You’ve probably had it happen before. You’ve been watching a movie for the past two hours. You’ve followed the hero through his fall and subsequent rise to redemption. You’ve connected with the world and the characters. You’re genuinely attached to the story, and can’t wait to see how it ends.
And then the credits roll suddenly and unexpectedly. You blink. What just happened? Where did the main character end up? Did he succeed? Did any of the other characters make it? What even transpired at the end there? The final scene seemed to make no sense at all. You go home, read up on the plot synopsis of the movie, view a few message boards, and maybe read a blog or two. It seems like everyone has their own version of the ending, and none of them seem to match. You lean back in your desk chair and you sigh with frustration.
Welcome to the world of ambiguous endings.
Endings are not an easy thing to write. Many classic stories have an ending that noticeably just falls flat or at least lacks the power and energy of the earlier bits of story. Part of this is due to the fact that an ending has to be that, an ending. Other times it has to do with the complexity of actually wrapping up all the loose plot threads, which occasionally leads to a rushed ending that feels totally artificial and breaks the suspension of disbelief.
But what about those other endings, the ones that sometimes don’t feel like endings? What about those endings that leave questions unanswered, that leave things floating in the air? Are they good or bad? The answer is, of course, complicated.
The reason I wanted to talk about this was because I recently had an experience with a video game I played where the ending to the story left me unsatisfied. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
There are a lot of ways to go about an ambiguous ending. Some stories have been known to just not explain anything at all, and leave it up to the viewer/reader to fill in the blanks. Others will mostly wrap up the central plot, but maybe leave a certain character’s fate uncertain. Like anything else in writing, it’s not an exact science, nor should it be.
But the question we often come to is “was it good?” It’s hard to say. I will admit that personally, I am not a huge fan of ambiguous endings because, from my experience, they tend to leave you feeling unsatisfied. It’s one thing to watch a movie that just messes with your head all the way through, it’s quite another to watch a movie that progresses conventionally for most of the time only to suddenly jump off the rails thirty minutes from the end. It’s one of those things where it really does depend on how it is done. I have enjoyed some ambiguous endings. For example, Alan Wake has a slightly ambiguous ending, but it wraps up the main plot of the game beforehand, so what you’re actually left with is a cryptic tease for what might be next (which, the way things are going, might never actually happen unfortunately).
So let’s talk about that game I mentioned a little bit ago. It’s called Hotline Miami. The game is primarily about an unnamed man who receives strange phone calls, then goes out and murders a bunch of armed thugs in a building somewhere. It’s a weird and trippy experience, one that actually got me interested in the story after a while. But once I hit the end of the game, I felt unsatisfied. I got no reason for what I was doing. I got no explanation for why my character had a distorted sense of reality and why he was having horrible hallucinations. It just ended.
But once the credits finished, I found myself playing an epilogue as another character. “Finally, some answers,” I thought. But that was when things got even more confusing.
The epilogue has you play as a biker character, a person you encounter in the main story and murder. The biker is receiving the strange phone calls as well, and wants them to stop. So he goes on a quest to figure out who is making the calls and why. When I got to the part where the main character walked in, I was like “well that’s it, I’m dead”. But that’s not what happened at all. In the epilogue, the biker kills the unnamed protagonist, not the other way around.
I was now seriously confused. This scene in the main story happened only halfway through the game, so was I supposed to believe that the second half of the game never actually happened? I really didn’t know. There were some references to there being other masked people like my character, so maybe the person that died was just another version of him or something? But that still didn’t explain why I saw the scene play out in a completely different way before. And in the end, the epilogue didn’t give me many answers because I hadn’t completed the secret puzzle to unlock the “true ending” (a practice that just seems archaic to me…it worked with old Nintendo games and such, but today it just seems silly to force someone to jump through extra hoops just to get the “real” ending). And even then, all the true ending seems to do is reveal what the people who were sending out the phone calls actually wanted to accomplish, which is nice but it still doesn’t explain anything about the main character and his demented psyche.
Maybe I’m being a little too harsh on it. It is true that Hotline Miami is a game that is focused on the gameplay and not the story. The story is just an added bonus so to speak. But that still doesn’t really excuse it from being jumbled and vague. Some people loved the story. I was one of them, up until the end. Maybe that kind of story just isn’t for me.
The point I’m trying to get across is that some stories can pull off ambiguous endings without having to sacrifice a satisfying resolution. Some people love debating what really happened in a story. Some people really like having to fill in the blanks themselves. I do to a certain extent, but when a story legitimately makes wonder what is happening and then doesn’t bother explaining itself it feels like a cop-out in a lot of ways. In a certain respect, I feel like the Hotline Miami story was weird for the sake of being weird. I guess I just found myself far too attached to the story that I didn’t catch on to the fact that it probably wasn’t going to have a satisfying resolution.
Because that’s kinda how life is sometimes isn’t it? Often your questions go unanswered, and then you find even more questions that you didn’t expect.
That’s all I have for this week. Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.