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.
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.