True Endings

True Endings: Jericho, Limbo, Nier

Warning: Spoilers are a type of ending. I will end as little as possible. This article discusses the endings of Clive Barker’s Jericho, Limbo and Nier.

First: Clive Barker’s Jericho concludes with a puzzle battle against a floating baby. The victorious team of paranormals swims to the ocean’s surface. Credits roll.

Second: Limbo ends with a gravity-twisting plunge into a vertical lake, followed by a scene in which the silhouette boy wakes up in a forest and tentatively approaches a silhouette girl. Before he can reach her, credits roll.

Third: Nier is something else altogether. It ends four times. Each time, credits roll.

There are other endings, of course—endings of failure and disinterest and frustration—but certain games lay bare their intentions. When the player has successfully unraveled a game’s core narrative, they can expect to see credits crawling up their screen. Credits are the True Ending. It is known.

As True Endings go, Jericho’s is disappointing. The Clive Barker name hints at emphasis on plot, and along the way the game practically begs players to care for its hard-talking, oh-so-diverse paranormals. They all have an intriguing past, of course. Some of them die. It is insinuated that all of them must die in order to defeat the evil baby. Then the baby is overthrown by a series of puzzle-esque actions that seem contrary to the game’s M.O., and the narrative payoff is the knowledge that some team members survive. It’s mystifying that someone decided kicking the ass of a magical baby by rote instruction would be super f*cking cool; that swimming off into the sunset would be enough.

In ending a game, there is no surer way to sour a player than to betray them both ludologically (the skills and strategies they honed are ultimately useless) and in terms of narrative (the drummed-up character stories they were stupid enough to care about are unworthy of resolution). It’s also worth noting that large babies have a bad track record as satisfactory final bosses. Jericho’s minimal ending fits poorly, like a tiny star on an enormous and ragged Christmas tree. Built upon elaborate plot foundations of time travel and alternative history, the game is abrupt and recalcitrant in its final moments.

By some measure, Limbo’s meagre ending should be equally frustrating. Does the boy reach the girl in the end? Is she really his sister? Is she dead? Does she still remember him? The player has little to work with, given the stark absence of language within the game itself. Only the product description ("Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO...") illuminates things any further. And yet an explanatory conclusion would be out-of-character for Limbo, a game which judiciously avoids editorializing. There is no introductory cut scene—there are no cut scenes at all. No dialog. Just a silhouetted boy, running and jumping to survive a series of wild and terrible places. With primacy never taken away from this central conceit, the framework of reality in Limbo remains a prevailing mystery after every puzzle has been solved. It can become personal; a range of possible outcomes afforded by intentional obfuscation. There is delight to be had in such lingering uncertainty.

Limbo promises little in the way of concrete narrative, and follows through. Jericho promises much and delivers little. As mentioned earlier, Nier does something new.

Nier is a story about a man trying to rescue his daughter. Yonah is frail. She spends much of her time sick in bed, and the rest kidnapped by Shades (monsters). Yonah's rescue is conducted by slaughtering boss Shades. Each chitters incomprehensibly as they die, and each yields a piece of a key to the Shadowlord’s castle, where Yonah is held. Despite the protagonist’s good intentions, his zealous pursuit often yields unsavory consequences, as an entire village is wiped out in one battle. Finally, when the key is assembled and betrayers are dealt with and friends have sacrificed themselves for the cause, the Shadowlord is defeated. Yonah is recovered. Roll credits.

And yet this can hardly be considered the True Ending. Generally, New Game + modes allow players to revisit a game’s story while retaining their acquired items and character advancement. Nier pushes further. The second playthrough picks up just after Yonah’s abduction, with an added caveat: The player can now hear companion Kaine’s arguments with the Shade who possesses her arm, and her strange outbursts throughout the game are newly contextualized. More importantly, this access translates the manic chittering of other Shades into language. New scenes establish bosses as characters. An iron giant, mourning the loss of her other half at your hands, discovers value in the friendship of ‘lesser’ Shades. A boy Shade and a robot become best friends and make plans to tour the world together. A huge wolf wants to defend his pack from the senseless slaughter of humans. The Shadowlord desires the same thing as the protagonist—to rescue his ailing daughter. And you must still kill them all.

It is an absolutely heartbreaking experience. For those who launch into a third playthrough, there is even more. A decision must be made: Kill Kaine and save her from becoming a Shade, or sacrifice one’s own self to restore her to life. If the sacrifice is chosen, the game cruelly and methodically deletes acquired skills, weapons, and items, page-by-page, until no saved data remains. Somehow this seems strangely appropriate, given the pain inflicted by the protagonist on the Shades as he grows more and more powerful, playthrough after playthrough, in tunnel-visioned pursuit of his Yonah. The final sacrifice is atonement.

Each ending builds upon the previous, further revealing the heart of the game’s story. Arguably this palimpsest of replay is Nier’s most notable strength; the addition of new emotion to familiar encounters, the conflict between burgeoning ability to kill and an increasing unwillingness to do so. At its core, Nier is necessarily a game of many endings.

The measure of an effective ending is ultimately subjective. The individual player who has dedicated time to meet the game’s challenges will judge whether the payoff is worthwhile or not, respectively grinning or scowling through the credits. Some endings flutter away the second the disc is out of the drive, while others persist. The good ones stick. Nier has lived inside my head for months, Limbo even longer. But there is no room at the inn for Jericho.

Comments

I had no idea about Nier's ending. Now I kind of want to play it. Great piece, Clemens!

I'll note Out of this World/Another World as the first game with an ending that stuck with me. Other games stopped, this one ended.

ElCapitanBSC wrote:

Now I kind of want to play it.

I liked it a lot. What surprises me is that not many people seem to get past the first playthrough, which means they never see the other endings. Even on TA (website for completionists), only 28% got to the second ending. Missing the best part, in my opinion, and it only takes a few hours each time.

Gremlin wrote:

I'll note Out of this World/Another World as the first game with an ending that stuck with me. Other games stopped, this one ended.

I remember playing this at a friend's house, and he was convinced that we got some kind of fake-out ending because he had a pirated copy.

Clemenstation wrote:

But there is no room at the inn for Jericho.

So... the giant baby is Jesus?

Clemenstation wrote:
ElCapitanBSC wrote:

Now I kind of want to play it.

I liked it a lot. What surprises me is that not many people seem to get past the first playthrough, which means they never see the other endings. Even on TA (website for completionists), only 28% got to the second ending. Missing the best part, in my opinion, and it only takes a few hours each time.

Halfway through the article I was ready to say Limbo had the best ending, but yeah, now I'm quite interested in Nier.

Its good to hear someone talk positively about Nier.

I for one loved that game and was surprised that it has not be talked about for its unique (afaik) way of handling new game+.

I really hope that the developer goes on to make a similar styled game with a bigger budget as the things that let it down were more mechanical in nature. The story, characters and design were great, the graphics and combat were very last gen.

Edit: Seems Cavia (the developer) has been disbanded. So now I guess I hope someone else picks up the ball and runs with it.

Eternal Darkness, Sanity's Requiem on the GC was the first game I actively went through multiple playthroughs for. I still have to go back and finish off the third and last magic playthrough to see the ultimate ending... One day

I blame bad endings on writers wanting to leave the possibility for a sequel. TV series can have a cliffhanger ending, it's acceptable to wait a hiatus to find out what happen next.

I've never really sat down to analyze it, but my experience with games has been more often than not the ending fails to match the the buildup.

One of the last games I've played that I felt had a good ending was Neverwinter Nights 2 Mask of the Betrayer, which was a sequel to NWN2 which had a crappy ending.

Spoiler:

I liked Mask of the Betrayer ending because it had finality beyond immediate events of the game. You knew your characters story arc was done at the end of MotB.

Ending Unlocks are relatively common for Japanese games - it's one of the ways where they reward the player for NG+. In Muramasa, you get a different "ending" every time you finish the game, and each one gives more and more context to the previous endings. Arguably, you only really finish the game once you complete all 108 blades and fight the final, final boss.

Fate/Stay Night is another game created along the same lines.

Nier is one of the best games nobody played.

If you guys are more into reading than actually playing it, one my favorite goons on the Something Awful forums did a fantastic Let's Play of the game.

Unfortunately, it hasn't been moved to the archive site yet. It should be up there soon.

Great post! Big Limbo fan but never played Nier. Will pick it up for a playthrough now though. Sounds very interesting.

I really dig the endings to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Ico had a similar deal to Nier... the second playthough translated all the gibberish speak and revealed a few other bits & pieces of the story. Great mechanic to encourage a replay too!

Eckyman wrote:

I really dig the endings to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Ico had a similar deal to Nier... the second playthough translated all the gibberish speak and revealed a few other bits & pieces of the story. Great mechanic to encourage a replay too!

Sadly, this only applies to the European and Japan versions of Ico. The US version has no translation of the gibberish, regardless of how many times you play it. You'll have to go to GameFAQs if you want to know what Yorda and the Queen said.

Hans

Actually, the developer Cavia did similar things with its endings for its previous (and equally underrated) games, Drakengard I and II for the Playstation 2. Especially the first game had a great system, which made it possible to see all the different endings (which were also supposed to be seen in order) with minimal replaying.

The tone and atmosphere was also just as compellingly bleak as Nier's (perhaps even more so).

Gravey wrote:
Clemenstation wrote:

But there is no room at the inn for Jericho.

So... the giant baby is Jesus?

Almost, if I understood the story correctly. Big Baby was supposed to be a proto-Jesus, discarded and angry (and wholly underwhelming).

Wish I still had my PS2. I missed out on a lot of good stuff.

For my money, Final Fantasy III (US) nailed the ratio for time invested : finale length in a conventional ending.

In an attempt to lower the level of discourse, may I submit the ending of Toe Jam and Earl on the Genesis. Getting to tool around Funkotron was such an endearing way to end an endearing game. Were that to have unlocked and led to TJandE 2 instead of the side-scrolling wreck that followed would have been a delight.

Very interested in that archive when it goes up Mordecius.

One of my favorite game endings (I haven't finished Nier, but I at least own another copy now) is for the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia. (OMGSPOILERZ)

Throughout the game, you're fighting against some vast evil that was freed from its prison by the father of the princess, Elika. Elika accompanies the Prince throughout the game, and they fall in love. In the end, you defeat the evil by bottling it back up in its prison, but doing so means that Elika dies. As the end credits roll over the screen, the player continues to control the Prince and can run around the game world and actually undo all of the work that's been accomplished in the game, reviving Elika but also freeing the enemy again. It was such a bittersweet and foolishly romantic ending, condemning the world for the sake of a single person.

Of course, the game's DLC backs away from that interpretation, making it out so that the Prince revived Elika because he needed her help to kill the enemy once and for all. The game was also clearly meant to form some kind of epic storyline (the last achievement is called "To be continued..."), but Ubisoft has backed away from that branch of the Prince of Persia storyline. The canonical ending to that story may well have Elika angry at the Prince for having doomed the world for her sake. How's that for a Debbie Downer ending?

Continuing the OMGSPOILERZ.
The other thing about PoP'08 is that the prince is put in the same position that the father is before the start of the game, making the same deal with Ahriman.

That goes along well with the relationship that develops between the prince and Elika through the game, from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so you might as well fix it, and the pair being spiteful to each other, to the pair of them caring about each other and being at least friendly.

I think because the relationship develops through the game, it makes the ending question "what would you do in the situation" harder, and makes it hard to condemn the father for doing the "bad" thing at the start. Also, that's all unwritten, and left to the player to fill in.

Yep, that's why I thought the ending, bleak as it was, was so brilliant. As I recall, it really made some players angry at the time because they felt that it undermined the accomplishment of finishing the game. I think that's exactly the kind of emotionally uncomfortable territory game writers need to be pushing toward.

That reminds me of the end of the NGC Prince of Persia, which I thought was also well done (and of the end of Braid, for that matter).

And, curiously, it reminds me of the end of Fable 2. I picked to save the masses and then found myself hopelessly alone in a sea of shallow fans. I played around for a bit more after that, but on a mostly self-destructive path. It was very Behind The Music.

I just polished off ending D (the last of four) of NIER two nights ago. It may very well beat out SMG2 for my Retroactive GOTY 2010. Flaws it has, but the originality and depth so overrides it. Expect a fuller, spoiler-laden review in the near future or whenever work clears up.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

Yep, that's why I thought the ending, bleak as it was, was so brilliant. As I recall, it really made some players angry at the time because they felt that it undermined the accomplishment of finishing the game. I think that's exactly the kind of emotionally uncomfortable territory game writers need to be pushing toward.

+1. Great ending. Made me angry, too. I stood there staring at the trees for a long while before finally going and chopping them down just so I could see the ending. Reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus in that way (which I never did actually finish).

Minarchist:

Have to question originality. As mentioned, layered endings are relatively common in Japanese games, which is what Nier is. It might be relatively new to Western audiences, but it's not new in and of itself.

I highly encourage everyone who likes the narrative structure to check out the various Japanese Visual Novels that are structured in similar ways. The structure has leaked over into many games from the country. Nier is just one example of just such a game, and not the first such example.

Branching, unique, multiple storylines that are not composed of a series of on/off switches are also relatively common in Japanese AVNs. It's a shame that more are not translated into English, and that American gamers generally give them a wide berth.

I'll grant that Nier's combat and exploration mechanics are intriguing.

It's not the layered endings that makes it original, but many, many other touches along the way. And partly what they do with that layering. I'll have to expound more later.

I would rather disagree that the combat is intriguing, outside of the admittedly enjoyable boss battles. Regular combat? Meh.

Minarchist:

I hope you follow through. I'm quite interested to know more about the game.

LarryC wrote:

Minarchist:

I hope you follow through. I'm quite interested to know more about the game.

You can probably pick it up cheaply now. I suggest doing that and experiencing it yourself rather than waiting to have it explained to you. First hand experience is always the most valuable kind. (certain exceptions noted).

Wuppie:

If anything associating with GWJers here on the site has taught me, it's that I'm a gameplay sort of gamer. I play for the gameplay, not for the story. If substantial parts of the gameplay are not up to snuff, I can't play the game, no matter how good the story happens to be.

Also, I'm not an American. The marketplace where I live is a little different. I've seen retail copies of BroodWar (yes, that Broodwar that came out ten years ago) being offered for nearly full price.

Thats fair enough. The gameplay certainly has some "issues" although I never felt the game came anywhere near being broken or unplayable... Just... Lacking I suppose.

It's funny as I will battle through poor mechanics and gameplay if the story / setting / characters are compelling enough.

Off topic: My curiosity is piqued - where do you live?

Clemenstation wrote:

For my money, Final Fantasy III (US) nailed the ratio for time invested : finale length in a conventional ending.

It might have grown in my memory, but wasn't it something like a half-hour long epilogue visiting every character? I remember it being suitably epic and satisfying as an ending to a story, not just a video game.

I wouldn't finish another RPG for a decade, until Jade Empire. After defeating the final boss, my party was briefly cheered by a half dozen NPCs before it switched to a few screens of text. I don't think it even said "The End" after that, just the words "lol u mad".

ClockworkHouse wrote:

Yep, that's why I thought the ending, bleak as it was, was so brilliant. As I recall, it really made some players angry at the time because they felt that it undermined the accomplishment of finishing the game. I think that's exactly the kind of emotionally uncomfortable territory game writers need to be pushing toward.

Very yes.

I don't think Western studios have grasped the concept of the game's ending yet. Thinking back even to the SNES, I remember elements of the game ending being special after concluding a Japanese game. Western games are mostly content with the 80's cliche of having the hero walk away from the camera, only to turn last second, give a thumbs up and freeze frame, then roll credits. "You beat the final boss! That means all the loose ends are tied up, right? Good night everyone! Thanks for playing!"

But every once in a while you get something good. Modern Warfare (the first) was quite satisfying for the most part. Prince of Persia '08 I liked. Dragon Age was damn fine. But in truth, Nier was one of the few game endings this generation that just stuck with me (though I only have 2/4 so far).

In truth, I like it when the ending tries to make me feel something, be it satisfaction with a long epilogue (Final Fantasy 4, or even the parade at the end of Super Mario RPG), something that seems a bit more sad (Silent Hill: Shattered Memories...well, some of them, anyway...Prince of Persia '08, or even the tone of the original Mega Man X), or just long and epic conclusions (Nier, Final Fantasy VI).

Too bad most games don't really get it.

ccesarano wrote:

I don't think Western studios have grasped the concept of the game's ending yet. . . .

In truth, I like it when the ending tries to make me feel something, be it satisfaction with a long epilogue (Final Fantasy 4, or even the parade at the end of Super Mario RPG), something that seems a bit more sad (Silent Hill: Shattered Memories...well, some of them, anyway...Prince of Persia '08, or even the tone of the original Mega Man X), or just long and epic conclusions (Nier, Final Fantasy VI).

Too bad most games don't really get it.

I think developers—wait, let me get my brush, the one that paints in broad strokes... okay, got it—despite being intent on infusing their games with NARRATIVE, don't quite understand something as simple as a dramatic arc, or how to meld a game into one. A dramatic arc should look like this:

_/\_

But so many video games plots in my experience look like this:
 ___
/

As if including an appropriate denouement would mean forgoing another weapon, and they made their choice.

Wuppie:

Off topic: Philippines.

LarryC wrote:

Wuppie:

Off topic: Philippines.

That at least explains why Brood War still sells for full price.