I Love The Frustration Of Ambiguous Video Game Endings

I Love The Frustration Of Ambiguous Video Game Endings

I recently played a game with no real ending, closure or sense of reward. It was infuriating.

You may have heard about Her Story before, since it’s been talked about a few times on Kotaku recently. tl;dr it’s absolutely worth your time, and one of my favourites in 2015 so far.

I am not going to spoil the game, by the way. You’re good.

Here’s the basic premise: you need to find out who murdered Simon. Sitting at your 1990s-era computer, complete with Windows 95-esque OS, you quietly click through endless video clips of a woman being interviewed by the police. Every clip has been transcribed into the database, so the player can type any word into the search bar, and if it’s mentioned in the clip, it will come up.

Most games have an endpoint. You finish the last level, beat the boss, maybe a cutscene plays. When everything fades to black, it’s over. Congratulations, player! You did it. Even if you end up playing again on a harder difficultly level or go searching for achievements, there’s a sense of finality. You don’t get that in Her Story, and I wish more games had the same courage.

Remember the cut scene after the credits in Final Fantasy VII? A huge reason that game stuck with me for so long was because there was no way to know what really happened.

And while I found Journey to be profoundly moving, it wasn’t because the lore came full circle.

Her Story trusts you’ll figure everything out on your own. In 2015, that’s a genuinely surprising design choice, as we’ve become accustomed to games being deeply afraid of players not being politely guided to the next objective.

There’s a point early on, after you’ve spent some time looking through clips, that can trigger the credits. There’s no warning. I was surprised, genuinely taken aback. “Wait, that’s it?” There was no last-minute revelation, no M. Night Shyamalan twist to send you reeling.

I mean, there are several of those moments while playing Her Story, but they are entirely earned by the player. Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter. Though it’s not exactly difficult to stumble across the major narrative turns in Her Story, you have to find them. You typed in the keyword. You decided it was worth investigating this line of evidence. You put two-and-two together, and realised everything you thought prior to this moment was wrong.

I can’t remember the last game that had me scrambling to load up message boards threads to have my theories validated — or crushed. (As it turns out, I had it mostly right…according to one theory, anyway. I’ll take it.) But what happened is left to interpretation, speculation, and assumption.

When Her Story launched, I saw a people tweeting (and mocking) someone asking questions about the game on the game’s Steam forum:

“How do I decide when I am satisfied?” is goofy phrasing deserving of some ribbing and mockery, but I know what he’s really asking here: hey, did I miss something? Can you really blame someone who plays games for asking that question?

Games have conditioned us to be completionists — heck, even Her Story couldn’t help itself from incorporating achievements to mark progress and encourage clever discoveries. Stories that start are supposed to end — at least, that’s how most stories work! Ambiguity makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s why people still argue about the endings to LOST and The Sopranos. But uncertainty can be wonderful, precisely because it’s contrarian. Our greatest desire — what happened? — goes unfulfilled. That frustration is simultaneously intoxicating and infuriating.

Instead of wrapping everything up with a pretty bow or rewarding you with “unlocked ending A,” Her Story simply… ends. What you take away from that ending is completely up to you.


  • i love this & i’m so glad someone managed to put it in to words

    as unrelated as it is, i hate this in anything from books to movies as well. it’s almost as bad as having almost platinumed a game on PSN, and finding out that one bronze trophy you’re missing is in a story mission that requires 4 hours repeated playthrough…..

  • I like the kinds of stories (not just in games) that have narrative threads all over the place, but then through a series of twists manages to tie most of them up into a nice neat ending… But also has a few loose ones still hanging around for you to ponder over, and/or incorporates a couple of new ones, right at the very end.

    In this way, that story can be taken as finished and you get that sense of conclusion, but there is more to learn in a potential future story (which may or may not ever be told) which you can still ponder over in the meantime.

  • The only thing I dislike about game endings in general (apart from credits sequences that way overstay their welcome, I’m looking at you Ubisoft) are the games that have 10 or 12 different endings based on what you do during the game and only a couple of them are considered “good”. I don’t mind a game with 2 or 3 endings, maybe a good, bad and neutral, but 10 or 12 is really pushing it. Sorry, I’m not going to finish a 20-30 hour game a dozen times just to see all of the endings, thanks.

  • “How do I decide when I am satisfied?”

    I never knew that discussions through the Steam forums could be so deep and philosophical. How do you decide when you are satisfied?

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