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.