Video game endings have potentially the most rewarding finales in all of pop culture. After all, unlike making it to the climax of a movie, TV show, or comic book – which is essentially a passive affair – beating the last level of a video game takes actual effort on the part of the player.
So when a game wraps up on a bum note, it’s even more disappointing. Unfortunately, we’ve all be there: you put in hours of effort only for the story to reach a poorly devised conclusion, often following a hastily conceived, badly executed final stage.
Endings like these crop up in even the most acclaimed franchises, and are capable of tarnishing an otherwise flawless example of interactive entertainment. It’s particularly frustrating in these instances, as a dud of an ending can seriously tarnish even the most well-designed, brilliantly scripted game.
On the other hand, a great finale can drastically enhance a gaming experience, elevating a good game to out-and-out legendary status. These stand-out conclusions are capable of rescuing games from amidst the sea of quality titles released each year, ensuring that we’re still talking about them today.
Those of you who’ve beaten these retro and modern classics, prepare to punch the air in triumph – or howl with outrage – all over again!
We’ve taken a look back over the many great (and not-so-great) video game endings from the past few decades and pulled together this short-list of 10 Endings That Hurt Video Games (And 10 That Saved Them).
20 Hurt – Vault Fake-Out (Borderlands)
Borderlands pulled off the impressive task of juggling gameplay mechanics from the RPG, shooter, and sandbox game genres – it’s just a shame it couldn’t stick landing with its ending, too.
The whole gist of the game is that the player’s character is a “Vault Hunter” on the trail of a fabled stash of alien technology. When you finally defeat the gigantic monster guarding the Vault, you’d think its treasures would be yours to plunder, right?
Wrong. Just as the player is on the cusp of setting foot in the Vault, it’s sealed by mystical Guardians for 200 years! That means no new toys for you to play with in Borderlands’ open world environment – which seems wildly unfair.
19 Saved – Ellie Or The World (The Last Of Us)
If you ever need proof that video games are a genuine art form worthy of respect, look no further than survival horror game The Last of Us. Every aspect of this game is masterfully realized – and that includes its plot, which comes to a close on an emotional, thought-provoking note.
Here, main playable character Joel is faced with a simple yet impossible choice to make: sacrifice his young companion Ellie to enable the creation of a cure for the virus ravaging humanity, or let her live, endangering our species’ future.
In an all-too-relatable moment, Joel chooses the latter, and in an added twist, deceives Ellie to put her mind at ease regarding her humankind-threatening salvation.
18 Hurt – Everything You Do Is Meaningless (Mass Effect 3)
Action/sci-fi RPG series Mass Effect is built around the promise that the choices players make have a tangible effect on the future of the games’ fictional universe. So how come all of the possible endings to the original trilogy essentially amount to the exact same things happening?
No matter what your actions were in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, when Mass Effect 3 is over and done, Shepard always perishes, the threat posed by the Reapers is always taken care of, and the Normandy always bites the dust.
This effectively means that everything you did over the course of your (virtual) life was ultimately meaningless.
Unless you happen to be a hardcore nihilist, that’s a pretty bummer revelation!
17 Saved – The Boss Was A Hero (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)
Snake Eater is evidence that the Metal Gear Solid franchise is capable of delivering a strong ending when its penchant for tangled storytelling is toned down in favor of clarity and genuine pathos.
Snake Eater’s tense final stage pits Snake against former mentor (and quasi-maternal figure) The Boss, who has defected to the Soviet Union.
Upon defeating The Boss, Snake discovers that she wasn’t actually a traitor at all.
It was all a ruse that culminated in her willingly sacrificing her life (and legacy) for the good of her country. The single tear running down Snake’s face as he pays his respects by her graveside says it all, really.
16 Hurt – That Cliffhanger (Halo 2)
Cliffhanger endings aren't always a bad thing, but leaving a narrative unresolved and still delivering a rewarding sense of accomplishment is a tricky thing to do – as the developers of Halo 2 found out the hard way.
When the franchise’s first sequel was released in 2004, there was considerable fan outcry over the game’s final cutscene, which shows the Master Chief returning to Earth to finish the fight with Earth’s alien enemies.
True, finishing on this note perfectly set up Halo 3 and built anticipation around the follow-up instalment – but gamers were forced to wait for three whole years for this pay-off to arrive!
15 Saved – The Prince's Audience Revealed (Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time)
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a charming reboot of one of gaming’s oldest franchises. Everything about the action-platformer is inspired, right down to the Prince narrating the events of the game’s narrative to the player. Though, it turns out he wasn’t really talking to us!
After vanquishing baddie Jafar and rewinding time so that his adventures never happened, the Prince reconnects with Farah, who no longer remembers him.
The narration we hear is actually the Prince trying to bring her up to speed on everything that happened.
The story concludes with a disbelieving Farah left to ponder what she has just heard, after the Prince utters the secret word the pair shared during the alternate timeline.
14 Hurt – Jacked-Up Joker (Batman: Arkham Asylum)
Easily one of the greatest comic book-based video games of all time, Batman: Arkham Asylum nevertheless fumbles its finale slightly.
Eschewing the sophisticated storytelling and level design found in the rest of the game, the final level sees the Dark Knight slugging it out with a super-sized Joker, who is fuelled by Titan.
The end result is a rather generic, uninspired brawl that largely ignores the psychological elements of the Batman/Joker dynamic, which make interplay between the two iconic characters so captivating.
It’s not enough to undo all of Rocksteady Studio’s otherwise stellar hard work, but it’s disappointing all the same.
13 Saved – Happily Ever After (Final Fantasy VII)
In keeping with tradition, the climax of Final Fantasy VII is utterly bonkers, but unlike other entries in the long-running series, the insanity is underpinned by solid storytelling fundamentals.
Every narrative loose end is wrapped up in a way that makes sense, serving up a happy ending that feels earned, rather than saccharine.
Before the final credits roll, the good guys win (ultra-destructive spell Meteor is thwarted by nurturing Lifestream energy), the bad guys lose (Cloud overcomes Sephiroth in a spectacular duel) and we even get to bid a final, bittersweet farewell to departed love interest Aerith.
12 Hurt – The Demon Wall (Doom II)
First-person shooter Doom II requires the player to overcome wave after wave of Hell’s foulest denizens, before coming face-to-face with the demonic being in charge of these vile hordes.
Given this job description – not to mention its imposing title, “The Icon of Sin” – you’d imagine this dark overlord would be your most fearsome foe yet.
Not exactly. Doom II’s very last boss is a Satanic-looking head hard-wired into a wall. That’s right: the final showdown is between you and a nasty noggin – which may well be the biggest anti-climax in gaming history.
11 Saved – Still Alive (Portal)
A first-person shooter/puzzle-platform hybrid, Portal took both gamers and critics by surprise in 2007, wowing them with its original, physics-based gameplay and quirky story.
Taking on the role of unwilling test subject Chell, players are forced to complete an increasingly diabolical array of challenges set for them by sinister AI GLaDOS.
The final confrontation between the nemeses is as entertaining as a boss battle should be.
GlaDOS’ glorious, post-fight musical number (sung over the game’s credits) is rightly acknowledged as one of gaming’s greatest and funniest moments.
10 Hurt – To Be Continued... Not (Crysis)
If there’s one thing that more likely to anger fans more than a cliffhanger, it’s a shoddily written cliffhanger that isn’t even resolved in the sequel. That basically sums up the ending of Crysis, which was so abrupt that gamers were expecting another mission to follow the final cutscene!
Instead, when heroes Psycho, Nomad, and Doctor Rosenthal head back to the island to back-up Prophet, that’s it – no blockbuster battle for players to take part in, nothing.
Everyone assumed that the epic fight was at least being held over for the start of Crysis 2.
However the sequel’s narrative jumps forward three years and barely addresses the first game’s finale, which is poor storytelling, pure and simple.
9 Saved – The Joke Is On The Joker (Batman: Arkham City)
Batman: Arkham City improved upon its predecessor in virtually every respect, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this celebrated sequel’s ending.
Here, the Batman/Joker rivalry reaches its shocking punchline, with the critically ill Crown Prince of Crime meeting his demise. Despite their long and violent history – you’d need to work at NASA to calculate the exact number of crimes on the Joker’s rap sheet – the Dark Knight takes no joy in his arch-enemy’s downfall, and even regrets failing to save him.
It’s a haunting climax, that nails the complicated relationship between the two, even as it reaffirms Batman’s commitment to doing what’s right, even on behalf of those who arguably don’t deserve it.
8 Hurt – AI Agony (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty)
The Metal Gear Solid franchise is notorious for overblown, mind-bending conclusions, but the convoluted finale of Sons of Liberty has to take the cake.
Players already incensed over the protagonist changing from Solid Snake to newcomer Raiden were further annoyed when an increasingly nonsensical series of AI-related twists kicked into gear.
These served to make Sons of Liberty’s finale needlessly overcomplicated, totally spoiling an otherwise gripping narrative.
As if that wasn’t enough, game director Hideo Kojima tosses in one final twist – apparently all the members of the shadowy Patriots Council have been in their graves for a century – just to ensure that each and every gamer was left confused.
7 Saved – Booker = Comstock?! (BioShock Infinite)
Another excellent use of time travel plot elements – with a healthy dose of alternate dimension concepts thrown in – can be found during the finale of BioShock Infinite.
The game’s mind-melting yet coherent ending sees player character Booker DeWitt unveiled as the younger version of main antagonist “Father” Zachary Hale Comstock!
Once the Booker/Comstock connection is brought to light, the hero-villain is swiftly disposed of by a gang of Elizabeths drawn from different realities, before he can live to commit his future crimes.
As narrative developments go, it’s far from straightforward – yet it’s a twist that genuinely stacks up to scrutiny, and packs a hefty emotional wallop, too.
6 Hurt – Amnesia, Time Travellers, And Space (Final Fantasy VIII)
Final Fantasy VIII is one of the most beloved entries in the entire series, but its finale sure does leave a lot to be desired. There's nothing inherently wrong with how outlandish things get towards the end – that kind of comes with the territory with this franchise. It just all feels too haphazard.
First there’s the introduction of a group-wide case of amnesia that somehow doesn’t get mentioned earlier. Next there’s the arrival of a random, time-travelling villain seemingly devised solely to paper over the obvious cracks in the narrative.
Finally there’s a quick off-planet jaunt, followed by an over-long denouement that ties off some (but not all) loose ends in excessive detail.
5 Saved – R.I.P. Nate (Resistance 2)
First introduced in debut outing Resistance: Fall of Man, Sergeant Nathan Hale returned as the protagonist in Resistance 2 – for the final time, as it turns out.
The game’s closing moments depict Hale – who has been infected by the otherworldly Chimeran virus – reluctantly taken out by his one-time ally Corporal Joseph Capelli.
Not everyone was happy to see Nate exit the series, but bumping off the franchise’s main character was an undeniably bold choice.
What’s more, it made for a memorable ending, which few entries in the first-person shooter genre can lay claim to.
4 Hurt – Do-Over (Ghosts ‘N Goblins)
The ending of 8-bit side-scroller Ghosts ‘n Goblins is almost indescribably cheap.
The game is back-breakingly hard even by the standards of the day, as the player can only sustain two hits before losing a life, and lives come with time constraints. So clearly, beating the last boss is a big achievement - until you realize you haven’t actually finished the game yet!
Instead, you’re sent right back to the first level, equipped with a vastly depowered weapon and made to replay the entire game all over again – at a substantially higher difficulty setting.
Your prize for slogging your way through the entirety of Ghosts ‘n Goblins again? A poorly translated screen of text.
3 Saved –Tim Is Not The Hero Of This Story (Braid)
Puzzle-platformer Braid benefits from fiendishly designed levels and cleverly deployed time-manipulation mechanics, all of which wowed critics back in 2008. What really lingers about this indie gem is its final stage, which completely pulls the rug out from under the player.
See, Braid is ostensibly about hero Tim rescuing a princess from the clutches of an evil monster.
Playing through the last “world” makes it clear that Tim is the monster, and the fair maiden is trying to escape him!
Admittedly, Braid comes perilously close to being painfully pretentious – think purple prose and quotes by Oppenheimer – but this last-minute plot twist is undeniably genius.
2 Hurt – The Extended Epilogue (BioShock)
Ask any critic how BioShock should have ended, and chances are they’ll opine that the most powerful finale would have seen things wrap up much sooner.
Indeed, popular consensus argues that the moment when the player character eliminates supposed big bad Andrew Ryan – in the process learning that they possess no free will of their own – and the benevolent Atlas is unmasked as the malevolent Fontane is the ideal conclusion.
But that’s not when BioShock wraps up. It limps on for several more pointless levels. Once these are overcome, the final cutscenes – which present unambiguously “good” or “bad” endings, undercutting the game’s complex morality – play, although you’ll barely remember them.
1 Saved – Lee's Fate Is In Your Hands (The Walking Dead: The Game)
Telltale Games did a terrific job of making players agonize over each and every moral dilemma presented to them in their adventure game adaptation of The Walking Dead. Of these, the most unbearably heart-wrenching brings Season One of the episodic series to a close.
In this climactic moment, player character Lee is about to succumb to his fatal injuries – but that’s not even the worst of it!
See, Lee has to decide whether to encourage young girl Clementine to shoot him before he turns into a zombie, or spare him, allowing the transformation to take place. It’s a ridiculously unfair position to be in, which is what makes it so, so brilliant.
What are some other endings that hurt (or saved) video games? Let us know in the comments!