Do the Ends Justify Never Starting?

Rohan posed the question of “Would You Recommend a Work With a Disappointing Ending?”

But I don’t know how that would work for other series. The canonical example in gaming is Mass Effect. I don’t think I’d recommend only playing ME1 and ME2. Maybe one could say that you should play the series, even though the ending is very disappointing.

Television-wise, I understand Game of Thrones had a similar issue. I did not watch it, but many fans disliked the last season. Would you still recommend the show?

My answer is: it depends.

First, how bad is the ending? Some endings are disappointing compared to the brilliance that came before. Some end with a whimper, possibly due to budget cuts or outside reasons. Other endings are so awful that it poisons the memories and joy you experienced up to that point. Obviously the latter is not something you want to be recommending.

Second, how good is the rest of game/book/etc? Is it possible to be worth experiencing for that alone?

With the Mass Effect series, I would agree that the originally-designed ending was poor. But between the enhancements and just perspective in general (10?! years later), I am now inclined to believe that the game “ended” well before the last fight. For what is an ending, if not a desire for closure and/or emotional payoff? Even with the wounds of the original endings still fresh, I said this back in 2012:

Bioware cannot take away the feeling of immense depth with Mordin, when the Salarian stereotype fell away to reveal a reservoir of guilt for necessary evils; a doctor moved to inflict harm, faced with impossible choices. Bioware cannot take away my own feeling of guilt when I heard Kaiden’s “Belay that order!” command repeated in the forest dream sequence; a sacrifice I readily accepted at the time to save a woman I had feelings toward and ultimately passed over. Bioware cannot take away EDI and Joker and all the other hilariously poignant moments in the entire series, but ME2 in particular. Bioware cannot take away the bromance with Garrus, or the absolute struggle I had in choosing whether to intentionally miss that shot or not.

In that same post, I talked about the Wheel of Time series which, at the time, had not been completed. But it also didn’t matter, because I experienced a moment in the 9th book that was so perfect, so cathartic that it justified my time spent. Compared to that build-up and release, the actual ending was merely perfunctory. Which was fine, because the author died and someone else had to write it. But even if he was still around (or they followed his notes exactly) it would not have mattered that much to me because I got the payoff for reading the books already. Anything else was just gravy.

For something like Game of Thrones… that shit is hard. Again, show me another low-magic medieval fantasy I can even compare it to (the Witcher these days, I guess). There were also a lot of satisfying character development throughout the series. Between those and the amazing battle sequences, I would recommend Game of Thrones to just about anyone remotely interested. And yet, I also believe the ending was so bad that it basically poisoned my memories of the show. That same character progression was thrown in the garbage for arbitrary reasons, by studio executives who were hungering to direct Star Wars. Which they didn’t end up doing, by the way, so triple-whammy right there. Or perhaps, bullet dodged?

The more I muse on this, the less it seems like the ending should be the deciding factor.

Consider something like Firefly, which just sort of gets canceled. Or Evangelion, which ends bizarrely due to budget reasons. And I’m assuming that we’re not counting melancholy endings like with the His Dark Materials series. Or the ones that will never actually be completed, like the Kingkiller Chronicles or A Song of Ice and Fire. Do we just not recommend any of these things? Would you consider yourself better off for having not experienced the disappointment? Are there really so many more good games/shows/movies with superb endings out there that afford you the luxury of avoiding the bad ones entirely?

Maybe there is. If so, I would like to know where the list is so I can start working my way through them. But if we’re honest, I think most endings – assuming we even reach them – are just… sorta there. Which is probably the ideal, considering the baseline experience was obviously good enough to shepherd the audience to said ending. I would say the grid of possibilities looks something like this:

So I would argue, again, that the baseline experience is really the determining factor as to whether something should be recommended or not. That is, unless you think there are actually enough great experiences out there in the world that we can exclusively stay in the upper-left side of the grid. In which case, damn dude, stop hiding that shit under a bushel and let us know what they are.

Posted on February 1, 2022, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Read all the WoT books but not recently, what in book 9 happened that was so major that you enjoyed? I do remember, since I read them more recently, that the actual ending was good, but then I love Sanderson.

    Overall I think the longer something goes, the harder it is to have a great ending. Only shows I can think of that were amazing all the way through are Breaking Bad, and to a lesser extend Mr. Robot (the middle seasons of that are simply ok, but season 1 and the final are great IMO). Usually there are too many lose ends to tie up, and if any of those isn’t great, it sours the ending.


    • Feels a bit silly typing it out, but: when the girls really understood the pain the MC had been going through all along. It’s like nine books of pressure I hadn’t realized that was building up, till it finally released. I enjoyed everything else too – aside from the first book, as I hate “walking through the woods” fantasy tropes – including Sanderson’s parts.

      I tried getting into Breaking Bad a few years ago, but I couldn’t get over the decision to NOT get treatment in like the first episode. I know it’s kinda the whole point of the character and show, but still. I think I got through the first two seasons anyway before fading away. Finding a gas mask in the desert was the end of the last episode I watched? Although I do remember some junkies stealing an ATM…


      • Looked at book 9 in the wiki, forgot the ending to that one, and figured that was the part you liked. Your point is interesting as I totally don’t recall that.

        I’m re-reading and finishing book 1 now. I recall liking it a lot, not really liking it that much now. Wonder how book 2+ will go.


  2. I find the whole question unconvincing. Does anyone actually read/watch/play/listen to anything specifically for the ending? It seems like an exceptionally narrow viewpoint to take. Don’t we just need a few good bits here and there to make it worthwhile? All it takes for me to feel something’s been a good use of my time is a single character I liked, a few good jokes or a song that’s well-used in the soundtrack.

    I can name whole movies where just one single scene made the entire thing worth watching, like this scene from the otherwise unexceptional “Supergrass”. I could come up with a dozen like that, from movies or shows I otherwise didn’t particularly rate. All of them would be worth sitting through just to get to the good scene(s) (And you do need to do it that way because almost always it’s the way the scene falls in the structure of the thing that makes it powerful and memorable – I’m aware that just watching the clips out of context carries almost no weight.)

    Endings, for the plain reason they are the last thing you experience, do color the way you remember the whole experience, that’s true, and you do need some kind of conclusion for sanity’s sake. I’d personally rather have a truly terrible ending than for something just to stop dead, as cancelled TV shows do. I find it relatively easy to just dismiss a “bad” ending as “not the way it would have happened” whereas no ending at all is just so nebulous and empty there’s nothing I can do with it.

    The way any narrative concludes clearly has a major impact on its critical appraisal but not necessarily on the emotional residue the full work leaves behind and certainly not on the immediate moment-to-moment pleasure that comes from experiencing it in real time. I’d never not watch/play something just because I’d heard it didn’t have a very satisfying conclusion. I would definitely avoid something if I knew it didn’t have an ending at all, though.


    • I’m coming around to your perspective, for sure.

      Back in my younger days, I used to write reviews for RPGs on a popular website, and one of the rules was that you had to beat the game before you could write a review. I definitely internalized that notion, spending hours slogging through terrible games just so I could confirm they were terrible. And also “just in case” the ending was able to redeem what came before.

      I’m not actually sure if there is an example of that happening anywhere, ever. And even if there was, would anyone bother?


      • Continuing this chain a bit, I think there is quite a gap between going into something not knowing how it will end and still enjoying the journey vs. actively recommending to someone else that which you’ve seen to conclusion and know for a fact has a sour ending.

        Having gone to the effort of making that distinction, I would say I’m largely in line with both of your thinking that it is perfectly valid to recommend something of sufficient strength if the ending doesn’t keep up with that quality.

        Although the interplay between expectations built up over the course of the narrative and the strength of the ending is interesting too.

        e.g., in your table, of a Great Experience being Amazing, Amazing, OK — I actually posit that at least in some cases (although I’m unsure I could articulate right now when this does or doesn’t apply) that an Amazing, Amazing, OK (ending) journey would actually feel at completion, not great. The higher the expectations built up over the course of the journey, the more one *expects* from the ending.

        Hmm.. Not sure if being clear. Perhaps a summary might be to say, that at least right as you finish, a ‘Good, Good, OK’ journey might actually feel *worse* than an, ‘OK, OK, Good’ experience.

        Going back to the root question of all this though and whether I’d make a recommendation for something I felt to have a good journey but a poor ending?

        Yeah- and Mass Effect is a good example of this. But I would have to provide the caveated warning on the ending, but then go on to stress that the journey and moments within truly do more than warrant the time spent. If just to set expectations correctly if nothing else.


  3. I feel like this isn’t hard. Recommend the good bits, with qualifications on the bad bits.

    I wouldn’t recommend something as superb or excellent unless the whole complete package from beginning to end works, e.g. Arcane Season 1.

    However, I could say Firefly is a good, fun look at a space cowboys setting with likeable characters, with the caveat that the show got cancelled and doesn’t have much of an end. And qualify that Serenity is a more compact movie look at the same setting that has more of a beginning to end payoff.

    I didn’t watch Game of Thrones, but if someone did and liked it except for the last season, say that. Season 1-8 was good, because (reason) but season 9 wasn’t – watch at your own risk or stop and make up your own ending.

    I loved Indigo Prophecy’s intro sequence – it begins so intriguingly with a crime scene and the swapping of perspectives where you realize that how much prep effort you did in scene 1 affects what the character in scene 2 can discern. I enjoyed most of the slow build storytelling up to a point midway where an abrupt time skip occurred and things took a turn for the surreal supernatural, and most people decided that was where the story really derailed and got terrible. I still liked it, with a heavy suspension of disbelief, but recognize not everybody would, so recommendation is play the beginning, which is great, and drop it when you lose patience with it.

    This whole turmoil probably comes about because of a subconscious fixation on completionism. That the whole thing must be completed, and that one rating must apply to the whole package. Ultimately, everybody decides on their own on the binary “watch, don’t watch” decision. You can share your decision, but they might not follow it regardless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, there are multiple elements to this sentiment. We’ve been talking about whether we would recommend a given game/book/etc, but now pretend that we are on the other side of the conversation. I can say “such and such game is worth it for X, but the ending was bad,” but… would I take you up on the soft recommendation for Indigo Prophecy? I’m not so sure. Playing anything these days is a commitment and comes at the expense of other things. Are you going to watch 70+ hours of Game of Thrones, knowing that the final few episodes undo a lot of the great characterization of the previous 60 hours?

      I can say Game of Thrones is worth it, but that’s also retrospective, and likely tinged with sunk costs.

      Then again… yeah. Probably overthinking it all. I guess there is a “risk” that I recommend something that you end up thinking is garbage, and thus you no longer trust said recommendations. But I’m not selling anything so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


      • I dunno, when I recommend something, I’m usually under no illusions that the other party will bandwagon along to the recommendation. I feel like they can make up their own minds based on what’s been described as to whether they might like it or not.

        I expect zero people who want to complete a ‘good’ game experience to take up Indigo Prophecy. But perhaps someone bored of the usual and wanting a different look at something unusual might think, “oh, I can spare a few hours to play the beginning.”

        Same for Game of Thrones – I haven’t watched it because I generally dislike the grim gritty low-fantasy despair of the setting, and it’s inaccessible on my current subscription options. I’m not going out of my way to pay for another sub just for GoT, shiny recommendation or no. However, if it did turn up free to access one day, I might give season 1 a shot based on general recommendations and re-evaluate then.

        If it still doesn’t appeal in my book, then I wouldn’t go further, recommendations for season 2-8 notwithstanding.


  4. One missing part of the discussion : the type of ‘story’. If the story is all about trying to solve an enigma , and the solution is poor, the whole story is trash. If the art is about the progressive change ( relation, becoming adult, …) , a bad final ending does not impact so much. Same if the good part is mostly the ‘scene’ of it ( comedy movies, song, action filled blockbuster).

    Evangelion is the typical exemple : if you enjoy character growth, action scene and nice drawing, the bad end is OK. If you enjoy the search for the hidden truth, you will hate the full anime.
    Worst example : magic trick in a magician show. If the end of the trick fall flat, it is no longer an enjoyable show.


    • Excellent point. I had forgotten to even include the example of worst ending (IMO): the TV show Lost. There was interesting character progression and cool scenes, but the entire premise of the show was about mysteries, and things went off the rails by the end so much it poisoned my entire perception of the show and what I experienced previously. It doesn’t help that the show writers didn’t even originally have answers to the questions they were presenting. Plus, characters were written off/plot dropped due to IRL actor issues. It was a perfect shit storm of epic proportions.


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