PLEASE, STOP WRITING HAPPY ENDINGS

A plea to writers and designers

I’ve been promising a post about this for ages and now I finally have the opportunity to procrastinate on something, so I’m going to do it.

This is a plea to other writers and game designers to start seriously considering the power you wield so that you can use it ethically and responsibly.

A note on nomenclature: I’m going to be preferring the term “narrative” here over “story” because many people tend to have a limited perspective on what constitutes a story. All works of media, even those without an explicit plot, have a narrative: even Pong has a start (when you begin playing), conflict (you want to win), and ending (when you finish playing).

The power of narratives
Narratives, more than anything else in the world, have a powerful ability to shape people’s perceptions of the world around them. It should follow naturally then that people who construct narratives (whether you write prose or design games) should be held responsible for maintaining stewardship over their narratives and ensuring that they’re transforming the perspectives of their readers in an appropriate and ethical way.

To illustrate my point, here’s an exercise. Do you believe that stealing is wrong? Probably. Can you pinpoint the moment in your life when you decided that? Maybe, maybe not. It’s a belief that was ingrained in you through exposure to many narratives that all, implicitly or explicitly, asserted the same message. Perhaps you stole something as a kid and your parents put you in time out, or maybe they hit you, or maybe they lectured you that stealing would get you thrown in jail. These narratives all follow the same basic template: You want something -> You steal it -> Something bad happens and what you stole is taken away again -> You learn your lesson.

It seems like one of the most basic and self-evident truths, but it’s not something that children come equipped understanding automatically. Instead, it’s a lesson that gets taught. Maybe it’s taught many times. When we hear the same message from lots of different people, we start to subconsciously understand it as the way of the world. The more we hear it and in the more different contexts we’re exposed to it, the more universal a truth it seems to be.

Children don’t really have a sense of right and wrong aside from the one they develop by digesting the narratives they’re exposed to growing up. What are property rights? What does it mean that that toy is “mine” and that toy is “yours?” All of this is learned through narratives. We tend to roll our eyes and tune out when people lecture us, but when we’re personally invested in a sequence of events (whether it be through reading a book or experiencing them in reality), we’re wired in, receptive and sympathetic to the outcome. Humans are extremely good at recognizing, integrating, and applying patterns. It’s the fundamental allure of games. Therefore, when we (consciously or not) recognize a pattern in narratives, we start to integrate it into our understanding of the world.

Narratives in fiction
Fiction is an incredibly powerful way of conveying a narrative because we can imagine ourselves in a situation that we might never encounter in reality, allowing us to learn from an experience from the safety of our homes.

The most important part of a story is its ending. Generally, the ending is when the protagonist applies the lesson they’ve learned from the story and either succeeds or fails at achieving their goal. The protagonist is the vessel through which the narrative of the plot is conveyed. What they ultimately end up doing, and what ends up happening to them, becomes the message that readers take away from the work. Captain Ahab and his crew are destroyed by the whale, showing that revenge is a self-destructive voyage. Romeo and Juliet die meaninglessly, showing that surrendering yourself to emotion is harmful to yourself and those around you. Aladdin and Jasmine live happily ever after, showing that all you need to do is become rich and lie to someone in order to find true love.

People laugh when I bring up examples of Disney movies and usually say that I’m overthinking kids’ movies, because Disney is a brand so firmly associated with being kid-friendly that questioning the value of their works is funny. But Disney’s messages are so over-the-top toxic that it’s kind of low-hanging fruit. How about Harry Potter? Voldemort is murdered, showing that killing someone who wronged you is not only okay but necessary, and it fixes all the world’s problems.

Maybe you think it’s acceptable to murder people who do bad things, and if so, I can hardly fault you; it’s such a pervasive message in all of our media that it’s hardly a surprise that so many people accept it. Try to think: why is it that you believe that? Can you remember when you started to think that way? Narratives are powerful. They shape our worldview in ways so subtle that we don’t realize they’re doing it. We incorporate their messages into our identity and defend them, even without knowing where the belief came from.

Happy endings
Whether we intend them to be or not, all narratives are inherently argumentative. Most sports movies argue that the path to victory is through lots of tough practice and teamwork. But is that really self-evident? Can’t you normally overcome someone who’s better than you by cheating? And so these movies often have a subplot where someone gets caught cheating and they suffer for it, arguing that cheaters never prosper. Sometimes, the good guys win even though the opponent is cheating to show just how strong their teamwork is.

But in the real world, cheaters prosper all the time.

As writers, we’re all familiar with the fact that most stories follow the three-act structure. The protagonist starts off with a lesson to learn, fails to achieve their goal because of their ignorance of the lesson, then finally learns the lesson and uses it to solve their problem. The lesson is usually a pretty unadventurous cliche: teamwork is good, caring for others is important, you need to take responsibility for yourself, etc. Picking a good lesson is easy.

But a lot of writers stop there. Just as important as the explicit lesson of the story are its implicit lessons. What methods does your protagonist employ to achieve their goal? What moral choices, large and small, does your protagonist make along the way?

-Does the antagonist die in the end?
-Does the protagonist kill any of the antagonist’s minions?
-Do wrongdoers learn their lesson or are they irredeemably evil?
-Does the protagonist lie and cheat?

All of these are commonly glossed-over and accepted tropes but each one is making a statement about the way the world works. This finally brings me to: what’s wrong with happy endings?

Narratives follow the same basic argumentative form: if you do X and Y, then Z will happen, where Z is the ending. If Z is an undesirable outcome, then the narrative warns you against the dangers of X and Y. But if Z is desirable, then the narrative not only condones doing X and Y in order to achieve Z, but suggests that it’s the “proper” way of achieving Z.

The problem with happy endings is that they’re inherently prescriptive. A narrative with a happy ending is a guidebook, teaching readers the correct way to live their lives. When you write a narrative with a happy ending, you have a very tall order ahead of you: you need to be aware that you’re condoning the protagonist’s methods and everything they learn.

-In a narrative with a happy ending, killing an antagonist condones capital punishment, violence, and war. Just making them dissolve or fade away or otherwise sugarcoating it doesn’t escape this message; you’re still metaphorically killing them.
-In a narrative with a happy ending, having wrongdoers be irredeemable is to claim that rehabilitation is impossible, that once someone has done something wrong that they’re evil for life. This often goes hand in hand with killing them.
-In a narrative with a happy ending, if the protagonist uses deception or trickery, then the narrative asserts that the ends justify the means and that lying and deceit are okay.

And maybe you agree with those messages. If so, then maybe you don’t have a problem encouraging them. But if you don’t, then you need to think strongly about why it is you’re incorporating them into your story. Do you want other people to think that way? Do you want to be responsible for other people thinking that way?

Even if your narrative is completely scrubbed of undesirable messages (which is no small feat), the notion of a happy ending is itself a political statement. In the words of media researcher Ed S. Tan, “a happy ending corresponds to prototypical representations of justice.” If you do the right thing, then you’ll get what you want. If you do the wrong thing, then you’ll be punished.

If you’re unfamiliar with the just-world fallacy, then maybe that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing to you. Consider instead turning those statements around: if you don’t get what you want, you didn’t do the right thing. If you were punished, then you did something wrong. Happy endings reinforce a conservative worldview and implicitly condone victim blaming.

A personal note
I had a pretty rough upbringing and I often turned to books and games as a form of escapism. They offered some solace from the problems I struggled with by reassuring me that if you did your best that everything would turn out okay, and that the people who wronged me would eventually get their comeuppance. But no matter what I did to try to shut out my problems, they didn’t go away. Many of them grew worse as time went on.

As I became more mature and accepting of my situation, it became both difficult and painful to continue reading. There wasn’t a happy ending in sight for me, and the people at whose hands I suffered were never any worse for it. They most certainly didn’t learn a lesson. I struggled with relating to the books that everyone else loved because I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile what they said about the way the world worked with my personal experience with it.

Sometimes, I wondered if I deserved it, if I had done something wrong, or if there was something just “wrong” about me that made me deserving of everything that happened to me. It might sound silly if you’ve never been through it, but I’m sure others who grew up with tough childhoods can relate. It’s easy to accept difficult and painful situations as a part of life as a coping mechanism, and when you do, you’re faced with the need to explain it to yourself to make your view of the world consistent. Because our narratives teach us that bad things happen to bad people and that good things happen to good people, often the only way to resolve this paradox is by wondering if you’re one of the bad people. I felt ashamed, guilty, and worthless.

One of my most powerful childhood memories was when we read Bridge to Terabithia in school. It was a really shocking and upsetting book, and it was one of the first works that really challenged the way I had been taught to look at the world. It was the first time a story spoke to me. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people, for no reason at all. Everyone cried when we read it, but I was overjoyed. Maybe there wasn’t something wrong with me after all, and maybe I didn’t deserve everything that happened to me.

I credit works like that with starting to bring me out of the deep depression of my childhood. As books with moving endings tended to be way above my reading level or too serious/literary for my tastes, this was when I started getting really into games, particularly RPGs, where I could find the drama and tragedy that resonated with the events of my life. I developed a more nuanced way of looking at the world and I began questioning fundamental assumptions about the nature of good and evil (like if they even existed!).

Responsibility
I struggle a lot with writing happy stories (if you’ve played any of my games, this should come as no surprise). When I was young, I just couldn’t relate with happy characters in any way except intense jealousy, and even now I struggle to see happy characters as anything but shallow and unrealistic. But now, remembering the struggles of my childhood and having spoken with others who shared my experiences, I’ve started to wonder if happy stories are not merely unrealistic but actually harmful.

We live in a world where innocent people suffer constantly at the hands of others who not only are not punished, but reap tremendous rewards from it. As a society, we tend to overlook this painful truth because it runs contrary to everything we’ve been taught since childhood. Research has shown that people who believe in a just world tend to blame victims of crimes or to deny they ever happened, because that’s the only way to reconcile what happened with their view of the world. It encourages complacency, to accept that people who are wealthy and powerful must have done something to earn it, and that the poor must simply be lazy.

Given how virtually all narratives aimed at children implicitly condone the popular notion of justice, it should really come as no surprise that beliefs about good vs evil and good things happening to good people are so thoroughly ingrained in our public consciousness. Because of that, when I start to conceive of a happy, none-too-serious, heroic story about good triumphing over evil, I feel guilty. Can I in good conscience contribute to a worldview that’s actively hurting countless people all the time?

It’s easy to invent excuses (“it’s just a story!” “it’s just a game!”) to escape responsibility so that we can happily write whatever kinds of stories we want, but as writers, we wield a tremendous power to transform the world. We need to analyze the stories we’re writing and make sure they’re nudging people in the right direction. When you’re planning out your stories, ask yourself what messages and behavior you’re condoning. Who could your story hurt? Who could your story help?

If you only take one thing away from this, I want it to be that there’s no such thing as “just a story.” No matter how cute, or brainless, or light-hearted a story is, it is making a statement about the way the world is. Your responsibility is to take ownership of that statement and to ensure it’s something that in some way betters the world.

Posts

I strongly support the idea in this article.

I think what you're really saying essentially is... be original.

*Stop having games where the main characters are teenagers.
*Stop having a sword for the main character's weapon.
*Stop having a main character with blue hair.
*Stop having the same tired ''attack, attack, attack'' battle system.
*Stop having a shy girl as a white mage.
etc...

Originality, how I long for you.
This is an absolutely excellent article.

It's easy to invent excuses (“it's just a story!” “it's just a game!”) to escape responsibility so that we can happily write whatever kinds of stories we want


I have to say, I'm pretty sick of hearing these excuses as well. Whenever I sit down to work on whatever concepts I'm putting together, I always ask myself what I want to convey through every aspect of the game as a whole. It wasn't too long ago that I would have happily made something that was "just a story", but... There's a million pieces out there that are just that. I can't find any enjoyment or fulfillment in creating something that doesn't have any meaning anymore, because I started believing that it was both pointless and irresponsible to use art like that.

Glad to see that I'm not alone on the issue.

kentona
tired of toothy mimics. i want a mimic to just fucking deck me
20442
See, your problem is even more fundamental than that. You are trying to ascribe meaning to life, and thus presume that things are deserved or undeserved or have purpose. But the reality is, the meaning of life is to simply exist. It's pretty bleak to think about it, but kind of empowering in a way. And then there is nothing when you die. And existence will continue on. Might as well try to make others feel better and be happy, or take pleasure in the idealistic happy endings! We have the responsibility to help each other out as best as we can. It's not a just world. The ends don't justify the means because there is no end. Every action we do (or do not) take is thing, with their own consequences. And as shitty as your worldview is, remember that we are living in the most awesome time in human history so far. And that everything is truly amazing, if you think about it. Everything is awesome.
slash
I didn't want to wake up 40 years old and working a job that I hate.
3889
I see where you're coming from, but I disagree with the idea that escapism is always dangerous and isn't sometimes a relief from a real world that is likely less joyful. It might hurt for some people to read stories that are unrealistically happy, but for others, it can be inspiring.

I don't believe we as writers always need to represent the world as it is today. Discussing and imagining possible futures, the end result of our lifelong journey, or what could go wrong, can serve as a motivation or a warning. It's something writers have done for years and something the human brain likes to do on its own, anyway. Not everything has to be realistic like 1984 or Wolf of Wall Street, and not everything has to be a typical RPG or a parable about good and evil.

The idea that the real world is not accurately portrayed by the media or by other people is something that should be taught and learned over the course of a lifetime. While I agree that we should write an array of diverse stories and not just rely on common tropes about good and evil, I believe there is a time and a place for fantasy, and that it can be just as good for us in the right doses. I agree that we as writers are responsible for others just by virtue of communicating with them, but I believe we can expect some level of discernment and responsibility from our audience, as well.
Sooz
That's right: make an offering, avert the apocalypse. Far out!
4223
Frogge
"nothing can beat the power of gay"?
7450
The purpose of happy endings is to make the player feel proud for achieving it. So if you miss out on an item, shocking news, the evil king will return a rule the earth. Even though I do like happy endings a bit, I know many people will go crazy if they do not end in a happy way.
I know a lot of people were disappointed in the ending of the witch's house because there was no happy ending. The ending was basically known as ''true ending'' because you get the most information, and for the rest everything just kind of happens and stuff remains unexplained. I thought that was perfect, there is no happy ending, but you can get two sad endings where in one you learn more information so it is sadder, and in the other where the truth is not revealed. Even though I have happy ends in my own games I still support this fully.
An example of something I did is have it so that every character in the game dies, and you can revive one of them. At this point if you make the right decision you will get the true ending, but everyone else will remain dead. You will not be able to bring them back, and everyone will die no matter how you play the games. There is no way to save everyone in the game. Anyway great article!
JosephSeraph
奇跡なゲイパワー♡
7031
author=Alichains
author=Sooz
No.


While this article has actually suceeded in bringing many interesting things to the limelight and I absolutely respect your opinion on this regard and your life experiences, it must be made clear that no human being is like the other.

Stories resonate with people in different ways, you were not the only kid who felt overjoyed that day. And you have no idea of what was actually happening inside your colleagues' minds.

I just say that do what you do, remember to put it heart. Mean it. Don't lie, and mean what you say -- reflect that into your narratives, your creations, and you're etching a vision of the world that is unique to you, and offering a new prism of reality for those who will experience it.

What even is a good ending? What is a bad ending? It seems you still need to deconstruct things a bit further.
unity
You're magical to me.
10910
I like the idea of more diversity and thinking about where you're going in your stories. However, I find the idea that anyone ever was meant to take fiction as some sort of guidebook as extremely off-putting, and the idea that authors shouldn't have happy endings because they're encouraging people to view the real world falsely or anything sounds nonsensical to me.

I had a shit childhood. But I was never under any assumption growing up that I was going to eventually get something better because stories or anything else told me that "I deserved a happy ending." No, even as a child, I understood that stories and real life were very different. And rather than these stories with happy endings getting my hopes up, they instead helped me cope. That's right, these people writing these so-called deceitful "Happy Endings" helped me endure tragedy. They fostered creativity, and allowed me a safe space to imagine and play even while things continued to suck around me.

Not every story needs a happy ending. But if no stories had happy endings, I feel I would be so much poorer for it, and I'm certain that I'm not alone in that assumption.
JosephSeraph
奇跡なゲイパワー♡
7031
As an addendum, I can die right now. A plane can simply fucking crash on my house and burn my whole family. The chances of that happening are statistically bigger than the chances of me wining the lottery.







Yet I still dream.
kentona
tired of toothy mimics. i want a mimic to just fucking deck me
20442
But, did you deserve to be struck by the plane?
unity
You're magical to me.
10910
No, it was me who deserved it. But it hit Jo instead and also started a sequel to Donnie Darko.
Red_Nova
The all around prick
7565
There's a place in storytelling for all kinds of endings, happy or otherwise. To deny a type of ending would be to deny that particular worldview, a sentiment that directly contradicts what you're trying to say in this article.

I would say that the reverse of your argument is also true: Adding in tragedy just for tragedy's sake doesn't make a statement other than the developer is a twisted human being and wants nothing more than to make other people as miserable as he/she is.

Instead of a strictly happy ending, I'd lean more towards a fulfilling ending. The type of ending that isn't happy just for happy's sake, but an overcoming of the character's struggles. A trial by fire that enables the characters to grow, develop, and become more than just an on-screen sprite. Players who take direct control over such characters do more than just watch them go through those struggles. They struggle along with the characters. If things don't end well, establish why they don't end well.

Don't just go for the cheap, "Well, they died because of one screw up at the end." That's very fulfilling. Take Shadow of the Colossus for example. There was absolutely no way that game could have ended any other way than it did. Otherwise, it would have been incredibly unfulfilling. Imagine, if you will, that Mono was never a character in the game. If Wander just came into the world by himself for no other reason than he was bored, but his ultimate fate remained unchanged, then players would leave the game with a big WTF over their heads. Why? Because it wasn't fulfilling. Context, reasoning, and coherent wrap-up will make all endings, good or bad, fulfilling.

If you want to get more out of a video game's story than just "good guy beat bad guy", then, instead of cutting the happy endings, go out of your way to make the players EARN them. Simply taking a back seat and watching the plot unfold in front of you shouldn't be the way to have everything end happily for everyone. Suikoden 2 and Persona 4 are the first two games that come to mind that nail this approach. If you stop thinking and just let the game unfold itself, you will get an fulfilling ending. Only by taking the lessons the game tries to teach you to heart and acting on them will you get a happy ending. And you only have yourself to thank, not the game.

If you only take one thing away from this, I want it to be that there’s no such thing as “just a story.” No matter how cute, or brainless, or light-hearted a story is, it is making a statement about the way the world is. Your responsibility is to take ownership of that statement and to ensure it’s something that in some way betters the world.

And how is the idea of things getting better if you work hard enough not one that betters the world? How is the idea of overcoming the challenges placed in front of you in order to achieve happiness not a powerful life lesson that you can take to better yourself as a human being? How is accepting the tragedies that occur in your life and, instead of wallowing in despair, using them to become a stronger, more durable human being not a tool that will help you in the real world?

Plus, what exactly is wrong with shutting your brain down for a while and just surrounding yourself with fun and cheerfulness? It's safe to assume that most of us here are very aware of how cruel and unfair the world is. To refuse the idea of something good happening to you is not only extremely depressing, but also a strong sign of mental illness. Imagine if I came to your house every hour and just shouted, "You suck. You're worthless. Just die." Every hour. Every day. Every week. Every month. Every year. Would you not, at some point, shout back, "Shut up!" to me?

For some people, a happy ending isn't a denial of the way the world works. It's the only way they can get by.
Frogge
"nothing can beat the power of gay"?
7450
Holy shit this article is like the next big thing
kentona
tired of toothy mimics. i want a mimic to just fucking deck me
20442
happiness is serious business
Ratty524
The 524 is for 524 Stone Crabs
12637
First off, I DO commend you for this article because it offers a lot of insightful, thought-provoking ideas in relation to the power of narrative, and it encourages being aware, as artists and storytellers, that everything we put on paper or a computer screen sends a message to the viewer and to accept responsibility for it.

However, the major flaw with this whole ideal is this: How do you make non-happy endings work in a game?

Maybe in more narrative-driven games like RPGs or Visual Novels this could probably work, but games, by their very nature, exist as a diversion for people to have fun with. Part of that fun comes from the player feeling satisfied with their choices and decisions, so a reward for making "good" decisions is almost mandatory.

Take any platformer or fighting game for instance. Those genres tend to have weaker narratives because narrative isn't the focus to begin with. It's about your hand-eye-coordination and being able to navigate through obstacles. The biggest threat actually isn't the bad guy stated in the manual with those games, it's in the player's own level of skill. When you have an ending that sucks or is obtuse in a game focused on gameplay, and I can say this from my experience playing games, it makes it feel like all the intense crap you did to get to that point was for nothing, which is infuriating. "But hard work for little reward also happens in life" you could argue, but that's a point where you have to think "Why am I playing a game that represents something I experience every day of the week? Can I just not play this game in order to get a taste of what real life has to offer?"
unity
You're magical to me.
10910
The perfect game: "Thank you, Mario. But the Heat Death of the Universe is in another castle."
Ratty524
The 524 is for 524 Stone Crabs
12637
author=unity
The perfect game: "Thank you, Mario. But the Heat Death of the Universe is in another castle."
lol exactly! xD

EDIT:
This is actually a good "bad" ending:
I also believe more games should reflect on the consequences of the player's decisions and try to promote critical thinking in the audience.

I'm just awful at writing and actually making shit so I ended up making a game where you punch a thing literally called √Evil