The release of Kingdom Hearts 3 brought with it the end of a story two decades in the making. The Xehanort Saga was over, and the world had been saved from falling into darkness thanks to the actions of Sora and his friends. The credits brought things to a close as a final scene brought everyone back to the place where it all began: Destiny Islands. Peace was restored.
Then the game kicks you back to before the final boss and any of this resolution ever happened.
Video games as a medium have long struggled with endings, an issue partially caused by the difficulty of telling an engaging interactive story when there’s no way of knowing how a player will interact with your world or at what pace they’ll experience your carefully-written story.
It’s a conundrum without a clear answer. A developer could take inspiration from NieR Automata, railroading players for the penultimate hours before instilling finality by deleting your save data. You could go the Red Dead Redemption route, and swap out playable characters entirely. However, these are only two tiny examples in the long history of games, and don’t nearly represent the wide spectrum of ideas writers could use to acknowledge lasting consequences and change.
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Even when games explore the aftermath of such events on the people involved and the worlds they inhabit, it’s often many years later in the form of a sequel, overlooking mundanity in favor of more of the spectacular. Take The Last of Us. The first title left Joel and Ellie needing to find a life for themselves together in this post-apocalypse, yet we never see this concept explored. The upcoming sequel takes place many years later, when so much has already changed, just to put players back in the action without exploring how things got to where they are now.
That’s when I started thinking about Steven Universe: Future. The original Steven Universe cartoon series culminated a five season run by establishing peace in the war between the Crystal Gems (a group of humans and rebellious aliens led by the titular character) and the Homeworld (led by the demigod-like Diamonds)..
The series could have easily ended right here. A large-scale finale quite conclusively brought the conflict to a close, and the forces threatening Steven and his friends were defanged. Yet to stop there would betray many themes the series explored over its multi-year run. Steven Universe was always more about the aftermath of conflict, than it was about any single adventure itself.
Wandering the New World
This concept could easily be translated into modern story-driven games. After all, the idea of exploring a world beyond its main story is increasingly ingrained into how many games are designed. Side content in titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild exists as a chance to inject variety into the gameplay and avoid bogging players down in the main quest. While some events are mostly for fun (e.g. collecting Korok Seeds), other events can provide greater context and meaning to the world Link is exploring, such as with Tarrey Town.
What if some of this side content was extracted from the main game and transformed into content which explored the land of Hyrule after Link saves Princess Zelda? The game teases players with Link and Zelda wandering off together to help along the resurrected world… before the game itself reverts back to before the final boss fight.
I’d happily remove half the game’s shrines for a short, post-game story that explored Zelda’s attempts to rebuild Hyrule. She could visit the different settlements of people Link met on his adventure, assisting them as they try to rebuild, restoring the land to its former glory and bringing everyone together.
One of the few disappointing elements of Breath of the Wild was its light story. Even when the DLC expanded on this, it came in the form of flashbacks from before the events of the original plot. It did little to flesh out the people involved, much less the people alive in its modern era. Princess Zelda’s active role in Hyrule’s protection before the rise of Ganon was a fascinating idea. But it was barely touched on in either the original game or its DLC, to the title’s detriment.
The New Mundane
Seeing Zelda receive a more prominent role as she actively seeks to rebuild her kingdom and fix its problems could not only explore Zelda’s character, but develop this new take on Hyrule even further. The ending already teases this. The trailer for an upcoming Breath of the Wild sequel opens the door to it further. And an epilogue could have elevated an already spectacular game to new heights.
This brings me back to Kingdom Hearts 3. The title’s recently-released ReMind DLC actually does give this saga an epilogue. It takes place one year after the main game, before any new major adventure had begun.
It’s a flawed take on the idea, since it mostly exists to provide optional boss fights more than to explore the world of the series. However, it does attempt to address the impact of Sora’s final battle on the world and characters of Kingdom Hearts 3. Brief mentions of Roxas’ and Xion’s life in Twilight Town. These are attempts to address how a new daily life is established, while the search for Sora shows that a happily ever after like the one showcased on Destiny Islands doesn’t always pan out once reality sets in.
Taking Our Next Steps
Sure, this is a limited example. Yet it’s a sign that games have the potential to deliver additional side content that further engrosses players in a world — not just a single adventure — while allowing them to experience the consequences of their actions.
As we enter a new generation of gaming over the next 12 months, new hardware on the horizon makes the thirst for new experiences as strong as ever. As developers experiment with the extra power at their disposal, there’s still room to toy with how stories are told. The interactive nature of games allows players to dive into a world in way no other medium can. However, this potential is woefully underutilized by restraining storytelling to movie conventions — not even dipping into tools laid out by TV shows like Steven Universe. Just because the story’s over doesn’t mean worlds and people don’t change — even if it’s in relatively mundane ways.
As worlds get more complex, the ways in which we interact with them should also change.