Blogs of the Round Table: Denouement

Blogs of the Round Table is a group that writes on various game design issues, each month working from a new prompt provided by Corvus Elrod. This month the prompt is on a topic that’s come up several times for me, and that I’m thinking about again as I rework the ending of my WIP:

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions…

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

The hard thing about a denouement is that it what happens after the protagonist has solved his major problems. In gameplay terms, that means that the player has accomplished his goals. So what can we give the player to do, after all the goals are solved? Either there’s nothing to play at all, or the player is set free to explore his environment or (as in Fable II) go on running his businesses, living with his family, etc., but in a universe that no longer has a major plot arc. If there’s a playable denouement, that often means you keep playing until get bored and quit. And that’s a rather flat note on which to end a game. In some cases even a congratulatory cut scene is greatly preferable, especially if it’s well done — like, final-song-of-Portal good.

I have two favorite denouements in interactive fiction. One is the end of Jigsaw, the other the end of Gun Mute.

Jigsaw is a fiendishly hard puzzle game, one of the hardest I know, but you spend the whole game chasing around after and trying to clean up the temporal disruptions caused by your enemy/lover, who is known only as Black. After all the set puzzles are done, we wind up talking to Black and end the game on a note of hopefulness.

Gun Mute is shorter and more straightforward, but it’s still mostly puzzles, and very linear: you battle your way through a sequence of enemies in order to rescue your about-to-be-executed beloved. But the game doesn’t end when you rescue him from the scaffold: there’s a charming final sequence of character interaction in which you’re able to enjoy his company and find out what happened to some of the people caught in the crossfire of the fighting.

Both games include such scenes because their romantic plotlines require some resolution even after the player has finished solving the protagonist’s major problems. In fact, if I had to make a list of IF games with some kind of playable (rather than cut-scene) denouement section, the majority would be romance games: Plundered Hearts, Masquerade, and my own Pytho’s Mask all have closing interactions with the romantic leads after the major problem of the game has been resolved. This is usually because there’s still a plot point remaining unresolved — does the protagonist wind up with the romantic interest, or not? — that needs to be addressed, ideally in an interactive way. The challenges are done, but there may still be a choice to be made.

So here are my three hypotheses about game denouements:

1. They are likely to be most prevalent in games in which interpersonal relationships matter. If the game and the plot are completely focused on killing a villain or overcoming a physical challenge, there’s nothing important for the denouement to cover after the challenge is complete.

2. They’re structurally most effective if they’re finite. Turning the player loose to wander the environment almost certainly means that his final experience of the game will be waning interest and giving up, rather than a firm conclusion.

3. Choice is the most effective form of interaction during a denouement.

If there’s significant challenge, then the pacing will make these scenes feel like a continuation of the main part of the game, a little sub-crisis after the main action. If we want to provide gentler pacing and a sense of released intensity, we need the interaction to feel different from the interaction involved in defeating the boss at the crisis point.

Where exploration is too open-ended and challenge is too tough, choice is just about right: the player has earned the right to determine something about the end of the story. That might be a choice about how to relate to another character or even just a choice about how the protagonist regards the experiences he’s been through. This final possibility is one I’ve only seen rarely in games, though Victor Gijsbers’ The Baron makes excellent if creepy use of the idea. Such choices might be expressed in conversation with another character or in some more symbolic form.

Please visit the Blog of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.

19 thoughts on “Blogs of the Round Table: Denouement”

  1. I can’t help but be reminded of the end of Firebird, where you not only get to choose who you’ll marry, but also you get to choose who all the other NPCs will marry as well — and there’s enough NPCs to make the possible pairings interesting.

    1. Sure. (I didn’t enjoy that denouement as much as others I mentioned here, for various reasons, but BL was all about choices, so it was natural for the end to reflect that.)

  2. I’ve always been partial to the final segment of “A Mind Forever Voyaging.” It actually fits a couple of your hypotheses quite well. It is linear and finite, and necessary to resolve the dangling plot points about how Perry Sim will proceed in his life having fullfilled his obligations to the government. No significant choice is involved, but the interactivity makes the sequence feel more vibrant than a text dump would.

  3. The first interactive denouement that comes to mind for me is that in Sierra’s Quest for Glory 1. The major conflict there is the band of brigands menacing the valley; the climax consists of storming their base and confronting their leader. But once you’ve done that, there’s one final task to finish up: getting rid of the witch whose curse is responsible for the brigands’ presence in the first place. This is a simple errand, but to do it, you need an item from the brigand leader to protect yourself from the witch’s spells. (If you’ve been paying attention, you know about this before you storm the base.)

    The peculiar thing about this example is that the denouement is optional. You can finish the game in victory just by defeating the brigands and heading back to town to be hailed as a hero.

  4. I’ve always liked the ending of “So Far”, though it isn’t really a denouement as such and it doesn’t really end on a choice. It claims to – but since every single player will type “yes/undo/no” (in that order) – it’s really just a linear-but-a-bit-meta ending. Which is quite right for the game.

    I would say the most effective interaction for a denouement isn’t a choice – because I want the story to end well, and I don’t want to be left wondering how the story would have ended had I gone the other way. I would argue instead for a “call-and-response” sequence; one of those sections where everything the player does is right and the story moves a short distance without blocking. (Like the ending of Make It Good, I guess.)

    1. I did like the end of Make It Good, as you know. I’m not sure how well that would have worked if there weren’t such a strong desire on the player’s part to know What Really Happened, though; under other circumstances I think it would have felt pretty restrictively linear.

  5. My favorite denouements in games both come from non-interactive-fiction games: Prince of Persia and Ico both have fantastic “after the credits” gameplay sequences that deepen the impact of the story’s climax.

    Your three hypotheses apply strongly to those games as well. To avoid spoiling the stories of those games, I’ll say that

  6. (aaaargh, hit the submit button early, I’ll finish up here)

    Your three hypotheses apply strongly to those games as well. To avoid spoiling the stories of those games, I’ll say that #1 and #2 apply strongly to Ico, and all three apply strongly to Prince of Persia (I’m referring to the 2008 game here).

  7. Oh, and another two examples come to mind:

    * After the final battle in Earthbound, the goal is merely to return back to your mother’s house. On the way, though, you can wander around everywhere you’ve been and talk with all the people you’ve encountered, many of whom will have new things to say to you. There are no more battles to fight, and this sequence lasts as long as the player wants. As soon as you talk to your mom, the real final credits start, providing the solid conclusion.

    * A more IF-ish example: Most cases in the Phoenix Wright games end with an opportunity to present one last piece of evidence to influence someone’s life after the events of the main story. For example, the first case ends with your client acquitted of murder, but still despondent over his girlfriend’s unfaithfulness. Although the case and the game are won whether or not you do so, you have an opportunity after the trial to pick the right argument to convince him that she still cared for him.

  8. I ended my own ‘Edifice’ with a choice of outcomes for the protagonist, though sort of like ‘So Far’ I expected most people to see them all and mentally choose one as the ‘best ending’.

    I’d also classify the various endings of ‘Metamorphoses’ in the same ‘denouement’ category, and again think of them each as meaningful in the context of the others.

  9. Heh. Funnily enough, this is a subject close to my heart. I especially hate it when I never find out what happened to my favourite character.

    Maybe exploration is a better form of interaction for the ending of a game than choice. I don’t mean anything too open-ended, just giving the player the chance to examine the consequences of their actions while moving events towards the final conclusion at their own pace. (I guess I just described the end of Gun Mute, but…)

    1. Gun Mute worked for me in large part because there *was* a final conclusion to work toward, and there’s a real risk in an exploration-based denouement of not moving smoothly toward that.

  10. The J-RPG DewPrism has a nice denouement after you storm the final dungeon and wake up back in town — there’s no romantic subplot, but there are a lot of quirky side-characters and relationships, and I appreciated being able to talk to everyone one last time, to see how they were doing and what they were planning now that the big MacGuffin in the sky was gone. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other game that’s let me do that, and I’ll be interested in looking at the examples mentioned here.

    (I have played Gun Mute — ! :D But I got inexplicably stuck in Pytho’s Mask. D:)

  11. I guess the main post has everyone focused on romantic resolution, but my favorite denouement (other than A Mind Forever Voyaging, already mentioned) is from Anchorhead.

  12. I forgot to mention in my earlier post, I also find the epilogue of “Braid” interesting. I don’t know if it’s “good” or not, but certainly an intriguing approach, inasmuch as it includes completely optional puzzles for revealing more penetrating versions of the final text fragments.

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