[SPOILERS for Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Fallout 3/New Vegas, thriller novel “The Ragdoll”, Quantum Leap, Hitman 2, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who: Survival (original series)]
I’ve been thinking about endings recently – fictional ones, that is, rather than anything to do with real life. After all, this is supposed to be a blog about my writing (and the topics I write about), even if I have spent rather a lot of it on politics in various ways!
So anyway, fictional endings. In quick succession I have reached the end of the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 boxset (more observations about that in a future piece – though I doubt they will be terribly original), the ends of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas (I’ve played out a couple of different endings on the latter), and finished reading a thriller novel from the library (specifically “The Ragdoll” – a debut novel though I forget the author’s name).
In various ways I found each of them to be unsatisfying and that got me to thinking about what it was that bothered me about them, and what I particularly liked to find when a story came to an end.
I came to the conclusion that in many ways what I look for, and what I found lacking in each of the examples above, was a sense of resolution for the characters. This occurred in different ways in each case but forms a common thread.
In DS9, the final episode ties together a vast story arc that’s been going on for at least 6 out of the 7 seasons and resolves a lot of the big “war epic” things as battles come to a conclusion, the contest of good vs evil forces as described in Bajoran spiritualism reaches its climax and denouement, and then… it all comes to a parting of ways.
Chief O’Brien takes a teaching job back on Earth, with his family in tow. Worf accepts a post as Federation Ambassador to the Klingons. Garak returns to a devastated Cardassia. Odo returns to the Great Link. Sisko plunges into the Fire Pits and is taken into the Celestial Temple by the Prophets (where he then says goodbye to his wife Kasidy Yates). Dax, Kira, Dr Bashir and Quark seem to remain together on DS9. Dax and Bashir seem to strike up a new companionship, Quark muses that the more things change, the more they stay the same, while Kira starts to find her feet as the new commander of the station.
The question I’m left with is: how did Miles O’Brien get on? Did he miss his time on DS9, or did they stay in regular contact? What was his life like?
Similarly, what happened with Worf in his new post? How did he adapt to the role of ambassador? Was he happy being back on Kronos?
What role does Garak have in the rebuilding of Cardassia, and what sort of life and struggle is involved there? Does he find satisfaction in his efforts or do other forces thwart his hopes for the rebirth of his culture and people?
In each case, we have very little to go on for how they resolve themselves, how they look forwards or if they only look back (Garak perhaps gives us the best view, when he talks about the Cardassia he knew being gone forever).
* * *
In the endings of the Fallout games, the narrator gives a view of what happened next as if telling a legend from some years in the future – the way that Mad Max 2 and Mad Max: Beyond The Thunderdome close with a narrator outlining the Road Warrior’s role in their people’s history. But the point that I found lacking in both these games’ closing narration was a sense of the player character’s resolution.
In Fallout 3, I chose to live (and let Little Miss Lyon make the sacrifice – incidentally, the way the narrator shames the Wanderer for choosing to live is not cool, given that the Brotherhood of Steel warrior girl literally has a code of honour and is trained to sacrifice and honour, whereas the player character is just a teenager thrown into the world and having to make their own way!) While there’s a lot about what the endeavour achieved for the Capital Wasteland, there’s very little to say what sort of a life might be available for the Wanderer afterwards. Does it involve more wandering? Settling down in Megaton or Rivet City? What sort of role would they have in those places, and what would they feel about the dramatic events of which they were a part (including, if you play it through that way, witnessing the death of their father and other traumatic experiences).
Fallout: New Vegas similarly describes the outcomes for the Mojave Wasteland, the NCR, and various other groups you meet along the way, but it doesn’t give any clues for how the Courier goes on and makes a life after the Second Battle of Hoover Dam. Do they continue travelling with whichever companion(s) they finished the game with (if any?); do they settle down somewhere and make a career and a place in a community using any of the roles they’ve gained experience (and skill points) in during the game? Do they continue being a “Lone Ranger” style helper or head away from the settled lands? (Could they make their way across North America to the Capital Wasteland, even?) I haven’t yet played it to a finish where Mr House wins (I went for Yes Man, or NCR, so far – I was disappointed with the Yes Man finish because I really thought I would end up being the head honcho in Lucky 38 and take over control of Mr House’s empire, running the Strip and maybe the wider Vegas & Mojave Wasteland area with my own ideals, maybe helping and with the help of, the Followers. I had a dream, dammit!) although the hint is that House would appoint the Courier as his 2nd in command.
Does the Courier go onwards with a sense of loss after the tumultuous events through which they live from being shot to the aftermath of the Battle? Or does the Courier go forth with a sense of him- or herself as being something more than they were (as House again suggests in their first meeting)? Is the Courier wearied, or do they have a sense of direction, an idea of purpose or calling?
Of course, I made up my own resolution – I actually had a specific ending in mind for a while in that game, which was that once I had played through all the heroic battles and stuff, that I would go back and team up with Veronica to see the world (or what we could reach of it) together. Veronica seems to be interested in the Courier’s gender as a partner (I play the Courier as a female version of me, so that would make Veronica lesbian – I don’t know if she’s still lesbian if you play as a man) so in my mind Veronica and the Courier went off to other parts of the world as a couple, exploring the wilderness and wastelands far away from the events before and made a new life as wanderers making their living by helping people they meet along the way (rather like the Courier does from Goodsprings through to New Vegas).
But the point is, others were possible, and at least under the NCR ending it seems as though there’s the option to choose various ones. What is denied within the game’s conclusion though, is the resolution: the sense that “it turned out okay, and they were happy/weren’t happy and dealt with the unhappiness like this”.
* * *
With “The Ragdoll” the problem is one that, when you walk away to the fridge and give it a moment’s thought, is a problem with a lot of thrillers with a high bodycount: how does all this get explained away?! When you have these car chases through crowded streets or whatnot, I often remark, “That’s going to be a really difficult insurance claim to explain!” – “So, you’re claiming your car was trodden on by a giant robot/shot to pieces by a terrorist in a car chase with a .50 cal machinegun/hijacked by an FBI chemical weapons expert chasing a guy in a humvee”.
At the end of Ragdoll, our police detective protagonist has just beaten the serial killer to death, “going well past any possible self-defence motive”, while his partner (professional, and potentially romantic, according to the text) is slowly bleeding out from where the serial killer attempted to use her as a shield/leverage. The partner has an illegally acquired firearm(!) and basically covers for him to get out the back way as the armed police and paramedics race through the building towards them.
And that’s where it’s left! No sense of how the detective is going to make a new life for himself, if he’s successful in that or if it’s a struggle, if he settles or is constantly on the run. We have the “transformative experience” that is a key element of so much fiction, but we don’t have the “what he transformed into” part. We don’t, at the last, have the resolution. (Although, after a blank page, there’s an advert for “in 2018 the sequel, with both of them again!” which makes it sound as if somehow he ends up being forgiven for beating the guy to death. No, I don’t understand either, and probably won’t read the sequel to find out.)
* * *
All of which brings me to consider, do I have examples of the opposite? Of how resolution works well in these genres?
One technique that can work well is the “docudrama caption” method. Line of Duty uses this at the end of each season: captions outline the outcomes for each major character once the drama on-screen has reached its climax and conclusion. But even there, most of what you need to appreciate the meaning is already given in the on-screen action. In written fiction, Lord of the Rings has the biggest of this type, with the many appendices, among which you find a chronology of what happened for all the main characters after the end of the War of the Ring and the conclusion of the 3rd Age of Middle Earth. Even so, I found myself wondering the same things as outlined above, for the characters (especially Bilbo and Frodo Baggins) who went into the Undying Lands – what was it like for them? Did they eventually die or live forever? And so on.
Of course, this is a lot like the “closing narrator” choice – the trick is to include the information that resolves the journeys. The last ever episode of Quantum Leap did this perfectly, and although Dr Sam Beckett’s journey never ended, the narration explained how this had provided a new emotional resolution that balanced a previous tension; and equally, Al is afforded a chance to resolve his own emotional trauma and find a new resolution, all of which is concluded by the information in the closing narration.
Another technique is to show the beginning of the next stage in the characters’ lives. DS9 did this for those characters who remained on the space station, of course, but did nothing for those who left.
In some ways, one of the best “last episode” endings was never intended to be such. The “Original Series Doctor Who” was cancelled in 1989 and in the last season, the final two stories were reversed in broadcast order. Nevertheless, this made a very clever resolution for the character arc for Ace, the Doctor’s companion, and set up the idea of their future. It’s very simple: after the Doctor has tested Ace and forced her to face emotional traumas in the previous stories of that season, he brings her back to Perivale – where, it turns out, there is a mystery and alien threat to confound. Once that has been dealt with, the closing scene that became the closing scene of the entire series, was the two of them walking in the open.
Doctor: Where to now, Ace?
Ace: The TARDIS.
It doesn’t seem like much, but in the context of the story, and the character arc preceding it, it’s a huge sense of resolution: Ace has identified a place and a role where she feels she belongs, and the Doctor is, as he always is, the wanderer. It is a resolution. We know where she’s going, how she feels about it, and implicitly how she views the things she’s been through.
(Yes, I know Doctor Who came back as a 1996 TV Movie and then in 2005 as a new series in a new format, but for all intents and purposes Survival was the last ever Doctor Who episode as far as anyone knew and it certainly felt like that when we heard the show had been cancelled)
Finding conclusions of video games that give me that resolution and sense that I know how things have turned out for my character (and, where relevant, the characters alongside them) is harder. There aren’t many I play in the genres where a storyline is as relevant – I like sports sims, football management, and RTS as well as the action/adventure or RPG-style games that are more likely to have those story arcs, and therefore, endings that require resolution.
One that springs to mind is Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. At the end, Agent 47 foils the plot of the people who had hired him through the Agency and in retaliation, they come for him. In the end, the life he had built for himself away from his role as assassin (and which they disrupted in order to force him back into work) is destroyed – although so are they, of course.
It’s been a while since I played out the final episode and watched the conclusion, but it boils down to Agent 47 walking away from the carnage into the sunset and musing that he will “choose a truth I like.” I imagined him finding a new role, a new identity, a new hiding place. Sequels “Blood Money” and “Absolution” have him back in business with other storylines and resolutions, so if he was retired at the end of Silent Assassin, he didn’t stay that way. However, the conclusions of those games are more confusing and less satisfying in general.
Regardless of what he does next, how Agent 47 feels and has resolved what happened is obvious – it’s sadness, and he’s found a way to cope with that.
* * *
So in conclusion (and I hope, a nice resolution!) to this post, I would really just say that the important element is to show the reader (or viewer/player) how your characters, especially any they’ve become attached to, move on from the tumult that your story (whether it’s TV, book or video game) has put them through. The personal matters!
As to my own novel, still in the revision/editing phase – I found it hard to choose an endpoint in the story but when I did, I found that resolution in a very short exchange that I hope gives everything to show that both protagonists are going to start putting things back together.