The world ends with lazy plot devices
Saving the world. We’ve all done it. Whether it’s from the clutches of an evil villain or from absolute destruction brought on by an evil meteor, saving the world is a regular part of video games. Sadly, it’s also an incredibly unsatisfying part. Oftentimes, the “save the world” ending feels like a tacked on obligation rather than a compelling feature of the narrative. Even good games (Persona 3 comes to mind) can’t seem to make it work, yet developers always add it in. Why? Because it’s safe.
The end of a video game is the culmination of what a developer did, and didn’t do, throughout their game. If they’ve created complex characters, a compelling narrative, and an interesting world, then the end of the game is the chance for the developer to bring it all together in a satisfying way. If the story isn’t strong, then the developer must shove the story to a satisfying conclusion without the materials to make it really shine. Either way, the end of the world mechanic serves the end game’s purpose. It brings the game to a close.
Destroying the world should be viewed as a quick grab for the player’s emotions. As most of the things the player cares about are in the world, threatening said world means that the odds are good that the developer is threatening something the player cares about. Whether it’s puppies, children, or rainbows, the world ending…ending allows the player to invest some kind of emotion into the game by threatening everything and hoping something connections. The problem is that it’s far too general. People do care about the aforementioned things and more, but they’re very poor at caring about nonspecific variations of those things. We would all help an old man struggling up some stairs, but we won’t donate 5 bucks to a charity helping Syrian refugees not die. Still, even this minimal level of emotion establishes a floor to which the gamer’s emotional investment won’t drop below. It ensures that every scrap of connection between the player and the game are marshalled to bring about the conclusion. This is obviously appealing for games with weak stories that need all the help they can get. If they threaten everything, then the player is sure to care about something, right?
The world ending approach also works for better constructed stories. If the developers successfully build an emotional link between the player and their narrative, then the threat to everything is a more potent one. Even then, it rarely has the same impact of the other plot points addressing the specific parts of the game that the players’ care about. In Persona 3, the destruction of Earth felt hollow compared to the trials of the individual students. Developer Atlus spent time developing the students as characters worth caring about and so players invested in those characters. When the world is threatened, the concern is less about the billions dead and civilization’s ruin and more about how these individuals cope with the end. The end of the world still establishes that safety baseline of emotion, but it contrasts poorly with the better fleshed out stories sprinkled throughout the rest of the game.
The only time saving the world matters is when the world/galaxy/universe matters. When a developer takes the time to connect the player with the world they’re developing, then threatening that thing has more impact. The player cares if it disappears because they care about the environment they’ve been inhabiting. They aren’t viewing the world through generic concerns or other aspects of the narrative, but rather caring for the thing being threatened on its own merits. Mass Effect does this brilliantly by involving the player in a richly developed universe with a myriad of stories. Threatening the universe matters in Mass Effect because the universe matters.
If I could sum it up, I’d say that the ending of a game matters when it focuses on the things that the players invest in. Saving the world is a narrative shotgun blast in hopes of hitting some of those things, but it can’t make up for a games worth of inattention. If developers want their endings to have meaning, they have to lay the groundwork before the curtain call.