Monday, September 24, 2018

The Social Ending

When I was an undergrad in college I had to read a book. As most books classes make you read it wasn't one I would pick on my own, but I found myself getting invested in the tale. It was about a young person and their relationship with an older man they called Sensei. Not a lot happened - as is the case IMO for a lot of literary fiction - but the drama of the everyday lives was enough. And then the main character's father fell ill, they had to choose between going back home or staying in the city. If they went they'd be there for their father, but their life in the city with Sensei would be over. If they stayed, they would miss their father's death and be abandoning their family in a time of need. I was riveted. Finally something huge was happening and I needed to know what was going on. Then I turned the page and found myself staring at the back blank cover of the novel, jacket giving the author information.

To say I was upset is a mild understatement. I was so annoyed a day later when we met for discussion that the teacher gave me bonus points as I was clearly the only one to finish the book on time.

I bring this up now because I just had a table top RPG end the exact same way, only I find myself ok with it. Today I want to talk about it.

Where The Story Ends. Where The Game Ends.
There is a difference between where the game ends and where the story for that game ends. You see this blatantly in videogames where you stop playing the game - the game is fully beaten - but there are still cut scenes with story to show what happens and leave you with the 'proper' ending. However, sometimes the game ends after the story too. For example, all the big decisions can be made and the story complete but you still have to roll out the ending. Or you still have to play out what is happening. But what will happen is more or less set.

The ending last night was kind of like that. The game was a character focused Star Wars game. The group came together for work, and stuck together because of adversity. However, at the end of the game there was a split. Two characters wanted to go and get involved in a Mandalorian civil war to protect their family (the PCs being mandalorians themselves.) Two characters wanted out of all the fighting and chaos, and there were some personal issues mixed in as well. The game started with half the group in talks with an NPC about what the next arc of story for the game could be, while the other half talked about leaving the crew and going off to do their own thing.

The game came to a stop with the characters at an impasse. Did they stick together and go? Did they split up? If they split up, could the two Mandalorian PCs even hope to survive without the ace pilot and crack mechanic?

The conversation did a couple laps, then one character said "you need to make a choice" and that was the last bit of dialogue that happened In Character.

Out of character we talked about the game, where it could go, and had a vote. By near unanimous decree we all voted to end the game there. We didn't even want an epilogue for the characters. No epilogue given could feel right, so we didn't try.

The Emotional Arc
The similarity between Kokoro (the story I reference above) and this game, is that with the focus on the character emotional arc the idea is that the story doesn't matter anymore once the emotional journey hits that point. What choice is made isn't important, but that the choice comes up is. It's a concept from more Eastern story telling that kind of grates on the instincts of Western audiences ((this is at least how I learned it! Not saying Western stories can't have nebulous endings, looking at you Inception!))

No way the game could go from that choice felt right. There was no way the Mandalorians could really stay out of the Mandalorian issue going on. And there was no real way the mechanic/pilot could keep going with the group knowingly getting into bigger and bigger fights/danger. We even discussed swapping out either group of characters for new ones, but even that didn't feel right. In that moment, with all the chips on the table and all the cards revealed the emotional journey of the game was done.

The strangest part to me is that while I got so mad at Kokoro, to me this ending felt satisfying. Like all that was left for my character was for this conflict to come up and didn't even matter, because all that mattered was that they made the decision to bring the conflict up.

The Social Ending
And so the Star Wars game comes to an end. Not because of a TPK in an epic boss fight like the one I ran did. Not because the adventure is done and the story complete. But rather because a spot was reached where the social needs of the characters were so misaligned they couldn't go forward.

Not a bad way to end a game, but I'm going to be thinking about it for a long time to try and unpack it.

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