I can think of three general ways to end a video game. Firstly, there are games that don’t have a plot or a story to even end: think of multiplayer first-person shooter/battle royale games like Fortnite, Apex, or Black Ops IV. You can probably toss simulation and puzzle games into this category too; Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t have a plot or an ending. You just fly around and when you’re done you’re done. The same is true for Tetris. The second way to end a game is to, well, end it. These games have a plot and story and obviously the developers have to wrap it up somehow. There are a few ways to do this as well. They can end the game in a “harsh” where you can no longer play the game. Think of Dark Souls or Bioshock Infinite. When the game is over, the game’s over. There’s also the “open-ended” endings in this category where despite beating the main quest you are still able to play the game. Skyrim is a great example here. You kill Alduin, save the world, yet you can still wander around and do shit afterwards. These games have a clear ending to the main quest. There is a point where you’ve clearly beaten the game.
By far the worst way to end a game is to have no ending. I’m not talking about the plotless multiplayer games from above either: I’m talking narrative and story-driven open world games that are so open ended there is no ending. The Sims, Kerbal Space Program, Minecraft, and Stardew Valley are all great examples of games with no endings.
On the surface this all sounds like a great idea: with a game that is open and neverending you can play forever, right? No. These games do have endings even if they’re not explicitly stated; their endings are much more depressing when you think about them too much. These games end in the in-game equivalent of existential depression: the eventual realization that there is nothing else to do in the game. After the challenge is over, you have everything you could ever want or need, accomplished everything you’ve wanted to do, what option do you have besides giving up?
Not that these games lack story or gameplay progression which is usually in the form of crafting progression and/or unlocking items. The whole point of Minecraft survival mode seems to be unlocking items and finding materials. A good example are nether portals. To create these you usually need to craft a diamond pickaxe and diamond is one of the rarest things to find in the game. You need to bury deep within the ground to even find diamond, so unlocking a nether portal (to unlock all of the nether-unique items) takes some work. It gives you something to progress towards. Even if there is no actual narrative story, you have something to drive you further into the game.
Stardew Valley — the main inspiration of this post because it depicts a relatively believable story, farming — uses items to drive progression. The requirement to water your crops everyday adds a huge incentive to upgrade the watering can, which costs money and ores, which in turn requires a large farm, which itself requires an upgraded watering can, which requires exploring the mines, which requires the item to smelt ore. This singular goal — upgrade the watering can — is one of the primary struggles in Stardew Valley. As I hope you can understand now, upgrading the watering can involves hours of gameplay and progression. Carrying the watering mechanic to its limit are the sprinklers; items that automatically water crops daily without you doing a damn thing. Obviously they are a massively sought after item. The best sprinkler requires iridum, a ridiculously rare crafting ingredient that is most easily found in the Skull Cavern. Stardew Valley is fantastic by giving you natural gameplay incentive to progress throughout the game. Most items you unlock make the game easier or your farm more efficient. Progressing through the game is just a struggle to make your life easier!
These games work amazingly well until you run out of incentives to progress. Minecraft is especially terrible because once you’ve built yourself three golden castles towering into the sky, then what? You literally have everything you can even need or want in the game, so what do you do? The same is true in Stardew Valley as it’s another one of the “endless games” that you can play for literal years in-game with no completion. Once you’ve developed the community center and have millions of dollars, then what? When you have a massive farm that prints money all by itself with minimal effort and input from you, then what? After you’re married and had a few kids, then what? Eventually Stardew, and all games like this, reach a point where there is no incentive to play anymore. You’re bored with your in-game life and there isn’t anything else to drive you forward. Your in-game life literally becomes pointless and eventually you simply stop playing. It’s an in-game existential crisis. You question your purpose and what the meaning of all your progress even was. Sure you had fun playing the game, but now what?
It isn’t difficult to allow this dreaded outlook to bleed into your view of life in general. Usually success IRL is a lot more difficult than success in Stardew Valley (imagine trying to have a successful farm on your own IRL), Minecraft (imagine trying to live in the woods and survive for years with absolutely nothing except what you can personally create), or in any other “neverending” game, but the slight and ever-present sense of nihilism depicted in the end of these games always seems to underscore life itself. I just don’t think we ever get to that point in life where you can ask yourself “now what?” Life is so difficult, complicated, and multifaceted that I don’t think anyone can ever feel like they’ve “beaten life” like you can in a video game. There’s always something else to challenge you. But still, some part of me imagines this happening someday especially to certain people. Those who have a nice house, so much money that they don’t know what else to spend it on, and where life appears to have been beaten. I’m imagining this is how Olympic athletes and sports stars feel: their lives are so one-dimensional and filled with a singular goal that once it’s achieved — they win the gold medal or the Superbowl or whatever — that they might feel this crushing and final question of “now what?” that I always feel at the end of certain video games. I feel really sorry for these people and I don’t know if I’m lucky or not by thinking that I’ll never reach the end of what I want to accomplish in life. I don’t think I’ll ever be asking myself “now what,” but what if that means I never reached the end of the game? Like I hadn’t properly beaten it? What if that means I’ve failed?