Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Payoff

As I've been working on my upcoming adventure for my (now) yearly trip to South Dakota, I have been thinking a lot about the 'payoff' portion of an adventure or campaign arc. Any dramatic expression goes through the various stages of introduction, build, and ultimate resolution. But what I have found is that even if the rest of the game/story is great, a bad ending (or even just mediocre ending) can sour the overall experience. Below, I will explore a few of my favorite games/stories and show how and why they 'failed' for me. Along the way, I will likely bring up a few examples to contrast them with- games or stories where the ending lived up to the hype.

I'll start with Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. This game was, in terms of complexity and mechanical design, head and shoulders above it's predecessor- KotOR. And THAT really says something, considering how awesome the first installment was. Throughout the entire game, things built and built- stories got deeper and deeper. It seemed as though there was no bottom to them- and that is a rare thing in a 'finite' form of entertainment like a video game. And then it just ended. Period. You fought the 'main bad guy' and there was some stilted exposition about what happened to your character and all your companions and that was it. So many plot-lines seemed to just go nowhere. It wasn't until AFTER I had finished playing that I found out that, in fact, a lot of the content in the game HAD been cut in order to reach a specific release date. Honestly? I would have rather waited another 6 months and played a complete game. As it was, despite how awesome I thought this game was, the ending ruined it for me. Whereas KotOR I must have replayed a dozen times. I only played this game twice- because I knew that all the build up wasn't going to pay off.

In stark contrast to this sequel, the original KotOR paid off in every way imaginable. the various story arcs all got resolved as you worked closer and closer to the climax. The final battles felt epic- played out against the backdrop of a huge space battle. Even if the controls and menus were clunkier and the characters perhaps not as deeply developed, the whole thing left me feeling complete- satisfied- wanting more, perhaps, but happy with the way things turned out.

Most recently, I have been playing the Fable 3 video game. Now, the Fable series has never been known for its particularly 'deep' roleplay (unless you think burping and farting is deep). But my experience with Fable 2 had been pleasant enough that I was really looking forward to the third installment. For the most part, the game did not least not at first. Essentially, you have to unite various factions, build up an army, overthrow the king (your brother), then lead your country through a period of turmoil, trying to prepare for an attack from an outside 'evil'. This is all well and good, and as I was doing things to build up my forces and defenses, my anticipation for the 'final conflict' grew and grew. I took great pains to be as prepared as humanly possible when the hammer fell. Unfortunately, when it did, it took the form of a single level, through which you proceeded largely alone (save for a few companions). You beat the bad guy and that's it. Invasion over. About the most you see of your gathered army is a few soldiers fighting in the streets. That's it. Oh sure, the post battle report shows that you saved the majority of your people, but.. all of it happened "off camera", there was no pay off at all for all that hard work. No huge battle you were involved in. Hell, there wasn't even a SERIES of battles. It was just one relatively minor level. Even if I didn't get to play in a battle, a cut scene or two would have been nice- showing the various NPCs and my soldiers battling against the bad guys. But nope. Nothing. No pay off at all. I have tried to play this game again, but honestly? Knowing that the ending is such a let down... I haven't finished it at all after that first time through.

For contrast, you have to look no further than Dragon Age: Origins. It follows roughly the same plot as Fable 3. You start out as a renegade of sorts, have to unify various factions, overthrow the tyrant and then face the armies of the bad guys. Where it differs, however, is in the pay off. At the End of Dragon Age, you have several big cinematic cut scenes of the final battle. And interspersed with these are different levels where you lead your forces through challenges. Depending on who you recruited, you can even call upon NPC allies to help you directly. This was absolutely awesome. Hell, I called on them even if I DIDN'T need them- just to see bands of Dwarves and Elves racing across the battlefield to help me. It felt epic because it looked epic. I wasn't TOLD how good my forces did, I saw, first hand. It was immensely satisfying. And I have played the game through several times just to experience it again.

For an example in TV shows you can see both sides of the coin in the "new" Battlestar Galactica series. The overall story arc played out well for me- with the conflict with the Cylons developing and coming to a head in a titanic last battle. That felt satisfying- as did the fact that the fleet does find a world to finally settle on. On the flip side, there had been this undercurrent of 'prophecy' throughout the story. Throughout most of the series, this prophecy was played off very entertainingly, always seeming to cross the line between true supernatural, coincidence and behind the scenes manipulation by the Cylons. I was fine with things never being completely explained- left ambiguous for the reader to decide with maybe hints that it could be spiritual or happenstance. But nope. It was god. And god brought Starbuck back to life to save the fleet- then she just disappeared into thin air. For a show that was relatively 'hard' sci-fi throughout its length, this sudden 'proof' that god was behind it all was just jarring- and it left a bad taste in my mouth. It was as though the writers hadn't completely thought out the prophecy thing from the beginning and just had to make something up to explain it at the very end- the great deus ex machina: "God did it".

In any case, where the hell am I going with all of this as it relates to Star Wars and Gaming? Simple- a GM should ALWAYS look ahead and be mindful when he's coming to the end of a story arc. He should really think about his players and what they WANT- and he should try to deliver it to them in a way that pays off- otherwise, even the greatest campaign can end with a 'wah wah wahhhhhh' downer. If your story is Epic- make sure the ending is epic. Don't TELL your players what happens, let their characters live it and influence it.

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