Once Upon a Time, The End.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a Blogs of the Round Table post. This month’s topic is dénouements:

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions. Serial media often ignored the denouement in favor of the cliffhanger, in order to entice viewers to return. Television has further diluted the denouement by turning it into a quick resolution that tidily fits into the time after the final commercial break.

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

Now, as many of you no doubt know, I’m a big proponent of interactively exploring the consequences of one’s actions. I’ve even written an entire game around that subject! That said, the mention of a lack of a dénouement was what piqued my interest about this topic the most; in fact, it reminded me of a post I wrote two years ago on unresolved endings, particularly as they pertain to slice-of-life stories.

Max already covered the “do we even need a dénouement?” question rather well by raising the point that part of the appeal of games is in the way the players are the “true” storytellers, meaning that it would make sense for game endings to be left to fan speculation on forum communities. As much as I’m inclined to call this a cop-out, I have to admit that I’m guilty as charged, as I’ve spent much of my adolescence debating and theorising over things like the ending to Monkey Island 2 and have a certain nostalgic fondness for the community-building formed around that sort of activity. [1]

That said, since I firmly believe that the best game stories are a collaboration between the player and the author, I thought it would only be fair to explore what the role of the latter would be in this discussion; in other words, what kinds of messages can be conveyed in a game with an unresolved ending? There could be a point made about the fact that life itself is full of uncertainties, and that the future is hazy. Or that what happens next is up to you to decide. The unresolved ending could also be used as a device to show that your characters have lives of their own that encompass far more than the limited vignette you’ve shown of them; real human beings, after all, don’t have just one story, but several.

Of course, as I insinuated in the old post, the caveat in this kind of storytelling as it pertains to games is that you pretty much have to drop all pretences of a challenge/reward model. Since then, I’ve been able to make this work to varying degrees in games like Pigeons in the Park, DREAMING, and The Little Girl Nobody Liked; they’re abrupt to begin with, so they end pretty abruptly as well. Life Flashes By, my current WIP, will be a tad more involved, though I hope to make it clear that it’s a game about exploration rather than one about reaching a certain goal, which is what I’d actually tried to do with Chivalry is Not Dead, the last “big” project I did, with very mixed success.

I’d write a concluding paragraph here, but I think it would be more fitting to the subject matter of this post not to.

  1. A non-game example of the same would be the inordinate amounts of time I used to spend on a forum discussing Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of Ages books. Those were good times.
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4 Responses to Once Upon a Time, The End.

  1. I think you’re right, Dierdra. They’ve gotten away from denouement in the literary world as well. In favor of more nebulous endings (for short stories at least). Interpretation is more useful than having all the loose ends tied up at the end.

  2. Or Deirdra if I could spell correctly or even just read the web address :-p

  3. Lawl. It’s okay, everyone spells my name incorrectly at some point, and if they don’t, then they’ll inevitably wind up mangling the pronunciation. :)

  4. Alexander says:


    I think that many games a essentially simulations, which make a major difference from literature. A game is “world modeled”, while novel is a “world made up”. So, naturally, it is much harder to built any conclusions into a game, if underlying model is rich enough, although the prospect is undoubtedly amazing. Proving a point in free, interactive model has a unqiue appeal, a sort of mathematical elegance.

    I can remember a couple of games, which I think succeed in arguing that doing things in right and honest way generally sucks. One example is Dungeon Keeper, which is among my all time favourites.

    An indispensable lesson I’ve learned from one of more recent creations is that it’s ok to promise and give anything of value to a guy you barely know. You can then bit him into a pulp, get it back, and erase his memory with a spell. Amazing, really.

    Take Diablo for another example. What does it prove? That good guys always prevail? That it’s ok to beat someone into non-existence, if he is undead? That it’s fine to get hacked with an axe, provided that you have enough healing potions?

    On the other hand Diablo, with its loose and random structure and perfect ambiance, is great to make up stories of your own while playing along, if you’re into that sort of thing.

    Funny enough, it’s what happens sometimes with “bad” literature. I mean, take some cheap fantasy book, which is schematic, completely silly and preposterous. I often find it possible to “fill the gaps” on the fly, making it a nicely enjoyable experience. It still wears of, though, if I read long enough.

    The discussion also reminds about Fallout, where final sequence was generated based on what you did before in the game.