I finished Minecraft a few weeks ago.
Yep, that famously endless game ends, and as someone who gets weirdly excited about things ending, I wanted to check it out.
The End is unsurprisingly unsatisfying, but surprisingly well implemented. To get there you have to spend a lot of time with the core pillars of Minecraft: mining and crafting, exploring and surviving. You have to venture deep underground, and into the Nether and back. Open a portal into a creepy new world, slay a dragon, roll credits. You could probably map it out to the classic Hero's Journey narrative.
But nobody plays Minecraft to finish it. Notch himself admitted that The End is "totally just tacked on." I'd bet my enchanted diamond pickaxe that most people "finish" the game the same way I always do: after a period of obsessive playing, I'll be halfway through making a rollercoaster under an ocean of lava, or building a solid gold castle, or some other pointlessly massive/massively pointless project, when a thought creeps in.
It's quiet at first, but it gets louder.
"No seriously, why am I doing this?"
Eventually it hits me that all I'm doing in the game is literal virtual chores. I could've learned a language (or finished The Witness, at least) in the time it took me to pull down a mountain because it was blocking my view of another, better-looking mountain.
With so many other games to play – games I could finish – I feel weirdly guilty, and suddenly I've had enough. This ending is only slightly less satisfying than the dragon.
Interestingly, this is one of the main reasons I hear when people say they can't get into Minecraft in the first place. They prefer structure, a story, the promise of closure. In the busy lives of aging gamers, it's nice to have a clear point when you can put the game down and move on. A pre-emptive exit strategy.
And when you think about it, games in general are kinda awkward about ending. Closure is almost optional, hidden behind the values of replayability and challenge. Sometimes you'll play a game forever, like Destiny, and for others the vast majority of players will never see it through because it's hard (here's looking at you, Dark Souls).
Most open world titles have settled on a nice middle ground: there's the structure of a main quest line, but with a lot of room for shenanigans, if that's more your thing. And with the dangling carrot of a satisfying ending on the horizon, I can happily dick around in the worlds of Grand Theft Auto and Fallout basically forever, doing side quests or going bowling with cousin Roman. But the second those credits roll, I'm done. If I've missed some collectibles or forgot to wrap up a side quest or two, I'm never going back for them. Short of a total replay years down the track, once I'm done with a game, I'm utterly done.
Closure is pretty much my favourite thing, so I want my last moments in those worlds to come to a meaningful conclusion, instead of whatever menial task I was doing when my interest petered out. I want to put down Fallout 4 breathless after the big final battle (another one I've neglected thanks to Minecraft), not just forget to pick it up again after defending a settlement from raiders for the 27th time.
And while games might wrap up well individually, the constant sequel cycle means we don't often get that really juicy, This-Is-It event when a long-running TV series comes to an end. That exciting final season when the stakes are higher than ever, and no main character is safe from the threat of death. That very last episode when everything the show has built up over the years winds up or comes crashing down.
Name a video game series that's ended of its own accord like that. Mass Effect would be the most obvious example of a self-contained trilogy, and regardless of your opinion of the ending itself, Bioware delivered on that promise. And now they're in the enviable position of having their cake and eating it too: Shepard's story stands alone, but scoot the setting to the next galaxy over, and the franchise can continue without unwrapping that neat little package.
The Legacy of Kain series concluded nicely too. The fifth game, Defiance, was one of very few that captured that final chapter feeling, as Kain and Raziel hunt each other down across space and time. It culminates in a unique boss fight where players control both characters, alternating as the upper hand passes back and forth between them. And then they went and undermined it with the spinoff MOBA, Nosgoth – which, incidentally, also just ended thanks to nobody caring.
So maybe it's not that games are bad at ending, as much as it is players are bad at finishing them. What's on your Pile of Shame? And don't pretend you don't have one – everybody does. According to one study, the amount of players that will ever finish a given game is as low as 10%.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The old mantra "it's about the journey, not the destination" seems to hold particularly true. I couldn't care less how any Just Cause game ends. After a good 20-something hours tethering cars to helicopters, flying straight up then trying to jump out of the chopper, climb into the car midair, land it and drive away, I feel like I've experienced what I wanted out of those games.
Which begs the question: how do you decide when you're done with a game?
It depends on the game, of course, but personally, I'm selectively obsessive about finishing them. For platformers, I'm not satisfied until I get 100% of the collectibles, find all the secrets, and generally wring every last minute of content out of it. I can't leave a single Mudokon behind in Oddworld games, and no level of Yoshi's Woolly World was complete until I had all 5 flowers, 20 stamps, and the new costume.
But I didn't care enough to find the 50 spaceship parts in GTA V. I tried, but it just wasn't fun, so why bother? I've always been indifferent to Achievements too, but I understand the compulsion some people have for those.
In Papers Please, I wasn't finished until I'd experienced every ending of the story, but in Fallout: New Vegas, I only wanted one. I'd rather be left wondering if and how I could've changed something, rather than reload a save and ruin the mystery.
So the canon ending of Minecraft is there, if you want it. But slaying the Ender Dragon is no more of a real endgame than building a scale model of the Starship Enterprise, or creating a clock that counts down to the death of the actual Universe. Pick whatever madness you like as your goal. Your 'The End'.