Tuesday, November 06, 2012

In Defense of the Bittersweet Ending

I’m starting this off by stating that I’m going to be using examples from games I haven’t played. Shocking, I know. It actually breaks one of my rules. I don’t like to discuss games or products that I haven’t personally used in order to be a more objective reviewer/contributor/reporter/blogger. Having said that, I have good reason to break my rule.

Also, spoilers. You have been alerted.

I want to discuss the “happy ending” that we all seem to crave. It’s been imbedded into us for as long as we can remember, this desire to want things to be concluded in a nice, neat package or puppys and rainbows. The “feel good” resolution to an adventure where the hero(es) triumph over evil, and everything is right again! I’m sure if I bring up Little Red Riding Hood, you all are going to have this lovely image of a little girl, in a red cloak, going to her grandma’s house, with a silly wolf dressed up as her grandma to steal her basket of goodies. But Red outsmarts the wolf, kicks him out of the house, and her and grandma have a wonderful dinner.

Here’s the real Red Riding Hood story: The wolf ate grandma and Red. The End.

No seriously. That’s it. The moral of the story was children, especially pretty young ladies, should never talk to strangers.

Over the years the story has been dummed down to include a positive ending. The reason why is something psychologists, psychiatrists, and media analysts have been debating forever. People typically prefer the happy ending versus the realistic one (i.e. Red and Grandma live vs. Red and Grandma are eaten). But I argue that this happy ending syndrome diminishes the message of the story. Anything that the author, writer, director is trying to convey gets muddled once the happy ending hits.
Using Red Riding Hood as an example, is the original message still being presented to kids now that there are more cartoonish, safer endings? I’m not entirely sure. For me it’s clear in the original story. The remakes make me believe that it’s probably easy to fool a wolf, which might be half-true.

Let’s try another example. How about a story re-imagined by Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the original book, Esmerelda was hanged at the end, with Quasimodo committing suicide by her side as a martyr. Disney has a very nice, happy ending. Esmerelda finds a lovely man. Quasimodo is accepted and walks among the people of the city. The bad guy goes to jail. Yep, smiles and sunshine all around.
Why is it a problem? Well the issue at hand is that it changes the context and message of the story. Like Han Solo not shooting first, with the ending altered by Disney, The Hunchback no longer became a story about oppression, resistance, religion, and defiance. It was transformed into “being yourself and everyone will accept you for who you are.” It’s still a good message, but not a realistic one. Sorry kids but this is now how reality works. People are going to hate you because of who you are. How you deal with it is the real test. The intent of the book is much more powerful, even brilliant at its time, compared to the Disney variation.

This isn’t an experience limited to film or television. Since the beginning, theater and books have been retold with more “happier” endings to appease audience tastes.

We look to these pieces as entertainment, but also as a means of escape from our everyday lives. We know that there isn’t always good in our world, but in these fictional places we can find happiness. And that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with it. My concern is that we over-glorify the happy ending to the point where we expect it; anything less is considered an insult. In turn, it damages the intent of a story because we demand the happy ending-where the bittersweet one would be more powerful and solidify the message the story is trying to present.

The hero has just saved the world and we know s/he will be rewarded. Death is never factored into the equation.

Rachna Chhabria sums it up best:

“I think the reason everyone reads is because we want to transport ourselves into another world: a world of make believe, a fantasy world, where we can forget our personal problems and troubles, fears and worries. A Happily Ever After completes and fulfils that journey. We feel satisfied that things worked out for the MC, this feeling is subtly transferred into our own lives; we feel things will eventually work out for all of us too.”

So it’s not surprising to play a video game and expect the happy ending. Even for games like Left4Dead that joke about the “survival” count in the credits, we still feel better about ourselves and the imminent Zombie Apocalypse when everyone on our team gets out alive.

But what if your team doesn’t make it out alive? What if you left behind Bill, as he makes that courageous sacrifice for you all-putting himself in danger to get the zombies off your back while your clamor to safety. It’s poetic. It requires us to think more about ourselves; our humanity. Heavy stuff, considering it’s a video game where you shoot silly looking zombies that occasionally barf on you. Bill dies so the others can live.

These types of endings cause us to reflect in a new way. It’s not a mindless zombie shooting game any longer. These type of endings can cause us to evoke new or rare emotions, in itself transferring the context of the media into something else entirely. Bittersweet endings force us to confront our reality in a fantasy realm.

There is too much expectation with the happy, feel-good endings. We’re not given new challenges. Our brains are not allowed to think outside of the tiny rainbow box. It’s only when we are shown something beyond “happily ever after” we see ourselves in a new light. That fantasy with death, hate, anger, vengeance, and yes with love, friendship, and the good things, now becomes our reality that we must confront.

Basically what I’m getting at is in order for us to appreciate a story we need to accept that an ending doesn’t have to be happy, nor is a happy ending always a “good” ending. The bittersweet and challenging endings can be better, if not necessary, to direct the story to an optimal destination.

The bittersweet ending does a few things that add to the impact of a story. It allows us to question the characters, the decisions they’ve made, and even to question ourselves and our reality. We become more invested in the story as we work out its nuances. It forces us to think outside of what’s expected. It’s not perfect for every plot, but it shouldn’t be dismissed simply because it’s not a “happily ever after”.

Example time of where and why this works:

FFXI: Wings of the Goddess. So, I can admit that I cry when deemed necessary. However, I do not cry in movies. I don’t cry reading books. I don’t cry for video games. I know they’re all fictional stories-let’s save the water for reality. This is one of the few endings where I did tear up because of its bittersweet nature and allowed me to put the story into a different perspective, thus better appreciating it.

It goes something like this: You find a portal that sends you back in time to the great Beastman war and the impending reign of the Shadowlord. Someone is trying to alter the timeline so the Beastmen win. You, your PC’s, and your NPC teammate Lilisette and Cait Sith (catmandu) are at the final battle to stop the evil sorceress (who is the adult version of Lilisette from a parallel dimension). The sorceress is defeated, and in her weakened state is able to convey her intentions to Lilisette-they both want to make the future a better place. (She’s bad, but she’s doing it for the right reasons.) Lilisette sacrifices herself to save the both worlds, and everything is right again.

Ok. Time to cry like a baby. Lilisette, this adorable, spunky, kick-ass teenager leaves you, her family, everything that she knows, to save two worlds. What’s worse is only you know about it. She becomes erased from the timeline. Heartbreaking stuff, and truthfully I prefer this ending. It’s sad that Lilisette is gone, but I wouldn’t want the happiest version. This ending gave me more appreciation for the story than anything else could have. I wouldn’t want Lilisette to continue existing in my realm. She needed to sacrifice herself and her happiness for everyone else to live. The “happily ever after” ending would have been a cop-out.

Infamous: This one is a kick in the pants for Cole. He is carrying around a lot of baggage when heading into the final fight. First! The entire disaster that has locked the city from receiving any help from the outside world, or the government is entirely pinned on him and his newfound super powers. Second! He goes through a series of breakups with his girlfriend (who loves him, but hates him because her sister died probably because of his powers). But guess what? She dies. Third! His best friend betrays him. And that’s the good ending. Seriously. That’s the good one. You save the day, but at what cost?

Brutal honesty. If we were in that same situation, we’d be expected to confront the same set of problems. No food. No power. No water. Gangs roaming the streets. How do we survive? That’s what Cole had to figure out, so of course the bittersweet ending was imminent. Required even. The happy ending of Cole running off into the sunset with his girlfriend would have completely changed the tone and context of the story. Cole needed to find out who he really was, and the only way to do that was to be stripped of everything he cared about and rebuild himself from the ground up.

Fatal Frame: To reference TvTropes.com this series lives and breathes the bittersweet endings. But in retrospect, that is what makes the games worth playing. We want to see what twisted ending they came up with. The games, in general, are scary. Very dark, demonic, and horrifying. It is a guarantee that someone will lose something, someone, or themselves, and we work through the journey as part of process. We reach the end where Miku leaves her brother behind, or Mio killing her sister. The course we take during the game is our means of salvation, bringing deeper meaning to these endings. As twisted and bazaar as they may be, we want to make it to the end to see what the developers concocted this time. Our maze of horror leads us to our reward: a very bittersweet end.

Shadow of the Colossus: I know people who will play that game for months on end. It’s an incredible game unlike any other out there. Your quest is to revive a girl in this mystical land, full of giant monsters. We want to believe that there is a happy ending from such a simple story.

But you know what happens? Wander dies just before the girl is revived. His body isn’t left to rest in peace. Instead it becomes a vessel for Dormin, who warned you from the very beginning that this was going to happen. And then people get sucked into light. Stuff happens. It all becomes a blur. The last thing we see is the revived girl holding a child that we are led to believe is this reincarnation of Wander. But apparently the game hints that the girl is just going to die again. And guess what? Wander will grow up and he’ll repeat the same quest again. You’re basically in this eternal loop of saving the girl, whom you never see or speak to again beyond your infant years.

Why does this bittersweet ending work? It propels a simple story into something much bigger then itself. It’s not longer a “save the girl, save the world” now we are forced to contemplate the circumstances of the characters on a deeper level. And just to throw another bittersweet-bend your way, in Wander is able to break the circle of life/death/rebirth, either himself or the girl will be under perma-death. You can’t stop the cycle without losing something in the process.

Mass Effect 3: Very simple here. Pick a color. Sheppard dies, the relays are destroyed, the Normandy crashes, and lots of casualties…but! the galaxy is saved and the majority will live on. Whatever your position is on the ME3 endings (and the numerous plot holes that would make Michael Bay scream like a 14 year old fangirl), they are all bittersweet. From the beginning of the first game, Shep is poised to be the sacrifice. He or she is not allowed to have a happy ending. But in his/her death, the galaxy will keep spinning.

It’s true we don’t see what happens to Shep’s team after the sacrifice other than a very brief memorial for their Commander. We don’t see planets rebuilding, different species coming together to bring an eternal calm to the galaxy. It’s all implied (this is a story for another day: but I feel that this was the reason why fans were pissed; not that Shep dies but that there is no real closure). This was an ending I was expecting from BioWare. Sorry kids. He wasn’t going to get his happy ending, but in his death, the trillions upon trillions upon trillions (are we at a google number now?) of lives will. It was the appropriate ending.

Imagine the alternative, or go look up some fan fiction where I’m sure there are plenty of people who have re-written the ending. A happy Sheppard, few to no deaths, Krogan and Turians arm in arm planting trees: it would have messed up the vibe. I mean, hell, they killed a kid within the first handful of cut scenes. Sunshine and rainbows this game is not. We went into these games knowing full well that Sheppard was probably going to die. In fact he did at the beginning of the second game, and again at the end of the second one (depending upon what choices you make). I can’t imagine a happy ending for ME. It only makes sense to have it be bittersweet.

Ace Attorney: Yeah um, what? AA is bittersweet? Absolutely. In fact all 3 games contain at least one case where it’s a sad, sad, but worthy ending.

AA1’s final case is a rollercoaster of madness. First there’s Edgeworth being accused of murder for a prosecutor, then being accused of killing his father while he was a child. Then there’s Yanni Yogi, originally accused of killing Edgeworth’s father, but ultimately confessed to being the real killer of the prosecutor. His life was so damaged by the original case, his wife committed suicide. Third is Manfred von Karma, having his reputation completely destroyed for his one vengeful act. Fourth Maya coming to grips her sister’s death and finally embracing her duty as a spirit medium. There’s vindication all around, but still sadness. Everyone is damaged by the case in the end in some form or another.

The bonus U.S. case is equally as intimidating. Your client is cleared of murder, however she is charged with interfering with a crime scene, so gets sent away for that.

AA2 tears apart the Fey family as Maya’s Aunt, aka Pearl’s mother, attempts to frame Maya for a murder at their home shrine. Pearl becomes an innocent victim in all of this, watching what happens to her mother, but still thinks the world of her (knowing she’s done something wrong, deserves to be put away, but she’s still mom).

AA3 is just all kinds of jacked up between the Hawthorne twins, the Fey family. Feenie nearly dies. It’s just…yeah. Everything wraps up in the end with Mia’s lost love Godot behind bars. Again, sad. Necessary, but sad.

So what about those games where we do get our happy, happy joy, joy endings? Those are fine. I don’t want to dismiss happy endings. They have their place and can contribute to the enhancement of a story when used appropriately. But the tagging of everything with happies needs to stop. It can corrupt, even destroy the intent of the story. Think about Huck Finn, Lord of the Flies, Birth of a Nation, Casablanca if they had happy endings. Or to put it into a game context, Final Fantasy (pick a game, any game!), Mother 3, Persona, Fallout, Silent Hill, Disgaea, Xenogears and Saga. Their lives, their messages, their worth as entertainment would be far removed. Bittersweet makes sense, and is necessary to promote story telling.


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