The 10 Best Endings in Video Games
It's about the journey, not the destination. But these destinations ruled!
There are some endings that just stick with you. Whether it’s the end of a movie, a novel, or a board game, there are some moments that just stick in our brain. But video games can take that to another level. The experience of taking on the avatar of a player character and navigating through a complex world, sometimes for over 100 hours, can really attach a player to a story. And when the ending to those stories is particularly great, it can stick with you for years. In that spirit, here’s ten of the best video game endings we’ve ever experienced.
Red Dead Redemption
Reader, I loved him. John Marston is probably the first video game character who buried his way deep, deep into my soul. Over the course of 20 or so hours, I feel in love with that brazen cowboy-man in a way I may never feel for another video game character. To this day I want to cry when I watch his dead body fall to the ground, defending the home that was promised to him and his family, in exchange for the grim work he carries out over the course of Red Dead Redemption.
I wanted those men dead, who shot my John like that. And thanks to one of the greatest video game endings of all time, I got that opportunity. When John dies, the player takes over playing as his son, Jack. In just three short years Jack has grown from a boy into a young man. And it is through that young man that the player picks up John’s guns one last time, and kills the man who shot his father. God, I love this game so much.
Nerd It Here First is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line is one of those games I am always hesitant to talk about. On the one hand, Richard Pearsey and Walt Williams have written an absolute masterpiece. But on the other, if you don’t know about it by now — stop reading this and go play it, because I would hate to spoil the ending. On face value, Spec Ops presents as a third person shooter that blurred into all the other shooters released around the same time. But as the game progresses, it becomes clear something is amiss. This game highlights the hellish nature of war and the ending flips our trust in the protagonist’s perspective long before Call Of Duty: Black Ops ever had a chance.
Chrono Trigger is a game with so many endings that we could do an entire article just ranking those1. So, with out going into way too much detail, let’s focus on the fact that a video game with over a dozen possible endings came out in 1995. It was running on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. And it was still able to log player activity and store that data, using it to change your route through the game as you navigate the world. This is a level of innovation in interactive story telling that I’d — honestly — be astonished to see in a game today, let alone before consoles had access to the internet.
What Spec Ops does in its ending Prey actually manages in its beginning, immediately filling the player with unease and distrust in what they were seeing. A handful of hours into the game though, and we as players are very confidently finding and killing hidden mimics. We know what they were capable of — disguising themselves as common objects — and that causes us to question every chair and coffee mug on the space station. Pretty soon we find ways to turn their power into ours.
At this point, Prey asks a simple question: Once we have the enemy’s power, what are we willing to do with it? The ending of the game literally sits the player down and interrogates us via all the NPC’s we’ve met along the way, critiquing our choice and the logic that went into making them. It was surprisingly introspective and not something you expect when overcoming a space station full of aliens.
Okay look, would you kindly hear me out? I know, when we think of Bioshock, we tend to think of the all time greatest second act reveal in any video game ever. The true nature of the player’s relationship to Andrew Ryan, accompanied by the truth about Atlas, turns the entire game on its ear for the final act. But for my money, the build up of that final act, as well as the entire moral arc of the game, culminates in an incredibly perfect set of endings, depending on what decisions the player made throughout the game. Much like Prey, the ending of Bioshock forces the player to reckon with their choices. But it also sends you immediately back into Rapture to see what happens if you make all the other choices instead.
Batman: Arkham City
It’s a known rule of IP story-telling that you can’t kill any of the main characters. How else will they come back for the sequel?! And that’s what makes the ending to Batman: Arkham City so unexpected. The decision to end the game with The Joker’s death, and to leave players with the image of a sad Batman holding the body of his long time nemesis, is probably the most interesting thing that’s happened in any Batman story since Batman Begins. The weird mix of satisfaction and sadness at the end of that game is unlike anything I’ve seen made in a AAA title like this one. Unfortunately, the effect wasn’t nearly as great when the same studio tried to push that envelope even farther in Arkham Knight a few years later. Turns out it’s not as cool when Batman dies.
Master Chief is a legendary character. It is genuinely difficult to find a video game character that matches his badassery, god tier combat prowess, and near perfect one-liner delivery2. Master Chief is superhuman in almost all aspects. And in their final goodbye to the fans of the franchise — before handing off the reigns to 343 Industries — Bungie, Inc. humanized their legendary Spartans.
Noble Six is slower and doesn’t jump as high. They take more damage, and deal less of it. The enemies in Halo Reach replenish, because no matter how many Covenant you kill, there’s always reinforcements just a drop ship away. Halo Reach’s ending is impactful because all of the Spartans have to sacrifice to give humanity one more day to survive against an unending adversary. It’s the perfect prequel, adding layers to an already beloved character without ever showing him. The ending of Reach gives Master Chief’s character even more purpose in the later games. The final mission of Reach has the player fight an endless hoard, with limited ammo and only what they can pick up from other fallen Spartans to survive. Eventually they loose the battle, but they already know that they’ve won the war.
What makes the ending of Portal 2 so narratively satisfying is that how well it works within itself. You play as a woman trapped in a human research and testing facility. Once upon a time, the facility was used to prepare U.S. government agents for work as inter-dimensional operatives. But the project was shelved, and now the facility’s artificial intelligence is desperate for someone to research and/or test. So both the character and the player learn to navigate the labyrinthian Aperture Science Laboratory.
Over the course of the game, you both learn how the facility works. “This is a gun that shoots portals.” “The portals can only appear on panels covered in moon dust.” “Jump through one portal, come out the other.” “Oh no this big robot monster wants to kill me.” You know, the uzshe. By the time you get to the final boss fight, the counterintuitive physics of Cave Johnson’s Aperture Labs has become second nature to both player and protagonist. In a moment of quick thinking, the player launches her nemesis into outer space3 and becomes unto a god to a bunch of cute little robo-guys. Click above to see the whole thing for yourself.
Splinter Cell Conviction Co-op Campaign
Splinter Cell Conviction may be a surprising addition to this list, and the co-op campaign even more so. To be clear the single player campaign isn’t bad — just sort of generic for the stealth shooter genre. The gameplay is fun in both single player and co-op but it’s not why its making this list. The single player and co op campaign are different stories, with the co-op story leading into the events of the single player campaign. But at the end of its six hour run-time, it presents an unexpected final boss: your co-op partner. Twelve years later, I still vividly remember experiencing this shift first hand and it was such a fun and clever idea I had to mention it here.
There is no ending more brutal and gutting on this list than the ending to SOMA. The end of this game is like getting the wind knocked out of you by the hand of God. Players begin the game as a man named Simon living in modern times. But when he wakes up 100 years in the future, at the bottom of the ocean, he has some questions. Over the length of the game, players peel away the many layers of the games futuristic sci-fi narrative.
This is a world in which consciousness can be cloned. And humanity’s last chance for survival is to get all of these cloned consciousnesses onto a satellite’s mainframe and out into space. And that’s exactly what happens. In the final, nail-biting moments of the game, Simon uploads a clone of his own consciousness onto the satellite and launches it into space. But — rather unexpectedly — the original version of his consciousness is left to die in the cold dark of the ocean floor. Woof.
Note to self, write Chrono Trigger Endings Ranked and link it here.
Hi, Ryley here, writing footnotes in Fred’s part of the article. I’d like to humbly put forth Doom Guy as a nominee for cooler, more bad ass guy in green armor.
I think the technical term is “spaces” them.