Just because things don't work out how they "should" doesn't mean that your ending is bad, as games like <i>The Witcher 3</i> illustrate.
Warning: story spoilers follow for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Fable II.
Happy endings are boring. They're predictable. They're clichéd. They thrive on an incredibly dull idea of normality: save the world, get the girl, settle down and have billions of beautiful and perfect babies. Sure, they're nice, and it's always more pleasant to end an experience with the warm fuzzies than it is to end it with an emotional gut-punch, but they're not the endings you remember.
You remember the one where the dog died, the one where you couldn't save your best friend, the one where you had to shoot your wife. You remember the gut-punches, because they hurt, and your brain stores the hurt away to build into emotional armour. Pain makes us stronger, it makes us learn – it's the tech-tree equivalent of nuclear weapons, because it teaches us things about society rather than just about whether or not we should eat something or mate with it. Happiness, on the other hand, is a base instinct. Even babies can smile, and babies are stupid.
Case in point: I recently completed The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Throughout the whole game, I was being steered towards one conclusion: find Ciri, your adopted daughter. Save her. Many game hours later, I found her, but I hadn't saved her yet. She was being stalked by the Wild Hunt – she was their prey, and I was thrust into the role of her super-protective father.
So I played the super-protective father. I never let her go on missions alone, I sheltered her from all the bad things, I defended her when I could. In the end, my super-protectiveness was revealed to be over-protectiveness, and Ciri died because she didn't believe in herself.
I got the bad ending. One-hundred-and-fifty hours put into finding and saving Ciri, and the thing that killed her wasn't the Wild Hunt, it wasn't the White Frost, it wasn't some scary bad guy in pointy metal armour – it was me. I killed Ciri, and it's only because I found her that she died. Without me, she might have survived.
It hurt, but it was a learning experience – the same as putting your hand on a hot plate or eating a porcupine. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and it also makes you wiser.
Now I know that if I ever have children, and they're being hunted by a pack of magic ice-dogs, that I should encourage them to have high self-esteem and courage, and back off. They'll probably be fine without me.
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I don't want to replay The Witcher 3 to get the good ending, because I already know what it is. The Big Bad is defeated, Geralt and Ciri hug, and they all ride off into the sunset, The End. It makes me think of a quote I really like from Anna Karenina – the very first line of the book:
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Tolstoy would probably be very happy, or at least marginally less grumpy, to find out that his words still resonate with us today. Happy endings are all alike, but every unhappy ending is unhappy in its own way. To achieve a happy ending is to do everything right, a perfectly executed 10.0 gymnastic display of in-game decisions. An unhappy ending is far more entertaining, in the same way it's entertaining when someone attempts a triple-twist backflip and lands on their arse.
I don't want to be told I've done a game right. Games aren't exams. I want to find my own way through the story, and I want to be able to trip up and make mistakes as I go, and then I want to see the consequences of my actions, to see my impact on the world. I don't want to mess things up on purpose – that's boring, too. Nuance lies somewhere between too much and not enough freedom. Give me choices, let me choose wrong.
The "Love" ending of 'Fable II', aka 'the dog comes back from the dead' ending
Enjoying sadness, revelling in pain, that's a very human thing. A happy ending doesn't feel unique or special to us, because it often feels like a series of ticked boxes to make sure the guy on screen gets what he deserves. But a bad ending – well, that's down to the poor choices we made individually. Fable II's ending, for example: you kill the bad guy no matter what happens, but you can then choose between saving thousands of people or saving only those closest to you, and your dog.
Everyone chooses the dog. Everyone. Is that the bad ending? The happiest ending would probably be the one where nobody dies at all, but numbers-wise, it's probably a close second to have just one dog die and thousands of people survive. But still, we choose the dog – and that's because the game makes us care far more about this fluffy bundle of polygons than the thousands of nameless NPCs that died in the mine or whatever. RIP, I guess. Next time, be more fluffy.
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Episodic games like The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange are making our bad choices even more apparent, as statistics pop up at the end of each chapter. You shot the guy? Ooof, only three percent of players did that. You saved your friend? Good for you, you're one of the 66 percent who did the same. These statistics reinforce what's good and what's bad by presenting you with the choices of thousands of people before you, but without ever actually saying that you made the wrong choice. It's a bit like being the only person at a restaurant to try the duck, or going to a hotel that has zero ratings on TripAdvisor. You just know.
But the thing is – after saying I'm not masochistic, and that there must be some human element behind seeking out misery and melancholy – I think maybe I actually am masochistic, in some way. I like sad folk music. I quite enjoy having unrequited crushes on people. Sometimes I really look forward to a big cry. If everything were happy fun sunshine days all the time, we'd have no counterpoint. It would be hell. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days of summer wouldn't be summer – it would just be awful unbearable niceness forever. We need sadness like we need autumn and winter – the troughs to the peaks, the nadirs to the zeniths.
And we need bad endings because sometimes life is bad and you should feel bad.
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