Some Thoughts On Mysterious “WTF?” Endings – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Mysterious endings article sketch

Although this is an article about writing, comics and storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about films and TV shows for a while. There’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious later.

However, I should warn you that this article will contain SPOILERS for both “Battlestar Galactica” and “A Field In England”. It’ll also contain spoilers for my “The Horror Of Hardtalon Hall” comic too (or, at least an explanation for the second half of it).

Anyway, a while before I wrote this article, I finally watched the last few episodes of “Battlestar Galactica“. Although I’d accidentally heard about some of the ending to this show before I actually watched the last episode, some parts of the ending still left me absolutely baffled.

In the ending, one of the main characters (who seemingly returned from the dead earlier in the series, without any real explanation) just suddenly disappears. There’s also a whole sub-plot about “god” and “angels”, which is only barely foreshadowed in earlier episodes. Although it’s a very dramatic ending to a spectacular series, some parts of the ending just make no sense.

This then made me think of a rather surreal film that I watched in 2013 called “A Field In England“. Although a lot of this film doesn’t quite make sense, the ending is especially puzzling.

About the only logical explanation for it is that the main character is trapped in some kind of bizarre time loop… in the 17th century. Either that, or he hallucinated some of the events of the film. Or he died on the battlefield and is possibly in some kind of old-fashioned purgatory. It’s a very puzzling ending to a very puzzling film

For writers and comic creators, mysterious and puzzling endings are a real double-edged sword. One the one hand, they force your audience to think about the ending of the story and to spend quite a while working out what really happened. Because the ending isn’t fully explained, these kinds of endings can make your audience feel curious about your work and more interested in re-reading it to try to understand the ending.

On the other hand, there’s also a good chance that your audience will feel cheated by an ending that doesn’t quite make sense. If your audience have invested quite a few hours of their time in reading your story or comic, then a puzzling ending can make them feel like that time has been wasted.

A good compromise if you plan to include a “WTF?” kind of ending in your story or comic is to logically resolve at least a few parts of the story, before you include something bizarre. This way, your audience still has something to feel curious about – but, because there’s some resolution, your audience won’t feel completely cheated.

For example, although the ending to “Battlestar Galactica” had some really bizarre scenes in it, the main plot of the series was still resolved in a fairly logical way. The main characters defeat the bad guys and finally find a planet to settle on (our planet, no less)… and then a few weird things happen a bit later.

However, if you’re going to include a mysterious ending in your story or comic, you should know what it means. In other words, even the most bizarre ending must have a meaning of some kind that your audience actually has a chance of working out for themselves if they think about it for long enough.

In other words, you shouldn’t use these kinds of endings as a way to finish your story abruptly because you don’t know how to end it. And, yes, it can be very tempting to do this when you have writer’s block at the end of your story. In fact, I almost did this with my “The Horror Of Hardtalon Hall” comic, which was posted here in late October.

Basically, in the second half of the comic, a lot of strange stuff happens. At the time, I thought that this was a way of including a lot of interesting drawings and vague parodies of various things in my comic.

The last page also contains a tiny bit of lazy writing too (eg: the laws of physics are conveniently suspended for a few seconds, although it is foreshadowed by other strange stuff happening earlier in the comic). But, a while after I finished this comic, I suddenly realised that the second half of the comic did have a meaning.

Roz and Rox are excited about it – and they discover lots of cool stuff in the mansion (Roz discovers more cool stuff, since she’s more excited). Derek is indifferent to the news and has a rather boring (and mildly crappy) time in the mansion. Harvey, on the other hand, is shocked and terrified – and he’s the only one to find anything genuinely terrifying in the mansion. In other words, the mansion is a reflection of each character’s emotions. It’s a strange mirror of some kind.

So, yes, make sure that your strange endings have at least some kind of meaning and try to resolve at least some of the plot before you bewilder your audience.

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (23rd March 2014)

Well, one of today’s watercolour pencil paintings is a fairly normal painting and the other one is.. well… I don’t know if there’s really even a word for it…

As usual, both of these paintings are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Mountain Cabin" By C. A. Brown

“Mountain Cabin” By C. A. Brown

Despite the slightly generic title, composition and background, I’m quite proud of how “Mountain Cabin” turned out.

"WTFish" By C. A. Brown

“WTFish” By C. A. Brown

Well, I was feeling uninspired, so I started sketching randomly and then… what…the… fish? emerged. I still have no clue whatsoever whether this painting is great or terrible….

Review/Rant: “Duke Nukem – Manhattan Project” (Computer Game)

Bleeped profanity is the LEAST of this game's many failings...

Bleeped profanity is the LEAST of this game’s many failings…

[Note: Yes, this is a rant and it is very much my personal opinion. Yes, I’m probably taking this game too seriously. No, I don’t think any parts of the game should be censored and I fully support 3D Realms’ right to free speech (despite one terrible part of the game) and their right to terrible game and level design too.

I should probably also point out that this review contains a (very slightly obscured) screenshot of part of the game which is fairly insulting to anyone who is even slightly transgender.

Even so, I’m a “Duke Nukem” fan and I like most of the other “Duke” games. I’m mostly writing this rant because I think that this game doesn’t really do justice to the character and the franchise in general. This game might not annoy you – if it doesn’t, then have as much fun as you can with it and don’t bother reading this article.]

“Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project” is an action 2D/3D platform game that was released in 2002. In case you’ve never heard of him, Duke Nukem is a parody/pastiche of various 1980s action heroes. He’s handsome, he has a ridiculous amount of muscles, he’s blond, he likes wearing vests, he likes big guns and he’s been around since 1991.

In the mid-1990s, he took the leap from 2D to 3D, as well turning into the kind of character who can still cause ludicrous amounts of controversy amongst both conservatives and liberals. Normally, I have a certain amount of respect for things which can stir up controversy on both sides of the political divide. But this is the only time where I’ve actually been personally pissed off at a Duke Nukem game, but more on that later…..

Anyway, when I recently rediscovered an old copy of “Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project” and started re-playing it, I was excited. After all, this was a game where Duke Nukem finally returned to his 2D platforming roots (more on that later) and I absolutely loved the old 2D “Duke Nukem” games.

Hell, even the plot of this game is much more like the storylines of the “old” games – basically, an evil scientist called Mech Morphix has developed a type of slime called “GLOPP” which can mutate people and animals into cannon fodder for Duke Nukem evil mutants. It is, of course, up to Duke to save the city of New York from these mutants and to put an end to Morphix and his evil plans.

I should have liked this game. Hell, I should have loved this game. But I didn’t. And I’m only about halfway through it so far.

First of all, let me say that this isn’t a “bad” game. But it isn’t a great game either. One of the first major problems with it is the fact that it’s never quite sure whether it wants to be a 2D platform game or a 3D platform game. In terms of graphics, it’s a 3D game from the early 2000s. In terms of gameplay, it’s a 2D platformer from the 90s, with a few parts that allow you to move in three dimensions. Sort of.

Basically, Duke moves along an invisible two-dimensional “track” running through the level. Occasionally, you are given the opportunity to move to a different “track” which is closer or further away from the screen. This is incredibly distracting and annoying, since you’ll occasionally see items and enemies in the foreground and/or the background but will have to spend ages working out how to reach them because this game doesn’t function like an “ordinary” 3D game.

Whilst I’ll give 3D Realms credit for trying something innovative (and gaming certainly needs more innovation), I still think that the game would have worked a lot better with good old-fashioned 2D graphics rather than with flashy 3D graphics. Yes, this game was probably made at the very end of the time when it was still “cool” for a game to be in 3D and this probably explains the choice of graphics. Still, the game looks like it should be a 3D platformer, but it handles like a 2D platformer. Keeping it in old-school 2D would have just been a much more sensible, if slightly less glamourous, choice.

I also have fairly mixed feelings about the level design too. On the one hand, the levels are still slightly non-linear and you have to search the entire level to find a keycard (like in “Duke Nukem II”) and you also have to rescue one of the many supermodel-like women who Morphix has strapped to GLOPP bombs before you can progress to the next level.

Whilst it’s good to see non-linear level design in a platform game, the design has been (how can I put this nicely?) “simplified” slightly and, although I still got stuck on a few parts, the levels require nowhere near the level of exploration and searching as the levels in “Duke Nukem II” did.

Honestly, I get that this game is probably aimed at teenagers (at straight cisgender teenage boys, to be precise) but I was able to complete “Duke Nukem II” before I was even a teenager, as were probably quite a few other gamers of my age. So please, 3D Realms, don’t patronise us (and future generations of platform gamers) with simplistic level design.

Plus, whilst I don’t agree completely (but don’t disagree completely either) with the ideas a certain well-known and controversial Youtube videogame critic , the “rescuing” mechanic in this game is a pretty lazy replacement for a keycard and it just comes across as ridiculously gratuitous lowest-common-denominator fanservice. Even for a “Duke Nukem” game. And that’s saying a lot.

Once you rescue one of the women, she’ll strike a suggestive pose and Duke will say a pick-up line or a one-liner about how great he is. This happens in literally every level, regardless of context. Even if you’re in the middle of a mutant-infested sewer, the woman you’ve just rescued will just stand there in various suggestive poses rather than, say, trying to escape the sewer like any sentient form of life would probably do.

Yes, there’s nothing wrong with sex and sexuality in computer games (and there should really be more of it in my opinion). But the way that this is presented in “Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project” is just ridiculously nonsensical and, more importantly, it detracts from the atmosphere of the game.

In “Duke Nukem 3D”, the nudity in the game actually worked in dramatic terms because it was included fairly infrequently and, when it was, it always made some vague level of sense in the context of the level. It was all part of the gritty and “mature” atmosphere of the game, rather than just a lazy replacement for a second keycard in literally every level or anything like that.

Anyway, going back to the level design, the other major flaw with it is that it is boring. Yes, Duke might go through a variety of different locations, but they don’t really look that different. Yes, I’ve only played the first four levels/chapters, but I might as well have just played one of them.

Every location I’ve seen so far has been gloomy, urban and drab. Yes, I get that the game is set in New York, but they could still have added a bit more variety to the general atmosphere and style of the settings. Honestly, “Duke Nukem II” was released almost a decade earlier and literally all of the levels in it are far more memorable and just generally more interesting.

Plus, one thing that seriously annoyed me with the level design was this one insulting background detail:

The background text reads "Who wants to be a [well, you can probably guess the last word]"

The background text reads “Who wants to be a [well, you can probably guess the last word]”

Yes, if Duke himself had said something like that, I could have shrugged it off as just part of his character (even though I’d probably have a slightly lower opinion of him, since I like to secretly think that he’s open-minded in his own way).

Hell, even if the stereotype/caricature on the billboard was an actual character in the game, I personally wouldn’t mind too much (well, there are hardly any transgender characters in games, so even fairly caricatured ones would be something of a small improvement over next to nothing).

But, since this billboard is a background detaila part of the world of the game – it pissed me off quite a bit. Playing a game set in a world where transgender people are casually seen as “freaks” kind of has a habit of ruining my personal enjoyment of the game in question.

Yes, most people probably won’t care about this (or even really notice it) and, no, I don’t think that the game should be censored just because one part of it personally pissed me off. Yes, I get that it was probably meant to be a (rather crappy) joke rather than anything malicious. Yes, I’m probably reading far too much into it. But, still, that poster still drained a lot of the fun out of that level for me.

But, the one thing that is fun in this game is the voice- acting. Once again, Jon St. John does an excellent job with many of Duke Nukem’s various lines and catchphrases and there are a whole bunch of new hilarious lines in the game. My personal favourite is, after you die and respawn, Duke will sometimes say “Ah, so there is life after death!”

Not only that, there are a few brilliant movie references too and I’ll never forget how much I laughed when Duke said “Mimic that!” after shooting a mutant cockroach on the subway level for the first time.

However, one problem with the voice acting is that 3D Realms has censored a few parts of it. For heavens’ sake, it’s a “mature”-rated game in America! At least let Duke swear properly without bleeping it out like a daytime TV show! Honestly, people who play this game aren’t going to care if Duke says a few four-letter words, in fact they’d probably expect nothing less. And, unfortunately, 3D Realms has given us less.

One interesting feature of this game is the fact that Duke has a lot more weapons than he ever did in the old platform games from the 90s. He can also throw pipebombs too, which can come in handy during a few parts of the game. But, there’s never quite enough ammo. Yes, I’m ridiculously cynical about infinite-ammo pistols in FPS games. But, for action platform games, they’re pretty much mandatory. After all, the focus in a platform game should be on the action rather than on conserving ammunition (unlike in a well-designed FPS game like “Duke Nukem 3D”).

Seriously, an infinite ammo basic weapon was one of the main features of “Duke Nukem II”. It was one of the things which made the game so joyously playable. You could blast away at anything that moved without a second thought. But, no, such basic gameplay-essential things are obviously beneath the more modern incarnations of Duke Nukem.

But, despite all of my many criticisms (and the fact that I’m probably taking this game way too seriously because I’m a “Duke Nukem” fan), I’ll probably keep on playing this game. Why? Because it’s at least partly an old-school 2D platform game and these are a dying breed these days. Secondly, as terrible as it is, it still features one of my favourite nostalgic videogame characters. Thirdly, I’ve only played half of it and I’m still irrationally holding on to the vague hope that the other half will be better.

But, if I had to give this game a rating out of five, then it would probably get two and a half at the most. It could have been so much better, but it wasn’t.