Mass Effect 3’s banal ending stands the latest example of franchises that run off the rails before arriving at the station. This is not to be confused with the term “jumping the shark”—associated with the phenomena when a failing franchise attempts a jarring tonal shift to the dismay and condemnation of what few fans they have left in an attempt to revitalize the brand. Running off the rails occurs when a story or franchise which appears on course to a smooth destination crashes at the end. This problem concerned me of late because of its apparent infection rate. Writers, producers, project directors and show runners apparently have taken upon themselves to act capricious. I don’t mean a twist in the narrative that had laid down its groundwork earlier or a turn of events brilliant and unexpected despite being harsh. I refer to events so callous and irresponsible, they serve only to unravel the fabric that a story spent years or even decades trying to weave. Occasionally (meaning unfortunately often) it’s the ego of the lead writer imposing an ending he or she considers “brave” despite actually being shit. Mass Effect was only the latest victim, begging me to wish Max Von Sydow would step in for immediate exorcism on today’s modern media.
Other good examples of this include the reveal at the end of Enterprise, the nonsensical ending of The Shield, or the greatest crime thrust upon its audience, the final episode of Battlestar Gallactica. Sure, novels have been known to end badly, but I’ve seldom read such a situation occurring in a series…well…except for King’s Dark Tower. But King warned that the ending might anger readers. He even offered a disclaimer that if you wanted the happy ending to read only up to the final chapter, avoiding the epilogue. Reading to the end, you took your chances and discovered the circular nature to the entire saga. Battlestar Galactica refrained from such a warning. Here was a show that built up an allegory of religious conflict in its final few seasons, only to nullify that conflict with a deus ex machina—confirming one faith as being correct. This was why Caprica was such an abysmal failure; how can you present a show about the conflict between polytheistic and monotheistic dogmas when you acknowledge the monotheistic faith as “correct”. This pedantic plot was practically photocopied by the creators of Lost—which revealed the entire series to be a parable of Christian dogma. Now, I won’t go into details as to why, unlike peanut butter cups, science fiction and Christian philosophy don’t mix, but I’ll state that these stories both ran off the rails in regards to logic, whether external or internal.
At least Mass Effect 3 didn’t fall into the pit of religious parity. It only showed its weakness in presenting a formulaic and clichéd resolution which had been done better and more intelligently by writers fifty years ago. It committed the further sin by ignoring past in-game mythology and disregarding the main’s character’s contribution to the overall saga. I had theorized that the ending was a place-marker imposed by corporate politics until a more satisfying ending could be sold to the masses, but recent evidence seemed to indicate my later hypothesis (that of the imposing ego) was correct.
In the microverse of my personal role playing games, I’m not only wrapping up a two–year campaign set in Amethyst, I’m also closing the book on the entire Amethyst setting (not in publishing, just with my local players). It’s been three games, each running 2-3 years each, and I feel I’ve worked that setting over enough. The first campaign ended in a more traditional fantasy route with closure and happy endings for all. Logos, the sequel campaign set 500 years later, ended on a downer with most of the characters dying but setting the course of events which would save the planet. This latest one, Cradle, was the most complicated and resonant game I’ve ever run, and I’ve been worrying about whether I’d end my story in a way that honored the setting and characters. I know I’m not alone on this. George RR Martin publicly criticized both BSG and Lost for their disappointing endings, earning a counter-stab by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, creating a public war of words more humorous than unsettling. But it does show that most writers worry about how their properties are sent off. They want something worthy of the build-up without sullying what came before. So for your own stories and games, here are some points I always like to follow.
Honor the Characters: I believe that a major character’s death should mean something and not be done out of spite. When removing major characters from a story, consider the ramifications of it. If a death serves no purpose other than to be shocking, why is it necessary? That’s what minor characters are for. Is it just to show that people die; well, we know that. Is it meant to spur a hero to action? Is it a noble sacrifice? I can go with that. Is it random, meant to show the brutal nature of real life? I’d rather watch cable news. Some storytellers believe the end of the story is marked by the death of its main character. There’s nothing wrong with offering a happy ending, despite the opinions of some honestly vindictive people.
Honor the Setting: Like Kubrick ordering the destruction of the Discovery models in 2001, even I’ve been tempted to destroy my own creation. The appeal seems obvious, as the end of a story should be the end for a reason. Something drastic must happen to signify that end. People can be replaced (or recast), but changing the setting, like destroying a planet or a ship, or disbanding an alliance, can end a story as we know it. But this doesn’t always have to happen, and if it does, it doesn’t always have to be malicious. People move on, the crisis the story focused around may end, but the fabric of the setting can live on, even though your involvement in it may end.
Payoff: I learned this from screenwriting class. It’s the practice of introducing an object or plot element early in a story for it to payoff later. It’s classic, common, and always welcome. The best example I can remember came from Alex Proyas’ Dark City, where a casual line spoken by the villain half way into the film is paid off in a manner which seals his fate at the end. I endeavor to include such elements in my work. For those reading the story segments in any Amethyst publication, look for the broken watch. By employing payoff, you show your players and your audience that endings aren’t covered in your errant ass hairs but are connected to ideas introduced early on. It shows you had an idea from the get-go.
Avoid Unnecessary Twists: It’s become such an annoying trend in stories that the writer has to inject some unexpected twist in order maintain interest or keep his audience guessing. Although this works in regards to the payoff point mentioned above, the argument loses ground if the twist makes no sense or has no connection to anything else encountered earlier. Before M. Night Shyamalan’s brain dripped from his skull, he had properly injected a surprise twist in three successive films. Although not entirely unpredicted, the twists did have their foundation laid early on. Although twists were common in crime stories, they were rarely employed in larger franchises and genre stories. They became prevalent in the last decade, resulting in the abuse by writers with no comprehension for logic. I got to calling this practice the poochie ending.
In Season 8 of The Simpsons, there was an episode where the cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy & Scratchy was faltering in the ratings, so the ignorant producer figured that a new character needed to be added, thus Poochie. Homer Simpson provided the voice but when Poochie premiered, he was overwhelmingly despised as simply a hollow exaggeration of clichés and misplaced pop references. The decision was made to kill him off against Homer’s objections. He even managed to convince the writers and co-stars to help him redeem Poochie by ingratiating the character with the audience. So when the episode started, Itchy (or Scratchy, cause I can’t remember which) went, “Poochie, you look like you’ve got something to say, do you?”
Homer as the voice of Poochie replied, “Yes, I certainly do.”
But as Poochie looked to the audience to offer its plea, the animation froze and you heard the producer’s dubbed voice cut in and say, “I have to go now. My planet needs me.” The animation cell of Poochie was then clumsily jerked out of frame, replaced by the hand written sign, “Poochie died on his way to his home planet.”
Poochie was an alien?” Bart asked.
“I…guess…so?” Lisa responded.
Although this episode was meant to illustrate “jumping the shark”, I use it to cite the means of Poochie’s departure as a sudden plot change which makes no sense, is never explained, and leaves the audience scratching their heads. It’s about legacy. What will people remember? We often hear the saying, “Any publicity is good publicity.”
It does have its limits.