The Importance of Ambiguity: Power of the Unspoken

What's right, and wrong, with an ambiguous ending?

The Importance of Ambiguity: Power of the Unspoken
Source: Polygon.

The end of a long story has the potential to both make and ruin someone’s experience with a title. After such time investment and emotion, the ending is what you’re left with to think about. There’s no single recipe for creating a good ending for any form of media, be it books, TV shows, films, or, in this case, video games.

Yet it feels like we hold video games to a different standard than other forms of media, with the idea of an open-ended conclusion being one that few people are fond of. I hope to help people appreciate the power of leaving certain things unsaid and letting a player’s mind fill in the blanks.

Spoilers ahead for Marvel's Spiderman, God of War (2018), Final Fantasy XVI, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, and Persona 3.

This story will explore how ambiguous endings are effectively used in the industry through prominent examples.

Cliffhangers vs. Ambiguity

Cliffhangers are often used to generate excitement for a potential sequel in a series. There’s a big difference between a sequelbait ending and an ambiguous one. Ambiguous endings are less interested in setting up a sequel and more in letting the player reflect on their experience throughout the game.

Cliffhanger endings typically introduce new elements that tease and fuel speculation about later games. In concept, an ambiguous ending might appear fairly similar in that it also leaves some threads hanging for potential sequel material. The important distinction is in how these two types of endings are framed. Cliffhanger endings tend to raise questions that can’t be properly dug into without more information.

Recent examples include Spider-Man by Insomniac, where the post-credits scene reveals a villain who would be a major player in the second game. Another example from Sony’s lineup includes God of War (2018), which ends with the appearance of Thor before cutting to the credits. Both endings are classic examples of the cliffhanger ending, with new elements being introduced at the end of the game to fuel speculation about the inevitable next installment.

Source: IGN.

These endings offer less room for interpretation and instead provide suggestive hints about the future. This is perfectly okay, as movies have been employing post-credit scenes to tantalize viewers with their forthcoming projects for decades. It’s a concept that maintains audience engagement, even though it carries the potential risk of diminishing their own conclusions. However, that’s a distinct matter.

Ambiguity, meanwhile, comes out of lingering questions about the main plot, and when things are left unsaid on purpose. These endings task players with thinking about and coming to their own conclusions about what might happen once the curtain falls. Often these endings resonate the hardest with audiences, but they also pose the biggest risks.

The Author's Intent

More and more games appear to be going down this route, of letting players go out and answer questions by themselves or in their communities. Most recently, Final Fantasy XVI leaves players at the end of the game with no form of real definitive conclusion; the fate of our protagonist Clive is very much left open to interpretation. We see both Torgal and Jill and other characters mourning a loss before looking out onto a new day.

A close friend and I have discussed this ending at length and have come away feeling very different things about what exactly happens as the credits roll.

Does Clive die on that beach? Or does he come back to write the book that we see at the end of the game? The wonderful part about this discussion is that there is no one answer to the riddle, with Square-Enix and the rest of the development team remaining tight-lipped about what the ending is supposed to mean.

The ending of Final Fantasy XVI leaves players on a bittersweet note, as we slowly see Clive's goals recognised, despite the cost to himself. Source: IGN.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 similarly ends at a crossroads for the main party, with no climactic event seeing them off, but rather a promise to the future and a promise to see each other again. Closing on a monologue from the main protagonist, Monolithsoft invites players to think about the future for the characters that we’ve spent so much time with and seen grow throughout the game.

However, there’s an issue that bubbles under the surface here, related to how people view games primarily as a product rather than as art.

This is something that can apply to all forms of art, not just video games, but it is something that unfortunately rears its head and causes issues occasionally. If something is financially successful, publishers will want to produce more of it, regardless of the artistic intention of the original game.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 ends with the main party splitting apart from each other, with the promise of seeing each other again. It's an ending that will absolutely leave the audience thinking. Source: IGN.

Whether that be through post-launch downloadable content or updated re-releases, these additions can make or break a game for many, for the sake of an extra sale or two. It’s an unfortunate aspect of “games as art” that has to be acknowledged to some extent if you want to discuss the medium on a holistic level.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 was a game that walked a risky road with its approach to DLC. After watching the ending of that game for the first time, the thought that there would be additional content after was an idea that made me very nervous. The ending was perfect as it was, and so undoing it was a big fear. Thematically, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 ends on such a high note that I couldn’t imagine it ending any other way.

Luckily, Monolithsoft agreed and kept the original ending as it was, only adding a minor detail to the end of their Future Redeemed campaign. This single detail added so much more value without needing to do anything other than a visual cue. For the supposed end of the current Xenoblade Chronicles story, they were very smart to leave things as they were, and not show their entire hand.

Returning to Final Fantasy XVI, we recently confirmed that there will be two paid additional content packs to the game coming soon. During this announcement, Yoshi-P did not elaborate on what these content additions would actually be, but there’s a fear that these additions could add to the ending and potentially over-explain the mystery of what actually happened.

While there is absolutely an audience there, it would be a shame to remove all the discussion points from the ending because of the addition of a definitive conclusion. The ending of Final Fantasy XVI does little to set up a sequel, and so adding onto the end without very careful thought could risk souring the experience overall.

On the opposite end of the scale, ATLUS is arguably one of the guiltiest parties for overextending and bloating each of their games with unnecessary additions and excess.

ATLUS, primarily renowned for the Persona series of RPGs, which is one of the many spin-offs stemming from their Shin Megami Tensei series, possesses a distinctive storytelling approach. Unfortunately, this approach has often caused more harm than good in the long run and has significantly damaged some of their best narratives.

Since the release of Persona 3 in 2006, ATLUS has made a habit of releasing a director’s cut of each of their games after launch. For Persona 3, this was Persona 3 FES and Persona 3 Portable, with two different strands of new content. Persona 4 saw the release of Persona 4 Golden, which added more content to the original game, as well as a new ending.

Persona 4 Golden introduces new content into an already rich RPG experience, but some argue the new content takes away some needed focus from the original. Source: Nintendo/ATLUS.

The same is true for Catherine and Persona 5. Each of these games received “upgraded” releases a couple of years after launch, full of new content and quality-of-life changes. On paper, these sound like good ideas. ATLUS RPGs are considered amongst the best in the industry in terms of quality, so even more of that is always a good thing.

Persona 3 is particularly enmeshed in this discussion. ATLUS is releasing a remake of the game at the beginning of next year, intending to be the definitive way of experiencing the Persona 3 story, the catch being that the epilogue campaign called “The Answer” is being left out of this version.

This epilogue delves into the events that immediately follow the ending of the original game and explores how the various members of the cast feel about the ending, as well as additional information. This results in an additional 20 hours of gameplay for a new version of the game, which is an excellent incentive to pick it up for the average consumer.

The Answer delves into extra story content that takes place after the main game. Controversial amongst fans, this portion of the game is being left out of the upcoming remake. Source: ATLUS.

The cost of this additional 20 hours of content is the removal of the ending’s impact. The end of Persona 3 invites players to reflect on the relationships they have formed with the various characters throughout the game and think about the value of their time in such a brief space. It’s an ending that perfectly marries the gameplay systems of Persona’s time management with the narrative weight of death that lies at the heart of Persona 3.

My opinion is not the popular one in this scenario, but these additions to ATLUS games divide fanbases more than unanimously please them. So when ATLUS announced that Persona 3 Reload would leave the content of The Answer to the past, I was actually quite pleased, while many were angry at how this wouldn’t be a definitive re-release of the game, on a technicality.

I would much rather see ATLUS trim the fat and make a far more focused game than artificially bloat their game for the hour count.

The End

Ultimately, there’s absolutely no recipe to create the ideal ending for any piece of media. People will want different things and it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to please everyone all at once.

That comes with the territory of being brave enough to tell a story. You’ll get those who simply don’t agree with your conclusions. There are, also, bad examples of ambiguity. Endings can purposefully mislead the player, hide certain details, and generally confuse the player.

For any readers familiar with the work of Yoko Taro, the original ending of Drakengard might be one of the weirdest of all time. While it did lead into the NieR franchise, at the time it was baffling. Source: Drakengard Wiki.

Those endings are worth discussing for very different reasons. While games like that damage the perception of intentional ambiguity, I still think they have a space in the industry.

More and more focus is being drawn to the idea of player agency in the games that we play. Should the same idea not be given to how we experience narratives? Developers should be able to put faith in their audiences to actually talk about their narratives, and I hope to see a shift in the way we as a medium can tell our stories.

Video games can produce some of the most engaging narratives of any form of modern art, and more games should strive to make their players think.

It’s okay to not have that sequel. Let those stories sit.


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