Every week, Richard Cobbett writes about the world of story and writing in games.
The words "TO BE CONTINUED" need to be taken out, shot, the pieces carved up into tiny little bits, the bits further chopped into dogmeat, and that meat spurned by the mangiest of the city's hounds. No game should ever use them. Ever. Well, I'll make one slight exception - it's okay in an episodic game where, and this is important, the next episode is both confirmed and imminent. Telltale's Game of Thrones for instance, or Dreamfall Chapters. In those cases, they're being stated with warranted confidence. Nothing else though, and that includes episodic games on a wider time-frame, should be allowed to use them.
To Be Continued endings the narrative equivalent of a developer dropping their trousers and farting as loud and hard as they can into their players' faces, despite that sometimes not being the intent. Their official goal is, of course, to end a game on a hook for the next part, but what they actually serve to do is a double-whammy of things that are just flat-out bad ideas - to rip away the hard-won illusion of success (see the classic villain declaring "And now it's time for our TRUE plan!") or justify not finishing the bloody story in the first place (many adventures, though I'll pick on Dreamfall because at least that one is actually finally being finished, and with style.)
Never though is it a good idea. What games tend to be going for here is what's referred to as the 'Zeigarnik Effect', which is that unfinished business continues weighing on the mind. In short, a TBC ending offers a lingering pull effect that isn't usually strong enough to last years and years and years, but is intended to add a bit of a hook. On the surface, sure, that makes some sense. However, it comes with some major downsides in the case of gaming. To simply stop a story in mid-flight is a betrayal of the covenant made between developer and customer, that the story bought into will be the story told. Runaway 2: The Dream of the Turtle for instance ends on one of the most insulting endings I've ever witnessed, in which the cast literally sit on a boat chatting about how they've accomplished basically nothing, including the rescue of the main character's girlfriend which was at the core of the story, and brush off everything from that to dealing with the villains as a story for another day. In the celebrated words of the philosopher Aristotle: Fuck off. The same also applies to last minute screw-yous, like the character ending up in an asylum or wondering if it was all a dream (Realms of the Haunting). That being said, even in those cases, there can be exceptions to the rule. Planescape Torment for instance really couldn't have ended any other way than it did.
On top of this, to simply shrug off achievements cuts to the core of most gaming experiences, rendering an activity that's already just one moment of self-realisation away from collapsing into something sadly pointless. The best thing that a game can end on is always a high, because it's not the last bit of plot that sticks over the potentially years between instalments but the general mood and sentiment attached to the game. If you walk away from a game feeling content and satisfied, the sequel can pick up on that point far better than some last minute betrayal or new impossible odds. Only occasionally does a game manage to pull it off, and in those cases only usually when the impossible odds are a known quantity up to that point. Mass Effect 2 for instance was always going to end with the Reaper invasion, which was fine because that was firmly presented as an inevitability and our goal throughout was something else. Conversely, Command and Conquer 4 had no choice but to pretend the ending of Command and Conquer 3 never even happened, in much the same way that players subsequently tried to forget there was ever a Command and Conquer 4.
To Be Continued endings are bad for developers too though. While making a game, there's no way to know exactly what's going to prove popular, and years of development often mandates major changes or new ideas and directions, to which being stuck with something that was quite likely thrown in just as a shock twist can be problematic when a little more thought decides "Nah". Batman Arkham City for instance ends with the shock reveal of Harley Quinn's pregnancy, making for an almost literally aborted arc when the DLC hurriedly opted to declare that no, that was just a false positive. In another looming moment, we've now been waiting two games for that whole 'Morrigan god-baby' thing to pay off in Dragon Age, to the point that it's now far more an irritation than a tantalising plot detail. Remember when it seemed a key decision?
This isn't to say that games can't end with business unfinished that can be continued into future games. Far from it. It's a great idea to leave a few dangling threads, hints at cool things further in the pipeline, indicators of where the story may or may not go. Ideally though, they're kept more casual. A character disappears on a quest, its resolution perhaps to be important later. The political system of a town cracking under the weight of rebellion, albeit holding for the time being, which it might be interesting to revisit after the inevitable happens. There are so many potential things to play with.
At this point though, we get to the tricky problem of what makes a TBC ending versus what makes a satisfying ending where there is work yet to be done. To pick a non-gaming example everyone will know, look at Star Wars. By the end of A New Hope, Luke has yet to become a Jedi, the Empire is far from ended as a threat, and we've not even glimpsed the Emperor. However, while The Empire Strikes Back absolutely ends on a To Be Continued, the original movie doesn't. Why is that?
In a nutshell, it's about scope, and the story told being the story promised. The threat of that movie is the Death Star, and the hero's journey one of Luke going from farm boy to hero. By the time the credits roll, everything that was set up has been resolved. The princess, rescued. The Death Star, destroyed. As the movie ends, there's much work yet to be done - hello, Zeigarnik - but the loop has been closed. This is the making of a satisfying story that still allows for proper sequalisation, with nothing that detracts from that victory, but endless threads we can get excited about seeing pulled in future.
Games are often very, very bad at this, preferring an extended journey without a specific goal in order to keep the surprises and pace going over the 10+ hours that they're going to last. And that can be okay, they're a different art-form. In general though, the rules need to be the same. There always needs to be a grand goal in mind, beyond 'doing stuff', as well as the smaller-scale ones - something for the main character to be dreaming of, aspiring to, reaching towards, even if the nature of it changes. Should that nature change though, it still needs to feel like an appropriate shift. In Halo for instance, the goal moves from surviving on Halo to exploring Halo to destroying Halo, but all of them still remain a) in the same basic narrative space and b) an escalation of the central exploration goal. It works. Hurrah! But step forwards to Halo 2, and things go wrong. Here, your far more nebulous goal is "Finish the fight." Does the fight get finished? Nope! It pulls an Empire Strikes Back, with nothing whatsoever properly resolved and millions left bitterly disappointed.
Sadly, it's not even the worst case around. Someone for instance thought that this was an ending. How the hell does 'fight terrorists in Vegas' finish with a To Be Continued, never mind the most bland TBC ever? I'm pretty sure it could have ended on a bang, without it needing to be followed with "Terrorists win!"
In short, a good, satisfying ending is in everyone's best interests. For the developers, it rounds off a coherent experience to hopefully be proud of, as well as offering the cleanest possible slate for the next game. For players, it underlines the value of the experience. About the only people who don't like them are, ironically, the people who don't give a particular shit about story, who end up in the weird half-world of dismissing its importance but thinking that leaving players hanging will still bring them back.
And yet, there's a tragedy here as well, because by and large in games, "To Be Continued" is the equivalent of an "And Introducing" credit at the start of a movie. There is no more guaranteed way to ensure a series dies on its arse and is forgotten. Really, about the only thing worse than one of those endings is getting no proper ending at all - the absolute worst thing you can