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What’s So Wrong With A Happy Ending?

Why do happy endings get such a bad rap?  I’m not talking about sappy, unrealistic endings, but honest endings in which people get what they need even if they may not get what they want.  I know it’s fashionable for critics to sneer at the happy ending as if only grief and suffering have value, but I think that devalues the things we celebrate as humans — friendship, love, laughter and triumph. 

As my friend Sage Walker said — life is about our struggle against the coming entropy.  Which I describe as “life is grand, let’s enjoy it while we can.”

What got me started musing about this topic is this video game that has taken up large numbers of hours of my life.  Called Mass Effect it is science fiction on a grand scale with a layered and textured world.  While everybody plays either a male or a female Commander Shepard you can customize your characters features, hair, coloring, etc, and by the third game you have a rather extensive wardrobe so you can play Barbie or Ken as you make clothing choices.

In addition to a staggeringly complex background there are deeply interesting companions both human and alien with which to interact, and as the game goes on you have a very strong sense of their personalities and quirks and needs.  And of course there’s lots of action, and things to shoot. 

So that’s the background, and the company, Bioware that created this amazing game has produced an army of passionate fans over five years and three games.  Everyone was waiting anxiously for this third (and we were told) final game.  The hallmark of Mass Effect had been the fact that choices you made in the first two games have ramifications that ripple throughout the game.  Everyone expected that to be the crux of the final confrontation with a galaxy destroying villain.

As a writer I had huge respect for the designers of this game.  Each game the threat becomes more powerful, creepier and far more terrifying.  In the final game literally the lives of all the sentient races is in peril.  High stakes indeed.  As a player you help settle ancient grudges so alliances can be built.  You gather supplies and war assets.  You do everything possible prepare for the coming fight, you lose companions in affecting ways, and you invest a lot of time in this.  

It’s not that dissimilar to being a reader of a viewer of a movie or a television show.  In all three of these cases you are putting in the time, investing emotionally in the story and the characters, putting yourself in the place of the hero and in the center of the action.  Perhaps not as literally as in a video game, but the emotional commitment is the same.

And then Bioware punted the end, leaving players with only one outcome for their Shepard — death, and a universe that had been horribly and irrevocably changed.  Outrage abounded, Amazon was refunding players money, and Bioware seemed genuinely shocked by the reaction — but they should have expected it.  Critics called the fans whining geeks and said they were immature for wanting a different ending.

On the various fan sites I read players responses to these critics saying “I don’t mind if the ending is sad….”  But the truth was they did mind, they were just afraid of saying it for fear of being mocked about wanting what was perceived of as the Pollyanna ending.  As if only a hopeless conclusion filled with pain can be serious or have any meaning.

Because video games are an interactive art and entertainment form it seemed to me that Bioware missed an opportunity to offer players different choices.  To make their efforts not seem pointless and futile.  Why build this vast space armada if it wasn’t going to do a damn thing in the final equation?  You feel like you wasted your time, and you can end up feeling the same way after reading through a book where none of the characters actions or efforts actually having any bearing on the ending, or in a movie where you wonder why you gave up two plus hours of your life since none of the action mattered.

Bioware managed this very nicely in Dragon Age:  Origins — your character can either choose the ultimate sacrifice or take two other possible routes that solve the problem, but leave your character alive.  You do feel like the captain of your fate, and that is very satisfying.

So why didn’t they do it in this case?  I’m not sure, and until Bioware tells us we will never know, but they clearly failed to take an analytical look at endings and what makes them ultimately succeed or fail.   Endings are an emotional catharsis for readers, viewers and players, and a book, series, movie or game will succeed or fail on the strength of that ending.  Another thing that might have been at play in Bioware’s decision was the idea that a good journey will compensate for a crappy ending.  I don’t agree with that.  If the ending fails then the journey seems pointless.  How many cases of that have we seen?  Too many.  Battlestar Galactica.  Lost.  The X-Files.  

So what books and movies have handled endings well even if you ultimately didn’t have a choice of ending because of differences in the medium?  

Let’s start with Lord of the Rings, one of my favorites.  The ending is certainly bitter sweet.  Middle Earth has been forever changed.  The elves are passing away, and the age of men is beginning, but the entire world has not been completely destroyed and warped into a new shape.  Beauty still endures, and Mordor will ultimately be cleansed. 

For the characters Frodo finds peace (an outcome I would have liked for my Shepard), and Sam returns home to love and marriage and children and becomes the mayor of Hobbiton, etc.  There are deaths.  Boromir nearly falls to evil, but is ultimately saved.  King Theoden’s death is deeply affecting, but Tolkien didn’t massacre Frodo and Sam because both of them had earned their happy ending through great sacrifice

King Lear.  A tragedy yes, but for Lear and Cordelia ultimately a happy ending because they found each other once more and were able to be reconciled.

Casablanca — a brilliant ending once your realize it’s not a love story.  It’s a story of redemption and a return to life for a man who had lost all hope and faith.  There is loss, Rick can never be with Ilsa, but he gives that up to reclaim his soul.

Pride and Prejudice — you’d throw that book across the room if Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy didn’t get together.  A far less elevated love story is the case of Pretty Woman.  There was a different ending to that movie where the characters didn’t get together at the end, and the test screeners _hated_ it.  They shot a new ending and that movie went on to be enormously popular and to make a boatload of money.  Unrealistic, yes, but people wanted that happy ending.

Shows that did it well.  Buffy through five seasons.  Primeval.  They had a story, and they gave us the ending we all wanted.  There was sorrow along the way, but Abby and Connor got together, and Connor lived up to the memory of his father figure and mentor, and he did the right thing.  He chose people over intellect and ideology.

Happy endings are satisfying.  Life is hard and we don’t necessarily want our entertainment to be as hard as life.  We want something that gives us hope.  Tells us that if you try hard and give your all, things just may turn out all right.  Suggest that love will triumph.  Friends will be true, heroic deeds will make a difference.  They are especially satisfying when the main character(s) have earned their happy ending.  They have struggled through sadness and loss, but ultimately they have emerged into sunlight.

Bottom line.  I think I’m going to continue to write stories that celebrate the best of humanity rather than focusing on the worst.  

And I just may stop Mass Effect 3 before the end, and write my own ending.  🙂

9 Responses to What’s So Wrong With A Happy Ending?

  • SF says:

    I would love to read your ending

  • MelindaS says:

    I am so in to this game that I’m really tempted to write the end for _my_ Shepard. Of course I can’t/shouldn’t spare the time with all my real projects to write what would essentially be a piece of fan fiction, but damn I’m tempted.

    Since our role playing group sort of collapsed this has become my major form of entertainment, and to see such a grand creation end so badly just infuriates me. The fact that Dragon Age 2 sucked didn’t bother me as much because the character that really means something to me in that game is my Dalish elf, not this clown Hawke so the fact nothing you did had any consequence at the end, and the fact that after all this time spent making a home in Kirkwall ended with Kirkwall in flames and Hawke just walking out didn’t matter to me all that much. It pissed me off on a story telling level, but I didn’t have any emotional investment in DA2. I mean, hell, it wasn’t even Ferelden.

    But I have a lot of investment in Mass Effect and my Shepard.

  • S.C. Butler says:

    Great post. And I still like the ending of Buffy’s 7th season even better.

  • MelindaS says:

    Thank you. I still like season 5, but we’ll have to debate it over drinks next time we get together. Will you be at Chicago for the World Con? Or the Nebulas? I’m thinking about attending so I can cheer for Connie when she gets her Grand Master.

  • Jack says:

    Nice summary of what I believe too, Melinda.
    A satisfying ending is what is always called for and that does not mean an easy happy ever after nor a complete destruction of everything one holds dear in the story.
    If someone invests so much in the character, we want to see some trade off with that investment. If there is going to be the ultimate sacrifice, then there has to be the renewal that we were looking for come through it. Shakespeare realized that years ago. In every one of his tragedies we see the cycle broken, truth and honour once again restored and the evil purged. If we ended “Hamlet” with the death of everyone and not the take over of the Kingdom and order restored, people would go home feeling there was no hope.

    We go to the movies for hope. We go to the movies for belief.
    We read to provide us with a modicum of honour and justice we want to see in this world.
    One of the big disappointments for me in television watching was actually “Quantum Leap” in which Sam will be stuck forever leaping. We feel that he is constantly cursed when he should have been rewarded at last for all the great good he has done.
    Even in Christianity, there is hope for Heaven from a life well lived.
    Bring us a little heaven here on Earth for those we have come to care so much for in story.

    Always writing and thinking- thank you for that.

  • MelindaS says:

    Yes! Absolutely, Jack. When a character earns a good ending it won’t feel saccharine or forced. God knows Shepard earned the chance at a happy ending. My Shepard is so sick of killing. Like Eyown in LoTR he wants to be concerned with growing things — children, gardens, etc. Now for my friend Eric, he wants his Shepard to make the ultimate sacrifice, and that’s cool too. And Bioware gave us those options in Dragon Age. It’s the lack of options, and the fact that everything you do matters not at all at the end is what rankles so much.

  • john vendso says:

    nice article, I enjoy your work

  • Johnna says:

    I never watch the end of ME3. I ended it halfway through the cut-scene on my first play through and never intend to actually watch it. If you want a good ending check out this http://social-iconoclast.deviantart.com/#/d4tc9u0 . It’s an incredibly detailed and well thought out fan version of ME3 which literally takes almost every choice your Shephard makes in the entire series into account.

    Also this, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=da5KPeRy_AQ It is a movie script version of a ME3 ending someone came up with (which was partly inspired by the first link) There is no happy ending, but a deep sense of sad closure.

  • Melindas says:

    I’ll take a look, though I still contend there is nothing wrong with offering the players one happy ending option. Life is filled with bleak and pain. I don’t want a large dose of it in my entertainment. Oh, and Bioware has now said openly that Shepard survives in the destroy ending, and “may be reuinted with their love interest again.” They just add the poison pill of having made you commit genocide. Lovely. In Dragon Age my Warden slept with Morrigan, and pay the cost later, but he got to kill the archdemon and still live. I liked that better.

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