Note: This article contains extensive spoilers. Obviously.
It’s been 10 years since Rockstar Games released Red Dead Redemption, trading the crowded, car-filled streets of its signature Grand Theft Auto games for the cinematic grandeur of the American West. There’s much about Redemption that lingers in the memory—the sight of a vast plain spread out before you, long nights spent playing poker, or just a bit of all-purpose moseying. But it was the game’s ending that numerous players most remembered. Narratively, there’s nothing particularly special about Red Dead’s conclusion, which sees mostly good-hearted outlaw John Marston eventually gunned down by the forces of Civilization that had spent the entire story kicking him around. The revolutionary moment comes, rather, when John’s son, Jack, takes up his guns to seek revenge for his father’s death—becoming the game’s new playable character in the process. Lots of media has spilled blood and ink on the topic of the inescapable cycle of vengeance; Red Dead forced its players to live it out.
In honor of the game’s 10th anniversary, we’ve compiled a list of some of gaming’s best and most affecting endings. To conclude a story well is no easy thing; to do so when you’ve got a hundred thousand players all trying to make it the perfect expression of their individual tale of heroism or sorrow borders on the absurd. But across genres and generations, these games—presented in order of chronology (mostly)—proved that it’s not always impossible to go out on top.
Super Metroid is a game defined by its pervasive feeling of loneliness. You play as a woman who might as well be a walking tank, but Samus Aran is still all alone in her mission to eradicate the Space Pirate menace and recover the galaxy’s last living Metroid—or at least, she thinks she’s alone. The Metroid, which has been replicated by the Pirates and grown to a massive size by the time Samus tracks it down, stops just short of killing her after it recognizes her as its “mother” (as seen in Metroid II). Samus then takes on the Pirate leader, Mother Brain, and gets her metal butt kicked, at which point the baby Metroid swoops in, gives Samus a super-powered laser weapon, and sacrifices its life to save her. It’s an impactful ending from an era where that was a rare occurrence, and (assuming you play the game correctly), it gives the player a chance to return the favor by going back and rescuing some helpful animal friends before the planet you’re on explodes. The game doesn’t prompt you to do that, but if you were sufficiently moved by the Metroid’s sacrifice, it shouldn’t need to. [Sam Barsanti]
It would be a mistake (and an irritatingly common one) to assume that the only way a game can have an emotionally affecting ending is to mimic the tropes of television or film. And yet it’s hard to begrudge Final Fantasy VI—which, with its roster of 14 playable characters, was as close as gaming had gotten at that point to a true ensemble cast—its cinematic ambitions. Playing out as a series of vignettes that take place as your crew races to escape from a mad god’s collapsing lair, the game’s ending manages to give a moment to shine to every member of its diverse cast, from enigmatic weirdo Gogo, all the way up to the game’s initial protagonist, human-magical creature hybrid Terra. (The modular nature also allows the game to accommodate for whether you bothered to recruit the entire roster, a nice additional touch.) Exciting, occasionally somber, and backed by one of the best soundtracks to ever grace the Super Nintendo sound chip, it was a rousing, massive conclusion to one of the biggest adventures most of its players had ever seen—to the extent that it even managed to earn its self-consciously cinema-styled credits roll. [William Hughes]
As sweeping in scope as the apocalyptic adventure that preceded it, the denouement of the original Fallout set a series precedent by checking in on every community your Vault dwelling adventurer touched, showing how your influence improved their lives—or not. From the humble community of Shady Sands, to the radioactive, zombie-filled ruins of the Bakersfield Necropolis, Ron Perlman’s somber narration outlines how these settlements thrived, struggled, or were ultimately wiped out by your actions. But whether you were a harbinger of civilization, or a walking second Armageddon, Fallout’s ending always concludes the same way: with your hero returning to the home they’ve saved, the underground bunker of Vault 13, only to be turned away for being too contaminated by the outside world to be allowed back within its walls. “You’re a hero… and now you have to leave,” the Vault Overseer solemnly declares. And whether or not you exact violent retribution on him for your banishment, your dweller’s fate remains the same: trudging back out into the wasteland, the sounds of The Ink Spots’ “Maybe” underscoring your bittersweet victory. War never changes. Ingratitude, apparently, doesn’t either. [William Hughes]
Every game in the Metal Gear Solid series manages to land at least one incredible moment in the end (save for one notable example), with the first entry revealing that secret main antagonist Revolver Ocelot was working for the president of the United States—and also that said commander-in-chief is a clone of original Metal Gear villain Big Boss. The second game has a truly prescient breakdown of what the digital age will mean for the basic concept of “truth” (alongside a sword fight against the aforementioned president), and the fourth game has a last-second reveal in the credits for the cast that is too cool and too complicated to explain here—after a shirtless fistfight between Snake (who is now an old man) and Ocelot. The real standout, though, is Metal Gear Solid 3, which is a ’60s-set prequel about young Big Boss and the events that led to him becoming a bad guy. It ends with Big Boss finding out that the game’s villain, his beloved mentor who had seemingly betrayed the U.S., was actually forced to defect to the Soviet Union to cover America’s ass for an earlier incident. She let herself be a scapegoat, because right up until her final breath, she believed America was doing the right thing. In the end, a teary-eyed Big Boss walks away from her grave quite a bit less convinced. [Sam Barsanti]
Some endings, like Red Dead Redemption’s, are long, elegiac affairs. Others are punchlines: snappy, a bit brutal, but all the more affecting (and funny) for it. Such is the conclusion of Adam Cadre’s short-form interactive fiction piece 9:05, which opens with a voice barking at you to “Get your ass to work now, Hadley!” and ends (at least, on your likely first attempt) with the realization that you’d made a couple of key assumptions that you probably didn’t think you’d made. Cadre plays expertly with the limitations of his medium; it’s only on the second play-through that you realize exactly how clever he’s being with how he’s written your stumbling efforts to get a shower and down a Pop-Tart before rushing your way to the car. Most of the endings we’re talking about here come at the tail end of games that sometimes stretch out for more than 100 hours. Given that Cadre’s offering can be completed in a quick five or so minutes, we’ll resist the urge to fully spoil the thing, and just suggest you experience it for yourself. [William Hughes]
Technically, there’s more than one ending to Silent Hill 2. As in the original, the final scene of this survival-horror classic is determined by slight variations in gameplay, the possible outcomes ranging from a watery suicide to an absurdist canine punch line. Yet the resolutions are all, in a sense, footnotes. The true climax of Konami’s haunting sequel arrives a little earlier, when players discover what really drew widower James back to the spookiest Maine town this side of Derry: the repressed knowledge that he suffocated his terminally ill wife—and that, far from just a mercy killing, this act of violence was also an expression of resentment toward the way her sickness consumed his life. It’s a revelation that reshapes the whole game as surely as those otherworldly sirens reshape Silent Hill itself. With the awful truth uncovered, one can see the psychological logic of this nightmare—in the clues scrawled on filthy walls, in the shrieking monsters that are really manifestations of guilt, in the literal fog that takes on figurative meaning as you cut a path of therapeutic discovery through it. In a sense, the multiple endings only underline the tragic finality of James’ actions: No matter how his journey ends, it will always begin with the irreversible reality of what he did. [A.A. Dowd]
Braid was a familiar story, right up until the moment it became… a different kind of familiar story. It’s a 2D side-scrolling platformer, designed by overnight indie game sensation Jonathan Blow, about a young man named Tim who is trying to rescue his beloved princess from an evil villain. You know, like Super Mario. Using time-travel abilities, Tim solves puzzles and jumps from world to world, getting closer and closer to his princess until you finally find her in the last level. Here, everything but Tim moves in reverse, forcing you to think about how your behavior will affect the princess, who is separated from Tim on the top half of the screen as she’s being chased by a knight. However, once you get to the end of the level, Tim is locked out of the princess’ home. Time then moves forward, changing the context of your actions and revealing that the princess was actually running from you and that it was the knight who actually saved her from an oppressive stalker—i.e., you. There are other interpretations (and some needlessly complex atomic bomb metaphors), but the ending lands no matter how you take it. [Sam Barsanti]
Stephen King isn’t always known for his satisfying endings, so the extended King (and Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks) homage Alan Wake would’ve gotten a slight pass for letting things fall apart a bit in its final moments. Luckily, the developers at Remedy managed to cap this spooky story off with a nice tragic twist and a haunting final scene. After hours of fighting past evil shadow creatures from a dark parallel reality that feeds on the creativity of artists—plus a somewhat disappointing boss fight against an evil tornado—struggling novelist Alan Wake finally manages to rescue his wife from the bottom of the lake that serves as a portal between his real world and the evil dark world. Unfortunately, he’s only able to do it by throwing himself down into the depths in her place, seemingly dooming himself to an eternity of horror with no choice but to try and literally write his way out. Surrounded by darkness, he finishes his book with a line that highlights the hopelessness of his situation and the depth of the evil he’s now trapped by: “It’s not a lake… it’s an ocean.” [Sam Barsanti]
It’s in the final playable minutes of The Last Of Us that Joel, the game’s ostensible hero, reveals what he really is—or rather, you, the player, reveal it for him. Up until this point, Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece has framed its desperate cross-country pilgrimage as a moving story of bereaved survivors finding a future in each other. But the climax, set in a Boston hospital, throws a disturbingly clarifying lens over Joel’s devotion to Ellie, a teenager immune to the virus that’s zombified half the world. Although Ellie’s fought her way to the scientists who might be able to fatally extract a vaccine from her brain, Joel can’t accept her selfless sacrifice. We realize, in his refusal, what she really is to him: a surrogate daughter in a rather literal sense—a substitute for the actual one he couldn’t save decades earlier. And so, at last, a tireless protector turns all the fury he previously directed at ghouls and rapists on humanity’s last hope. And you have to play out his rampage, straight through to the operating room, where a surgeon steps between this broken man and the living emblem of his grief. “Fucking animal,” one of the doctors calls you after you do the only thing the game will let you do. She’s right, too. [A.A. Dowd]
One of the (many) clever touches found in the Witcher series’ bag of tricks is that it almost never boils its stories down to a single binary choice, opting instead to have Geralt Of Rivia’s decisions echo and reflect back on him sometimes hours down the line—and often with disastrous or tragic results. Barring a pair of expansion packs (each sporting an exceptional conclusion of its own), the series’ grand finale, The Witcher 3, ends by testing for something deceptively simple: whether Geralt cares about, trusts, and respects his adopted daughter, Ciri, as reflected in choices made throughout the entire second half of the game. Give her the proper support, and Ciri will survive her date with apocalyptic destiny, taking up either a crown or the witcher’s sword in the aftermath of the game’s events. Fail her, and both you, and The Witcher 3, will have earned one of the grimmest gaming endings in recent memory, as a grief-stricken Geralt throws himself fully into monster-hunting with suicidal abandon. Handled less deftly, this ending might read as mere misery porn. But the sense that the witcher’s own flaws brought him to this dark fate help to turn potential melodrama into true despair; after an entire game spent focused on his love for Ciri, watching her death utterly destroy him feels like a natural ending to his story—albeit one of several. [William Hughes]
For the first hour—that is, for roughly 90% of its play time—The Beginner’s Guide is dominated by a single voice: that of designer Davey Wreden. One by one, Wreden, unseen, talks the player through a series of short games designed by his former friend Coda, pointing out clever ideas, establishing recurring themes, and occasionally even fixing an errant bug or two. Wreden speculates; he questions; he hypothesizes about Coda’s motives for constructing digital prisons and strange, isolated experiments. And he never shuts up, not even when he probably should. Even when he’s leading the player through Coda’s final game, The Tower, a series of cruelly designed puzzles that can only be “solved” via hacking, cheating, or bloody-minded brute force. The reward? The only time in the entire game that we see Coda speak for himself, in a series of messages that tear Davey apart over his endless desire to analyze him, hound him for attention, and seek some kind of validating meaning hidden within his works. The cruelest twist comes when you realize that Wreden (or “Wreden”) has made the player themselves complicit in his obsession; The Beginner’s Guide is, in and of itself, proof that he’s utterly, hideously failed to grasp his “friend’s” meaning once again. [William Hughes]
It would take foolhardy optimism to expect a happy ending from a game as relentlessly bleak as Inside, which puts players in control of a small boy being hunted across the vast grounds of a dystopian research facility. But even those who expected a downer denouement had to be shocked by where this gorgeously grim puzzle-platformer lands—namely, in a giant vat of tragicomic body horror. The unbroken scramble from one life-and-death obstacle to the next climaxes with a dive into a tank of water, where your nameless, wordless adolescent avatar is suddenly absorbed into a sentient mass of flesh and limbs—an abomination of a lab experiment whose blundering exit strategy you’ll now be orchestrating. It’s a darkly brilliant joke: After guiding the movements of a tiny and even graceful figure, players suddenly find themselves crashing through walls in a grotesque slapstick parody of the game’s mechanics. But this final passage also takes one of Inside’s central anxieties—the destruction of the self—to its outrageously corporeal end point. And after the nonstop movement of everything before it, the quiet stillness of the final beat is both heartbreaking and almost peaceful: far from a happy ending, again, but at least a kind of escape from the endless horrors rolled out en route. [A.A. Dowd]
Which ending? No, seriously: There are 26 different possible ends to the PlatinumGames actioner, though most of them are admittedly a bit silly. The real gut-punch ending requires multiple play-throughs of the main quest, in which an android protagonist storms a far-future Earth to help turn the tide in a proxy war between your human-made kin and robots from another world. After initially defeating the machines, you’re taken through the same story again, this time from the perspective of your previous android sidekick. But then things get serious. In the third play-through, it’s revealed that all of this was for naught: Humanity went extinct long ago, this proxy war an excuse to carry on a meaningless existence in perpetuity. The androids receive a chance to send themselves elsewhere, to begin a life free from this endless cycle. However, to do so requires completing a post-credits game in which the help of other online players is required. Win, and you’re given the real final option: Will you, the player, sacrifice your data, the entire record of having played and won NieR: Automata, to help another person out there do the same? Suddenly, the stakes of not just the story but also how we choose to spend our finite time on this planet, come into focus. And they’re as personal as can be. [Alex McLevy]
It’s rare for a fighting game to have a story, let alone a meaningful ending beyond “the character you chose won the big tournament.” Mortal Kombat 11 is an exception, opening with series mainstay Raiden breaking bad and pledging to murder all of his enemies. This inspires a godlike being called Kronika, the keeper of time, to track down versions of Mortal Kombat characters from the past who are now worse off in Raiden’s future and convince them to rewrite history. This means that young versions of the good guys also show up, giving Mortal Kombat a chance to reckon with—and poke fun at—some of the stupider moments from its own past (cough Johnny Cage cough). Raiden and series hero Liu Kang take on Kronika and win, but over the course of the final battle she erases all of history. That leaves Liu Kang, who has now powered up like a Dragon Ball Z character, to re-create history himself, strongly implying that he can now do absolutely whatever he wants with it. An upcoming story expansion seems like it might undo some of the twist, but that doesn’t take away its initial “what the fuck just happened?” impact. [Sam Barsanti]
And so we end where we began: a dead hero, an oath of vengeance, and another man taking up his predecessor’s spot in the never-ending cycle of violence. But where the first Red Dead Redemption offered little in the way of optimism with its grand finale, its prequel allows itself the merest taste of hope—despite the fact that we all know how life on the Marston ranch is eventually going to end. Maybe that’s the influence of Red Dead 2 protagonist Arthur Morgan, a man who, depending on how you played him, could be a living rejection of the idea that there’s no honor among thieves. At least, until tuberculosis and treachery transformed him into a dying example of same, leaving Red Dead 1’s John Marston to take up his mantle, and planting the seeds for his future misery. But while John can’t stop himself from taking vengeance on Arthur’s killer, he does seem sincere enough about his pledge to his wife, Abigail, to finally hang up his guns. The West might be dying, as both games spend much of their play time mourning. But “home” can still persist. [William Hughes]