How to Incorrectly Execute a Cliffhanger Ending

Recently within the realms of pop culture, there’s been an unfortunate interpretation of the meaning of a ‘cliffhanger ending.’

The cliffhanger ending is meant to take the player, or the audience, completely by surprise. In theory, it’s meant to completely come out of nowhere, being something that the player at the very least shouldn’t expect.

Or, in other cases, it’s meant to get the player guessing, or thinking as the outcomes of the cliffhanger ending. The Walking Dead only slightly succeeded in this regard, with large portions of the internet collectively going insane trying to work out who’d just caught a baseball bat to the face, but it’s also a really shit ending, and quite literally isn’t worth the words I’m currently typing.

So, where the Walking Dead failed in it’s cliffhanger ending, could the Banner Saga 2 succeed? In a word, no, but it’s much more complex than that.

The Banner Saga 2 attempts the cliffhanger ending, and while I won’t spoil what it actually entails here, I will briefly state that shit hits the fan, but in a way that the game was so obviously building to, and so it fails to take the player by surprise.

Because for a cliffhanger ending to fully succeed, it does have to take the player/audience largely by surprise. The Banner Saga 2 largely gave away the ending of the game, by clearly pointing toward the fact that a character might not be acting as themselves, while also subtly theorising about the possibilities of a certain character not being quite as dead as everybody would have liked.

Suffice to say, both these narrative themes of the game ended up pulling together, and the final result was an ending that just about everyone could’ve seen coming from a longer distance than the characters of the game were forced to trek over.

This clear direction of the narrative is just one reason why the twist/cliffhanger ending of Metal Gear Solid V largely fails. Yes, Mr. Kojima clearly didn’t get to finish the actual game (and we mourn for him), but when you have a Hollywood star quite obviously lending his voice to one of the lesser characters in the prequel to the game, questions are going to be raised, and the game wasn’t able to fool as many players as Kojima would’ve liked.

Side note: Come the fuck on, Kojima, it’s not like we don’t recognise Kiefer Sutherland’s decidedly monotone voice, even if you do mess around with the pitch of said voice in post-production.

Another ending to analyse might be that of Halo 2, something that is somewhat divisive among those unfortunate souls that form the Halo fanbase (I say unfortunate because Halo 5 was god-awful).

Barely anything about the ending actually surprised me upon first playing it. I was absolutely certain in my prediction that Master Chief would go after the Prophet of Regret, while the Arbiter would have the unenviable task of taking down that massive Brute chieftain.

The only thing that even took me slightly by surprise was the decision of the game to end where it did. Sure, we got big final battle as the Arbiter, but for Chief? He was simply stuck on a spacecraft on collision course with planet Earth, and there was nothing he could do about it for a good three/four years thereafter.

But maybe not all video games can actually be built with cliffhanger endings in mind. In most cases, and in literally every video game mentioned above, the cliffhanger ending would be resolved for the player in the inevitable sequel for the particular game. Even if Metal Gear Solid V is the final entry in the franchise, it’s cliffhanger ending is actually resolved in Metal Gear, a game that was made before I was born.

So, for a cliffhanger ending to even exist, does the game have to be part of a big-budget franchise? Well, yes and no. Yes, because of the games I’ve mentioned above all being ‘triple A’ quality, or at least having an assured sequel, and no, because of the existence of Beyond Good and Evil.

Firstly, let’s get something out of the way: Beyond Good and Evil is nowhere near as good as people champion it to be. It’s unfortunately become the victim of nostalgia, which is never a good thing in the case of a video game (because when nostalgia is involved, people claim Metal Gear Solid 2 was a good game).

Now that we’ve got the piss-boiling out of the way, let’s delve into what’s unique about Beyond Good and Evil. The very end of the game seems to be setting up a potential sequel, and while I won’t spoil what that ending actually is, it’s remarkable that Beyond Good and Evil goes this route, when a sequel for the game was no sure bet at the time (and it still isn’t, no matter what shite Ubisoft may put out about it).

Beyond Good and Evil therefore defies the common stereotype recognised at this beginning of this article: that for a game to actually have a cliffhanger ending, a sequel must be virtually assured.

And honestly, I’d absolutely love it if more games chose to go this way and featured a cliffhanger ending, regardless of the possibility of a sequel. I would’ve been stunned if something such as Gone Home chose to end on this note, not giving away what actually happened to the characters involved, but left the audience guessing as to their collective fates.

Do we actually need more cliffhanger endings in video games? No, and that’s not what I’m arguing for. I’m instead arguing for games to take more risks with regard to their ending, and attempt something that leaves the audience with perhaps more questions than answers.

I’m also arguing for games, and other such mediums, to actually pull off successful cliffhanger endings, perhaps drawing us in one narrative direction, and instead subverting this at almost the last moment, leaving the audience in utter awe at what the video game has accomplished by hoodwinking us all.

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