Happy New Year, folks! As the year of You Are Not the Hero, Xenoblade 2, Fallout 4 DLC, a romance-oriented Fire Emblem that actually caught up to 10 years ago by providing homosexual options, and oh holy shit TORMENT: TIDES OF NUMENARA!!!, 2016 shows great promise for the RPG genre. Let's see if I can write up some rants so mentally stimulating and entertaining that they can keep pace with that exciting lineup!
(Spoiler Alert: I can't. You'll just have to be satisfied with the usual fanboyish, nitpicking garbage I spew every year).
In my Greatest Endings list, I covered the best of RPGs’ good endings...but you know, good endings aren’t the only ones to be found in this genre. A lot of games also have Bad Endings, intentionally dissatisfying conclusions that let the player know that somewhere or other, they done fucked up. These are the endings whose purpose is to create regret and discontent, and encourage you to do a better job next time. There’s a lot of these lesser finales in RPGs, and most of them are pretty by-the-numbers, but sometimes you’ll come across a Bad Ending that’s extremely well done, surprising you with just how much quality the developers put into even the conclusion that represents failure. And today, we’re taking a look at the best of the bad!
Note: I’m trying to be objective here, so endings that are just representations of playstyles I don’t agree with don’t count. So, for example, even though an ending where you empower Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas is pretty bad from any decent human being’s perspective, I’m not counting it, because it’s not based on a failure so much as it is a social philosophy, even if that social philosophy is shitty and poorly thought out. So, no Renegade Shepard, no Chiaki Discipline, no negative karma Lone Wanderer, no Yamato meritocracy, etc. None of those are meant to symbolize a failure on the player or characters’ parts (besides, perhaps, a moral one). They’re endings meant to be as legitimate as their counterparts, not Bad Endings.
Note 2: I’m sure you can figure this one out on your own, but, uh, spoilers.
5. Live-A-Live (Sad Ending)
What makes this such a good Bad Ending is that it’s so poignantly underscored by the tragedy of Orsted’s fall from grace. It’s not just about the fact that he wins, that he changes the fates of the other 7 climactic battles to result in the defeat of each hero and the dominance of the demonic force Odio. After Orsted’s victory, as the credits roll, we see him leave his fortress of evil and journey through the now empty and lifeless kingdom that he was once a hero to, quietly visiting the place of each of the losses, misunderstandings, and betrayals that pushed him from a hero to a demon, as well as the sites of the triumphs that gave him so much to lose in the first place. What this ending is really about is reminding you that the ruination of this man’s life, the circumstances that drove him to embrace darkness, is what caused the triumph of evil now in multiple places in time and space. The fickle, quick judgments of the people, the deaths of the only true and good people Orsted knew, the vicious betrayal by his best friend over petty jealousy, the emotional betrayal of the princess, she who had symbolized the pure, redeeming goal and light that he had clung desperately to when the rest of his world was falling apart...Orsted visits the site of each to remind himself and us of his tale. The people in Orsted’s life failed him with their petty, stupid vices, destroyed him...and now, in this ending, we see the tragedy compounded as his retribution seeks out not only the humanity that did him wrong, but the innocents of other worlds and times, as well.
4. Eternal Senia (Ending 2)
Ha! The real question is, are any of Eternal Senia's endings not a Bad Ending?
I kid, I kid. Because humor is a defense mechanism. And I need it right now. Because the second ending of ES breaks my goddamn heart. After all that Senia has gone through to save her sister Magaleta, and all that Magaleta has taken on herself to save Senia, Eternity still wins out, taking control of Senia while Magaleta is pushed away before she can try to shoulder this last lethal burden. Senia is lost, yet Magaleta cannot bring herself to leave her, even as Senia attacks her...instead, Magaleta simply accepts each injury, as fate’s punishment for failing to love Senia well enough, and failing to save her. After all the hurt and trials that Senia and Magaleta have endured, each girl’s only concern the wellbeing of her sister, her only wish to be with the other...Magaleta accepts death by the blade of her beloved sister, happily, as her penance, and because she’d rather be with Senia in death than attempt to live without her. The sheer weight of Senia and Magaleta’s love for one another is staggering, and the fact that they never had the chance to truly live and rejoice in that love, from circumstance and an inability to communicate their feelings and fears, makes this the saddest Bad Ending I’ve ever seen.
3. Fallout 1
This ending, which you get when the protagonist gives in and tells The Master’s lieutenant about Vault 13, is short, yet extremely effective. The Vault Dweller is taken and dropped into the vats, transformed into a super mutant, the scene nightmarish without needing to be excessive or graphic. Then, we see the result of the Vault Dweller’s loose lips: the invasion of Vault 13 in progress, through security feeds. It’s a masterfully disturbing scenario: hopeless, relentless, terrifying, and brutal. It’s simple, and again, nightmarish without the need for gratuitous detail. Stunningly horrible, this is an ending that leaves you feeling a little sick.
2. Undertale (No Mercy Ending)
Actually, there are quite a few neutral endings in Undertale that might have pushed Live-A-Live off this list, too, but they’re pretty much the ones where you’ve come close to a No Mercy run, but not quite gotten it, so I’m just going to count this one alone, and call it a day.
Okay, so this may seem like it goes against that rule I mentioned earlier about not counting alternate play styles, but the No Mercy is different than just deciding to play Revan as a Sith or something. Going out of your way to murder absolutely everyone you possibly can has no belief or philosophy behind it--even Flowey’s motto of Kill or Be Killed only logically applies to interacting with those you come across and/or possess something you want, not systematically hunting down and wiping out the weak and helpless in totality. Additionally, the No Mercy ending is not shown as an acceptable alternative to another legitimate ending that gives a deviant player what he or she was shooting for--it’s pretty unequivocally a Bad Ending. Lastly, it does not represent a success of the protagonist, Frisk’s, choices or belief. Rather, as the ending makes clear, the violent impulses of the game belong to Chara, the first child, and if Frisk kills, it is because Chara’s spirit is in control. Chara more or less says this, and even mocks Frisk’s assumption that he/she has ever been in control should Frisk try to resist. SO, the No Mercy ending can really only be seen as a failure for Frisk, never a consciously-selected consequence: it’s a failure to keep the influence of Chara at bay and stay in control.
We square on this? Okay, good. So, then, let’s talk this ending and why it’s here, which is because it
As is its intention, of course. In this ending, you’ve unleashed a psychotic, reasonless murderer on the world, one intent on and capable of destroying all existence, a monster that can neither be stopped by even a hero who has been imbued with the collective power of the world’s hope, nor by an unimaginably powerful creature who can manipulate the very laws of the universe. Seeing Chara, hearing him/her talk, realizing that this is truly the end of this world, and then realizing that you’ve given Chara the power to lock you out of restarting and can only ever play the game again by selling Frisk’s soul to him/her, a decision that cannot be taken back no matter how you play the game ever again...this ending perfectly blends the stuff of a living nightmare, and the sinking pit in your stomach that occurs when you realize that you’ve made a choice, an important one, for the worse, and will never, ever escape its consequences.
1. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (Kill Namatame Ending)
This is a pretty intense and emotionally painful ending all around. The scene that leads to the moment of this Bad Ending is heavy with the fresh pain of loss, and the desperation that comes of it. With the universally beloved Nanako dead, the Investigation Team privately confronts Namatame, the man believed to be responsible for her death. Although they only moments before were upset at the idea of what Nanako’s father, out of his mind with anguish, had intended to do with Namatame, the heroes find themselves also quickly blinded to reason by their grief and rage. In this moment of weakness, the team takes justice into its own hands, and murders Namatame.
Their adventure ends that night, in tragedy, their search for answers ended with a single terrible decision made without the dedication to the pursuit of truth that had united and propelled them up to that point. In the heat of this terrible moment, an act is perpetrated that cannot be undone, a betrayal of all that the team has stood for, striven for. It is an act that cannot be redacted. When it's time, a few months later, for the protagonist to go back to his home and leave the town in which the game takes place, there's no jubilant exit. There's only a small, sad speech by Nanako's father to the main character that sometimes bad actions must be taken for the greater good, awkward and quiet farewells from the protagonist's friends, and an atmosphere of regret. Regret, and perhaps shame, for what was done hastily in anger. It's very, very well done and poignant, and pretty much captures the essence of what a Bad Ending is meant to be--an unsatisfying, regretful conclusion that came about from a deviation from what the story had intended.
Honorable Mention: Mass Effect 3 (Fan-Created MEHEM Ending)
You know, it’s a funny thing. The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod gives us a satisfying, correct ending for the ME trilogy to fix that sloppy pile of shit that those incompetent, self-important fuckwads at Bioware forced on us...but worth noting is that it also gives us a Bad Ending, too, if you’ve reached the ending by making bad decisions and not gathering enough war assets. And this Bad Ending...really, really works. It’s interesting, it’s intelligent, and it’s meaningful. And it’s even a little artsy, too, with how well it conveys details and intentions without outright speaking them. Seeing that all hope for their cycle truly is lost, Joker and the crew of the Normandy heroically sacrifice themselves to keep their secret contingency plan safe from the risk of Indoctrination bringing it to light, and we cut away to see, someday, 1 of Liara’s capsules being found and activated which details the oncoming Reaper menace to the next cycle, in the hopes that the details of our own failure might be enough to give the galaxy’s next starfaring children a chance to survive. And once the credits are finished, we learn that this was, indeed, what happened.
Yes, obviously this modded ending uses a lot of what Bioware created for the official “Bad Ending” to create its own downer finale, but that’s what MEHEM does overall--it takes the bits of Bioware’s bilge that can be salvaged for something good, and then fills in the gaps with its own fan-created content (which, by the way, is very good, often indistinguishable from the “professional” content) that make for something worthwhile. The important thing here is that, whereas before the message of the Bad Ending of ME3 was Bioware saying, “Oh, you don’t like being left with only shitty options? Sure, here’s a new option for you: EVERYTHING YOU LOVE DIES. Happy?”, this Bad Ending is a theme of hope even within resignation to your own fate, and of heroic, meaningful sacrifice of oneself for the good of others whom one has never even met. There’s a powerful, inspiring nobility to this Bad Ending that shows that even in the darkest of times, when all is lost for us, there is still a beautiful light to be found in our ability to help others as we were unable to do for ourselves.
I suspect not many people will ever see this ending, as the whole point of downloading MEHEM would be to salve the terrible wounds in your psyche, still open and raw years after ME3’s ending created them, so few people are going to bother going into it with the low rating that this ending requires to activate. And that’s kind of sad, honestly, because just as MEHEM proper is an absolutely excellent ending, so too is MEHEM’s Bad Ending 1 of the best you’re ever going to come across. Thankfully, it's not hard to find on Youtube.
And that’s it for today! Personally, I think it’s pretty darned cool that there are games whose creators take such an interest in their work that they can’t resist telling the game and characters’ stories even when they go in the wrong direction. And it’s really neat that the RPG genre has quite a few of these--this list was fairly difficult to narrow down. There are a lot of quality Bad Endings out there, such as the ones for Chrono Trigger, Mass Effect 2, and Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, amongst others. The Bad Ending really can be an interesting, meaningful, and emotional little flourish that makes an already strong RPG that much more memorable and interesting, and I say kudos to those writers who take the time not only to make a Bad Ending at all, but to make one well.