Friday, December 13, 2013

Nail the ending, or don't even bother starting...

[WARNING: Here be spoilers for Mass Effect 3. And Assassin's Creed 3. Oh, and the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary, as well.]

Hmm, now there's an interesting question. I was having a nice long conversation with someone today, all about why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was such a colossal bag of donkey doings, and said person asked a question about whether a bad ending can really ruin all the good stuff that came before, when the entire experience up to that point had been good.

My immediate was a big fat yes, but it raised a rather intriguing question: why? How come the ending has such enormous power over a story, and thus, how is it possible that a bad ending can ruin everything that's gone before?

Might it be something about how we, as humans, are hardwired that makes the ending of the story the single most important bit of the whole enterprise?

I hate to have to mention it again, since I already did a post about it ages ago, but the ending to Mass Effect 3 really does hammer home how important it is to nail the conclusion of the tale you've been weaving. Y'see, a common misconception about the backlash to that ending is that people were just angry that they didn't get their "sunshine and bunnies" happy ending, and that's just not true. Yes, happy endings are nice, but so are downer endings, and so are shocking endings, and so are bittersweet endings, on one condition: the ending must follow on logically from the narrative that's been building up to it, as a product of that narrative, so that the reader or the viewer or the player or whatever can say to themselves, "Nope, I can't think of any other way that story could have possibly ended."

Mass Effect 3 failed in that regard, which is why the ending is so loathed by those who don't like it; it stuck a massive disconnect in between it and the rest of the story, thus wasting the incredible potential the series had to be one of the greatest science fiction stories ever told.As it was, we had people coming up with theories (indoctrination theorists, I'm looking at you) to explain how the ending didn't really happen.

Yeah, not good, that.

And then, there's the ending to Assassin's Creed 3, although at least it made narrative sense. It was simply criminally short, and hampered by Ubisoft insisting on shoehorning an unnecessary sequel hook in there (rest assured, I won't be doing that with the Cynos Union books; there may well be an overall and overarching story arc, but I'll be damned if I'm ever going to end a book on a cliffhanger, 'cos I can't stand 'em), but it didn't fall apart under the weight of its own badly constructed horror.

While AC3 is a lesser offender, therefore, it still stands as an example of a bad ending, because it wasn't satisfying, emotionally or narratively, and the end result was that it soured the whole experience. Granted, it didn't retroactively destroy the entire multi-game narrative in the same way that ME3's ending did, but it felt weak. In the case of AC3, it made me not particularly bothered about playing an Assassin's Creed game in future.

In the case of ME3, it made me not want to play another Bioware game in future.

That, really, demonstrates the power of a story's ending. It's the most vital and crucial step in the process; the analogy I've seen is of the narrative being a bridge, and the crappy ending means that the bridge doesn't quite reach the far shore. In that case, the journey may well be nice, but your destination is still a cliff face, in a flaming wreck, followed by drowning. This would be unlikely to make you want to drive over the bridge again.

Assuming you survived the flaming wreck and the drowning, of course.

I'm not going to end this post on a downer, though, not when there's an obvious "sunshine and bunnies" ending I can strive for, here. Y'see, while it's true that a bad ending can turn a masterpiece into a train wreck, a truly great ending can erase any narrative slip-ups that went before.

And yes, I'm talking here about the ending to the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, The Day Of The Doctor.

Now that was an ending that did things wonderfully, perfectly right. Sure, the preceding plot with the Zygons may have felt a bit shoehorned in, and Queen Elizabeth I may have been played by an actress who was just monumentally wrong for the part, but in the end, none of that mattered, because Steven Moffat absolutely nailed the ending.

All 13 incarnations of the Doctor. A teasing glimpse of Peter Capaldi as the next Doctor. Tom bloody Baker. The retcon that wasn't a retcon at all, but that changed everything we thought we knew about the series since 2005 (seriously, this bit was masterfully done). It was an ending that felt satisfying on every level (emotionally and logically and tonally, and all that guff) and that turned everything on its head so that we (and future writers) can look at the Whoniverse in new and exciting ways.

Or, like I said earlier, "Nope, I can't think of any other way that story could have possibly ended."

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