When most games end, they attempt to wrap up the plot with a neat bow, completing character arcs and leaving plot threads tangled ever so lightly, just to leave enough ambiguity open for a potential sequel. It’s nice! I like it when games feel self-contained, when I can go to bed at night with the entirety of the experience neatly laid out in my mind’s eye like an intricate quilt of motivations and rising and falling action. I don’t have to think anymore, it’s over with, resolved.
But the games that push back against resolution and bury themselves in my subconscious are the ones that stick, for better or worse. Some defy the expected structure of the game and cut things off before they get started, others spin out into surreal nightmare experiments that would keep David Lynch up at night. Because we’re directly involved with pushing the game towards a conclusion, it’s when they attempt to subvert and rattle my senses rather than ride along with them that I feel most vulnerable—and why I’ll always fear Regis Philbin. Find out why in our list of some of the most abrupt, bizarre game endings out there.
Spoiler warning: it should be obvious, but we’re going to talk about some of the most surprising moments in these games, and some are fairly recent, so proceed with caution.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
I remember being pretty dissatisfied with the ending of Metal Gear Solid 5, but in the rearview, I think it’s only because it comes after a slow, repetitive second act when compared to the first. But the big twist is actually pretty cool. In the end, it’s revealed that the player character was in fact not Big Boss, but the “Phantom”, an MSF medic that the original Big Boss used as a front to work behind the scenes. After the helicopter crash in Ground Zeroes, Big Boss took the opportunity to use hypnotherapy and plastic surgery to make ‘you’ a spitting image of him. As a metaphor, it’s a sweet gesture, one that indicates MGS players were an important force in the long term success of the series, and for lore aficionados, it plugs in a few plot holes in its half-century span.
The Stanley Parable - the art ending
In a grand test of patience (and the essential act of playing a videogame), The Stanley Parable’s strangest ending involves pressing a big red button to prevent a cardboard baby from entering a fire. A few hours in and another button is thrown into the mix, this time preventing a cardboard puppy from drowning. Juggling those two buttons for a few more hours will reveal the true meaning of art to the player if they’re patient enough. It’s an interesting test in player motivation, and unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for someone to get through it. Anything for art.
Who Wants to be a Millionaire - Regis flips
Who knew trauma could come in a cereal box? Regis Philbin, host of the once popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire provided his voice and likeness for a free CD version of the game that came with General Mills cereal for a limited time back at the turn of the millennium. But CD Regis has no chill. It’s not just during the player select screen that he runs out of patience with lightning ferocity, Regis loses his shit if you take long doing nearly anything at all. If you don’t type your name, he’ll type “Kathie Lee” and the questions will be easier, and if you don’t answer during the Fastest Finger contest, Regis gets angry and turns the game off. If I spent my formative years living in a dark cell full of Honey Nut Cheerios, I’m not sure I’d have the greatest disposition either, I suppose. Just leave Kathie out of this.
Far Cry 4 - finished in 15 minutes
During the earliest moments of Far Cry 4 you meet Pagan Min, the murky, unhinged antagonist. After a tense scene at the dinner table, he’ll leave to attend to an urgent matter. Most players typically bail at this point—I mean, Pagin licks your mother’s ashes off his finger. I’d bail too. But if you wait it out 15 minutes or so, he’ll return and take you to your mother’s grave, which is where you wanted to go in the first place. So you spread her ashes, feel feelings, and then Min asks if you’re ready to shoot some goddamn guns. Credits roll and the game ends at which point most folks take Min’s advice and start over. I do wonder about the one person that found that ending and returned the game, or possibly felt like it worked and never touched Far Cry 4 again. If you exist, email me.
Silent Hill 2 - Dogs rule the world
There isn’t much to say about the secret dog ending in Silent Hill 2. It’s baffling. By finding the Dog Key and entering the observation room of the Lakeview Hotel, James opens the door to find Mira, a shiba inu, operating a series of buttons and levers. He breaks down, in disbelief that a dog was behind the series of nightmarish events that led him to this point. It’s popularly considered a joke ending, but I’ll die on the canon hill. I mean, the credits are a dopey montage of clips featuring characters from the game set to a song sung by the powerful pooch in a series of barks and yips. It’s adorable, and given the context, absolutely horrifying.
Dishonored - a foiled plot
OK, so this one isn’t a fair entry since it requires taking advantage of some game-breaking glitches, but it’s too funny to leave out. At the beginning of Dishonored, Corvo is framed for the assassination of the empress and kidnapping her daughter. The event sets up the rest of the game, a dozen or so hours of infiltration missions set across Dunwall. At Summer Games Done Quick, how he could prevent the assassination and kidnapping from happening at all, as broken as his method might be. Watch the video to see him work his way toward the assassins before they initiate their attack and kill them, at which point the screen kicks to black. It’s a silly Groundhog’s Day solution to a problem that doesn't’ really need solving, and a funny demonstration of games can be entertaining long after their intent has been exhausted.
Start the video at 16:42:00 to see for yourself. (opens in new tab)
Furi - life in paradise
Before attacking The Stranger, the sixth boss The Song gives him a chance to hang out with her on her floating island Oasis for eternity. If you walk on by, she’ll get angry and attack you, but if you hang out in on the island for a while, she’ll thank you, talk about your lovely future together, and the credits will roll. For a game all about intense, intimate combat, I was pleasantly surprised to find an option hidden in the halfway point that rewards the exact opposite.
Portal 2 - Space!
Portal 2’s closing moments acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a perfect ending. There will always be loose threads, plot holes, and burning questions, so Valve opted instead for a soothing salve: the musical number. After defeating Wheatley by shooting a portal on the moon and banishing him to space—as if this ending wasn’t rad enough—GLaDOS returns to her big robot body and instead of killing you, asks to be left alone. Freedom is imminent, but on the elevator ride up turrets big and small and leopard-printed sing a final farewell song before you’re coughed up into a field of golden wheat with a scorched companion cube for company. Hooray? Hooray.
Inside - the blob
I think about Inside on a weekly basis now—how it uses a slight, subdued color palette and precise animations to communicate more powerful bits of body horror than the best in the biz. Whether it’s the shake of a dog’s head as it rips at the leg of a small boy or the light crunch and irregular fold after miscalculating a dangerous leap, Inside knows how to do discomfort. And no moment demonstrates it better than the final 15 to 20 minutes of the game, where the player character is subsumed into an amorphous blob of writhing, moaning limbs. You help the blob escape the facility, bursting through panes of bulletproof glass, over an unlucky person or two, and eventually through the outermost wall of the facility, limbs scraping and clawing and twisting all the while.
To see such a confusion of familiar human pieces and pained voices come together as something inhuman, and then to help the horrifying inhuman thing achieve a goal is one of the more trying exercises in empathy I’ve experienced in a game. And it worked. After escaping and rolling down a forested hill, the blob comes to rest on the beach. The voices go silent and the limbs go limp. A ray of light splits through the clouds, the waves gently lap at the shore. I felt relief for the creature, glad it finally had a chance to rest. The credits roll and it’s over. Why do I feel good?
Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy - uhhh
I played this game from tip to toe in one or two sittings when it came out and I still can't parse what's going on here. It’s hard to believe that the amazing opening diner sequence wasn’t even close to an indication of what was coming. In the span of a few hours, Indigo Prophecy went from covering up a unintentional murder with police on the way in a timed, consequential adventure game format, to whatever this is. There’s flying dudes with some cyber powers I think. They fight in the air and shoot colored lines at one another. Something about figuring out what to do with his new cyber powers, a big storybook tree, and the credits roll. Someone please translate.
The Witness - Urine Jug: Origins
I have to hand it to The Witness. For a game all about drawing lines, it really carries the theme through in the true ending. After riding the Wonka elevator into the sky and getting the credits, if you continue in a new game, a certain sky-themed puzzle might pop out at you from the very first room you start in. Theoretically, you can ‘finish’ The Witness in the first minute of playing it. After you figure it out, a door opens and you get a behind the scenes, upscale-hotel-looking tour of a previously invisible building. There are some audio logs lying around that speak the credits aloud, and at the end, well.
You pass through the darkness and into the real world via a short video shot by a camera attached to Jonathan Blow’s head. He meanders around the development studio, noticing patterns from The Witness all around him before looking up into the sky as the shot fades to white.