though, I quite like the end of the Last of Us- although bleak for humanity, it was the two characters that I was so invested in and had tried to save that got out and were ok, and for me that was enough. I think having a ‘Hollywood ending’ where everyone lives and everything would be ok would have meant the game losing some of its weight, which is ultimately what it’s aiming for.

    The best films are those that play with expectations (Arlington Road comes to mind), and I don’t think games are any different.

  4. I can’t comment on the ending of The Last of Us directly but I thought I might have something interesting to add in regards to “unsatisfying” video game endings in general. As such, I will use Mass Effect 3’s ending as my example for the points I’m about to make.

    I don’t believe games need to have a happy ending to make it a satisfying experience. It is true that happy endings are the far more common as a reward for the “work” the player put into beating the various levels, storyline, etc. Still, a tragic or bittersweet ending can be acceptable if it fits the game’s universe/characters.

    In the case of Mass Effect 3 (using only the original, nonDLC endings) I think the main complaint for me wasn’t Shepard’s fate but rather, in a game that delighted in giving you various choices and the consequences to deal with later, all the endings were practically identical save for the color of the explosions.

    So it didn’t matter if you were a paragon or a renegade. The results were the same. It made it seem as if it didn’t matter how you played the game (or all three in Mass Effect’s case), the developers decided your choices, which was again the selling point, didn’t matter a whit.

    But there are games that have bittersweet endings that still give what I would call a satisfying ending. Halo: Reach is an example. (It is true that, since this was a prequel, your character’s fate was pretty much sealed but we’ll use it as a stand alone example since I believe it could have ended the same way and had the same emotional weight.)

    Spoiler Alert (Just in case.)

    Your Spartan dies at the end. But your character dies so that the hope of ultimate victory can survive. The last level you can fight as hard as you want or just let the baddies take you out. It doesn’t matter since the story doesn’t branch out based on the choices you make. You get a “bad” ending but it is still satisfying because it fits into the mythos of the game’s universe.

    It’s when a video game or a novel or whatever has the “Honey, come to dinner!” endings that really irk me. In novels, Stephen King is a repeat violator of this type of ending. To define a HCTD ending, it is an ending that leaves you feeling as if the storyline isn’t complete in that the main character(s) don’t come to a conclusion regarding the events that just transpired, as if someone called the writer away from his computer and he or she had to slap “the end” on the page to quickly finish and go eat.

    That’s not to say that you have to leave an ending feel like it the world stops at the end of the story or, on the other hand, even leave it open for a sequel. It’s like writing a story in the beginning or middle: you have to establish the rules of your universe and stick to them. Last of Us seems to do just that from what I’ve read. I’ll make a final judgment for myself when I can finally get the game and play it.

    Too many people think that doesn’t apply to endings and often use a “mcguffin” or deus ex machina to tie things up when they write themselves into a corner or run out of money for development (sadly common in video games like Knights of the Old Republic 2).

    Thanks for taking the time to read my rambling. I hope what I covered made sense.

  5. Well, I have to say that I’m currently in a stage of my life where I primarily play video games as a means of escape. My time is far more limited then when I was in college and this has led to some changes in my gaming habits. I haven’t played The Last of Us, but to answer Benny’s question, I don’t think video games NEED a happy ending per se. That said, I do think most of us prefer happy endings to tragic ones. I know I usually prefer a happy ending. A tragic one can kind of leave me feeling like, “what was the point of all that?” Especially when it comes to a video game where I’ve spent hours upon hours defeating enemies, solving puzzles, etc.

    The Prince of Persia reboot from a few years ago comes to mind. You go through all this trouble sealing up the bad guy, Elika sacrifices herself to do it, and then in 5 minutes you undo all your hard work to save her. Stupid. Just plain stupid. The ending to Last of Us sounds about 100x better, don’t get me wrong.

    Anyway, you will never please everyone no matter what you do. I think most people can accept this game has a tragic ending and some will like that more then others. I don’t think it will garner anywhere near the controversy of ME3 which was not just a tragic ending but a poorly constructed one. So, if it works, a video game can certainly have a tragic ending. I think most of us tend to prefer happy ones though.

  6. I haven’t played the Last of Us (I’m a proud owner of a 360, Wii and 3DS). So I’ll try to comment as an outsider. I think that games have two things in regard to experience rather than playing that are engagement (how concerned your are with the game design, story etc.) and choice (being able to have several tools or mechanics to achieve the goal).

    Even a game like the the Last of Us has a goal, even though is a harsh one. My doubts are if the gameplay supports the design or not, since from the outside I’ve just hear about the story characters, cinematics, but little about gameplay, so more than a step up to games is this really a game anymore, just graphic novel isn’t the same thing as comic, is this a game anymore?

  7. Come on, Bedlam, Pac-Man had no happy ending! You run and you consume and you are chased until you DIE. Just like real life. Even if you manage to avoid the murderous ghosts pursuing you until the game has no more game, then the game itself kills you for your trouble.

    People who just want games to be brainless fun should remember that Nintendo is still a thing. Those of us who want it to push forward into the realm of interactive storytelling and art demand feels and lot of them!

    Anyone here not have their guts ripped out multiple times during Telltale’s The Walking Dead? Would anyone substitute that experience for some vapid happy ending where it turns out nobody really got hurt and you saved the world? Didn’t think so. Beats the hell out of rescuing some dopey princess.

  8. The Last of Us also didn’t have a happy beginning or middle. If we learned anything from the game it is that after an apocalypse, women want to rebuild society and men want new shoes or something to eat.

  9. IMHO Videogames (just like movies and series) don’t need to have a happy ending. They do need to have a satisfying ending though.

    I.E. Mass Effect 3 original ending was a clusterfuck. It had plotholes, not conclusion for any of the races or characters, Normandy stranded, Relay network destroyed, galactic holocause, etc. It was in no way or form satisfying. Extended Cut remedied that and made a (to me) very satisfying ending, with giving each character their farewell scene and a conclusion to the reaper war.

    Shadow of the Colossus: Really sad tearjerking ending, but very satisfying because of the last scene where you see Agro is OK (best horse ever).

    The Last of us was also a brilliant ending. Bitter, but satisfying.

  10. I’m going to go back to 1995 to one of the first Windows games I ever played, Fallout 1.

    I played the pure paragon through that entire game. Saved the vault numerous times (both Mariposa Military Base and the Cathedral for example)

    Did nothing but good deeds during my journey in the wastelands so it came as a huge shock that when I returned for my reward, that I was told by the overseer and I quote,

    “I’ve made a lot of tough decisions since I took this position. But none of them harder than this one. You saved us, but you’ll kill us. I’m sorry. You’re a hero… and you have to leave.”

    I was dumbfounded and at the same time impressed and slightly in awe.

    Up to that point I never had a game tell me, “Good job, now GTFO.”

    Not all great endings have to be happy.

    Recent good games with sad / unhappy endings…

    Dishonored: playing in full chaos mode give you an extremely grim ending.

    Alan Wake: If the series ends without a sequel, then its a very sad ending. We of course know that he is alive, but his wife and friends think he is dead and gone.

    I finished all 4 ending in ME3 (EC). The green center path was my favorite due to EDI and Joker being together. I found it bitter sweet which offset the death of Anderson and ended the game on a note of hope instead of sadness.

    The only truly soul crushing ending was if you chose to do nothing at all and let the reapers win.

  11. The Last of Us ending reminded me of the ending of No Country For Old Men for some reason, just the bleakness of it all. No one makes it out in one piece its all just very grey at the end.

  12. I love your articles! I was actually thinking that it’s particularly painful when you spend a lot of hours in a game then you get a sad ending or a bad outcome for your character, it’s more painful that just watching a sad ending in a movie.

    I think I really become attached to the characters in a video game more since you ARE that character. You are invested with what happens with that character since you are putting a part of yourself when you’re playing.

    With Mass Effect 3, I felt really bad because there was no reward for my Robin Shepard. She died a martyr… after giving everything she had before to save the galaxy twice before. She never saw the galaxy in peace, something she worked so hard on. That’s why it was bad for me.

    Are sad endings okay? Yes, definitey.

    Are stupid endings okay? Definitely not!

  13. There’s a semantic issue that hasn’t been mentioned. The very fact that it is called a game’. People play a game to be victorious, ie – better than everyone else.

    If, in victory, you are given ambiguous morality or shown that your victory reveals a negative, then there is a conflict. You have won, and your reward is… what? Misery? Despair? Discomfort?

    These things used to be games (Pacman, Donkey Kong, games that tally points). This still happens a lot, but often to the side of a game. The competition of COD’s multiplayer or the competition of Arkham City’s Riddler challenge maps (get the best score, clear this room in the quickest time).

    There needs to be a shift, because these can still be games (like in the examples cited above). But when they’re driven by a narrative – rather than a competitive – impetus, then they are not ‘games’, they are something else.

  14. Maybe I’m “simplistic”, but I’ll take a Hollywood ending over depressing endings like The Mist. It was the exact same feeling I had at the end of Assassin’s Creed 3 ***SPOILER*** when desmond dies at the end of the game. I understand they had to wrap up that story arc and it was “for the greater good”, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth, and I hated the modern-day part of the AC series.

    I guess I just have more traditional views about media in general, I look to video games/movies/music/books as a way to escape real life. I know escapism was mentioned in the article, but I think it’s a valid point. The world we live in has enough tragedy and heartbreak in it, I’m looking for something to take me away from it. Show me a world where good guys can save the world and the bad guys go away for their misdeeds, where even normal people can be heroes themselves and can enact the change they want to see in the world. Probably why I’m a fan of the fantasy genre as a whole…

  15. @Mark

    Exactly, surprised no one has brought up Spec Ops: The Line yet. All endings are equally grim and depressing, there is no way out and there is no hope in the end, you are a monster.

  16. @Joseph well then thats the problem with thinking about video games in a solely win or lose context. Winning isn’t everything in life and games are as good a medium as books or movies to reflect that. Video games are escapism yes but sometimes a bleak escape is as good as a hopeful escape. Plus technically in regards to The Last Of Us the main characters do win, Joel gets a surrogate daughter and Ellie doesn’t end up alone like she fears. Does the human race win? No but from the looks of things in that universe they’ve already lost awhile ago.

  17. @Parvipontanus

    You miss my point. I acknowledge, and think trying to address “the problem with thinking about video games in a solely win or lose context.” If you read what I said again, you’ll see that what I just quoted by you is that it is a contradiction in itself. A ‘game’ is something competitive, with an objective winner and an objective loser. The semantics need to be altered, or else the argument will continue unresolved because the semantics are the core of the argument.

    “sometimes a bleak escape is as good as a hopeful escape.” Not in a game. So by extension it doesn’t make sense that it would be in a “video ‘game'”.

    I’m saying that the semantics are wrong and until that is addressed, the argument will continue cyclically.

  18. I STILL cannot understand all these fucking blind ass fools who think the ending to LOU was controversial, or that think Joel was some kind of villain! Fuck me, you guys are stupid! 1st off, where the fuck did u get the notion that the Fire Flies are good guys?! Where the FUCK did you get that retarded idea in your head?! You could be forgiven by thinking ‘yeah they’re the resistance’ and normally the resistance are the good guys – not in THIS fucking game they’re not, and while playing u realise that they are a bunch of fucking cunts! 2nd: there is NO proof that there IS even a cure (even if they kill Ellie), so these idiots are just gonna kill her without knowing for sure. If you had half a brain and played the game properly, you would fucking know this because the surgeon says it on his recorder! I tell u, when I burst into the surgery, I didn’t even wait, I took a fucking axe to that doctors head and all the other bitches in the room – the most gratifying moment in the game, along with killing that Queen bitch! I still cannot believe how many fucking sheep there are out there!! Even IF Ellie was the cure, do you actually think I’m gonna leave the revival of the human race in the hands of those fucking murderous cunts?! FUCK NO!! And I’m sorry but, I just DO NOT buy that crap about how “she’s the only one who can’t get infected”! The fact that she is someone that is immune AFTER the breakout, just proves my point even more. Blood and culture tests is what they should have done, and WOULD have done if they had any humanity!

  19. I haven’t played Last of Us because I don’t have a PS3, so my first hand knowledge is somewhat limited to Mass Effect 3.

    Speaking from my own experience, I wasn’t upset the ending to the Mass Effect Trilogy wasn’t happy. Rather, I was upset because the ending was LAZY. The cutscenes were the same regardless of if you played Mass Effect 1 & 2 and all you saw were the human forces, regardless of how you handled the missions in Mass Effect 3. Add in the shameful treatment of the Mass Effect 2 characters (as we’ve discussed on your Miranda vs Liara post) and the unforgivable deus ex machina (literally!) of a new character right before the end of the game and it seemed Bioware negated the decisions made over the previous 120-180 hours of gameplay.

    The lack of diversity wouldn’t have been so troubling if Bioware hadn’t demonstrated their ability to handle variables so adeptly at the end of Mass Effect 2 during the Suicide Mission.

    Personally, I was upset there wasn’t at least the OPTION for a happy ending. I think if you’d made all the right decisions over the course of three games, then you should have been rewarded. However, that is FAR down on my list of issues with Mass Effect 3.

  20. I’ve seen a few “let’s plays” on The Last of Us. How people have reacted to that ending was very interesting. (Sadly, I am unable to play the game. I really want to though.)

    I think, that the reason why some people dislike that ending, is because they would do the same thing that Joel had done for Ellie. I know that if I was in that situation I would have most likely chose the same path that Joel did. Its one of those endings that makes people think of what they would have done. Thats why most don’t like it, because then people realize who they are inside.

    The game shows a different experience other than “yay! I won!”. Thats what makes The Last of Us unique and awesome, by giving us real emotions to deal with instead of “yay! I won!”
    Seriously? Who wants to continuously play the same humdrum/story line/non-truly emotional games that are out there?

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