When it comes to storytelling, there’s no doubt that video games still lag behind film and television, as the majority of games still feel like levels stitched together by cutscenes rather than a cohesive whole. That being said, games are starting to catch up. Some developers have started to realize that because of their interactive nature, games can deliver different kinds of stories that just aren’t possible in movies, TV, or even books, as you’re never actually in control of the characters in any of those mediums.
Of course, no matter what medium you’re telling a story in, it’s difficult to write a good ending and this is true in gaming, where the majority of players never even get to the finale to see whether it’s any good or not. Still, there are some endings that just stick with you and stand out from the crowd, with the following 15 games concluding their stories with some of the best endings in the medium.
If you want to avoid having any endings SPOILED for yourself, proceed with caution as I discuss each game’s ending in full.
One of the most recent entries on this list, Playdead’s sophomore effort Inside was one of the best games to come out in 2016 and its ending in particular prompted some intense debate and discussion. When I say that Inside has one of the best endings in gaming, I’m not just talking about its ambiguous final moments but rather it’s entire last act, which has to be one of the most shocking switch-ups I’ve ever experienced in a game.
For most of the game, you play as a vulnerable young boy who constantly has to evade attacks from all sorts of threats, adding up to a gameplay experience that feels like a more refined and ambitious version of Playdead’s first game, Limbo. Then, out of nowhere, the tables turn and you’re rampaging through a facility as a huge, grotesque blob, which not only switches up the gameplay in an interesting way, but also helps bring home some of the the game’s running themes and motifs like oppression, control, and body horror. And the final shot is beautifully haunting.
There’s also an alternate ending that can be unlocked if you find all the hidden light orbs in the game, but I feel like the original ending is ultimately stronger because of how open to interpretation it is.
14. Super Metroid
The wonderful thing about video games is that they don’t need a traditional narrative to tell a compelling story. Take the SNES classic Super Metroid for example, which builds itself around a simple but effective mother/child relationship involving series heroine Samus Aran and a Metroid larva that imprints on Samus and believes her to be its mother. The game itself is pretty much 2D action-platforming perfection, but what helps Super Metroid stand out is how this relationship between Samus and the Metroid larva takes center stage for the game’s final act.
The build-up to the final battle with Mother Brain is intense and the battle itself is arguably one of the greatest in gaming, not only from a design perspective, but in its emotional payoff too. The Metroid larva ends up sacrificing itself to save Samus and the bounty hunter channels the larva’s last gift of energy into a final attack that destroys Mother Brain. Sure, we’ve seen this same sort of sacrifice trope in countless stories before, but that shouldn’t discount how effectively Super Metroid used the device to stand out from the pack.
13. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — which, coincidentally, remains the best game in the series — has a pretty straightforward plot, but makes up for this simplicity by building a complex, nuanced relationship between the Prince and his lone companion/love interest Farah. Sands of Time is one of the earliest examples of a game that builds its narrative around in-game character interactions and conversations rather than lengthy cutscenes, as the Prince and Farah spend most of the game bickering, teasing, and ultimately, falling love with each other. Then, in the final act, Sands of Time pulls the rug out from under your feet by killing Farah and having the Prince rewind time back to before he ever meets her.
Armed with the Dagger of Time and his memories, the Prince finds Farah in her father’s palace and tells her about what happened, revealing that the Prince’s frequent interior monologues throughout the game have actually been him telling this story to Farah. After defeating the game’s villain, the treacherous Vizier, Farah tells the Prince that she doesn’t believe his story, prompting the Prince to whisper a word she told him during a private moment earlier in the game, and leaves her in total amazement.
Hey Ubisoft, can we please get a true Sands of Time successor? That would be great.
12. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
I debated whether or not to include Ocarina of Time on this list, but although its time travel plot is suitably epic and probably the most cinematic video game story many players had ever seen at the time of its release, I find Wind Waker’s somber, yet hopeful ending to be arguably the strongest in the series (having not finished Breath of the Wild yet, I cannot speak to that game’s conclusion). Wind Waker’s ending is helped along immensely by the late-game revelation that by middle act revelation that the kingdom of Hyrule is at the bottom of the ocean, implying that Wind Waker is actually set in a post-apocalyptic (of sorts) time period long after the events of Ocarina of Time.
Being a Zelda game, Wind Waker naturally features a final confrontation with series villain Ganondorf, but in defeating him, Link and Zelda not only lose the King of Hyrule who, disguised as the ship King of Red Lions, had been Link’s constant companion through his entire journey, but also forsake Hyrule to the depths of the ocean forever. It’s a haunting conclusion, especially for anyone familiar with Ocarina of Time, but it’s saved from being a total downer by Link and Zelda’s resolve to establish a new kingdom to call Hyrule.
11. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
The Metal Gear Solid franchise has always been known for its ambitious, if convoluted plot, but things come together perfectly for the conclusion of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which arguably has the best ending in the series. The main reason for this is that the final battle between Snake and his mentor, The Boss, is fraught with emotion and tragedy, as Snake and the player find out too late that The Boss was never actually a defector and hadn’t betrayed the United States. Her final order was to die at Snake’s hands for the good of her country, which makes Snake’s later commendation and awarding of the title of “Big Boss” all too bittersweet. He then salutes The Boss’ unmarked grave and sheds a single tear, privy to the solemn knowledge that only he knows the truth about his beloved mentor.
For a franchise that all too often descends into the trappings of melodrama and outright bizarre storytelling, Hideo Kojima and his team absolutely nailed this scene and created one of the greatest video game endings of all time in the process.
10. Mass Effect 2
The ending of Mass Effect 3 soured a lot of people on Bioware’s sci-fi RPG trilogy but amid all the controversy, I feel like many forget that Mass Effect 2’s conclusion was quite well executed, especially for the trilogy’s middle chapter. Given how significant a role player choice plays in the game’s story, the final chapter can play out quite differently depending on those decisions, but the overall structure is still the same. Most of the game sees protagonist Commander Shepard rounding up a crew in order to go on a suicide mission deep into enemy territory and save the galaxy from a group called the Collectors, and the final act indeed delivers on that promise.
Depending on your actions up until that point in the game, anyone in your crew could die at any given moment, which helps enhance the feeling of desperation that the ending is trying to convey. Then, after all of that, the rug is pulled out from under you further when you realize that the Collectors are only one part of a larger threat, as the player’s actions have now awoken the Reapers, a race of nigh-unstoppable killing machines that will not stop until they eradicate all life in the galaxy. In other words, Mass Effect 2 is about as far away from a happy ending as you can get and sets the stage perfectly for the trilogy’s final chapter.
9. The Walking Dead: Season 1
The Telltale formula has started to grow stale in recent years — it doesn’t help that their games are optimized poorly and run terribly — but the one thing that you can always count on the studio for is to deliver a great story and I’m not sure if they’ve been able to top the ending for their first Walking Dead game. Based on the graphic novel and TV series of the same name, Telltale’s The Walking Dead focuses on convict Lee Everett and Clementine, a young girl who’s lost her parents, as they bond and survive in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. As with all Telltale games, The Walking Dead’s story is heavily dependent on player choice, but no matter what choices are made, the game still ends in tragedy.
In the final chapter, Lee has been bitten by a walker, forcing the player to choose between having Lee order Clementine to kill him or leave him to become a walker himself (the player can also choose to do nothing, in which case the game will choose what Clementine does depending on the choices the player has made up to that point). It’s a heart-wrenching scene, made all the more tragic by the father-daughter bond between Lee and Clementine, the latter of whom now has to try and survive the apocalypse without her most trusted protector. The Walking Dead TV series wishes it could write a scene like this!
8. Halo 3
I very nearly went with Halo: Reach and its funereal conclusion, but in the end, I had to go with the game that finally let us all ‘finish the fight.’ By the time Bungie got to Halo 3, their storytelling had already started to go off the rails, with the straightforward aliens vs. humans setup from the first game being further muddled by all sorts of confounding mythology elements. Fortunately, this stuff was only tangential to the main plot of Halo 3, which sees the Master Chief saving humanity from the Covenant scourge once and for all (or so we thought at the time).
The great thing about Halo 3’s final mission is that it not only makes up for awful mission “Cortana” that immediately precedes it, but hearkens back to the very first Halo with an even more thrilling Warthog escape sequence. Then, with his mission complete but now stranded in space with no but his A.I. companion Cortana to keep him company, the Master Chief decides to go into cryo-sleep and tells Cortana to wake him when he’s needed again. If this really had been the end of the Master Chief’s story, it’s hard to think of a more fitting conclusion.
7. BioShock Infinite
To be honest, I’m not even sure if I fully understand just what the heck happens at the end of BioShock Infinite, but I do know that it’s one of the most affecting endings I’ve ever encountered in gaming. The original BioShock is well known for its would you kindly? plot twist, but BioShock Infinite arguably has a better payoff with its array of late-game twists. The revelation that protagonist Booker is really a younger version of the game’s villain Comstock is just the start, as it’s then revealed that Elizabeth and Booker’s daughter Anna DeWitt are the same person.
It turns out that in one alternate reality, Booker became Comstock during a baptism that was supposed to wipe away his sins from the war and things come full circle at the end, where baptism is used to prevent Combstock from ever coming into being. Multiple Elizabeths from different timelines drown Booker/Comstock, thus closing the loop and preventing the atrocities his future self committed. It’s really a shame that it takes about a dozen hours of wading through fun, but repetitive first-person shooting to get to this ending because it truly is one of the most memorable in gaming and arguably trumps the original BioShock’s in both scope and ambition.
6. Portal 2
Portal 2 is an excellent example of a near-perfect sequel, as it expands upon the original game’s concepts while staying true to its tone and spirit. Portal 2 tells a more ambitious story than its predecessor that expands upon the history of the franchise’s setting, Aperture Laboratories, and also introduces the delightfully deranged personality core Wheatley, who manages to out-crazy the original game’s villain GLaDOS, who returns here as an unlikely ally.
After confronting Wheatley, protagonist Chell is able to teleport him to the moon of all places, but the game’s biggest surprise is its redemption of GLaDOS. Having learned “valuable lessons” about humanity from the remnants of Caroline, the human whom GLaDOS is based upon, the troubled A.I. decides to spare Shell’s life and release her from Aperture Laboratories. She even reunites Chell with her trusted Weighted Companion Cube from the first game (albeit a little worse for wear after having gone through an incinerator), a great callback to Portal’s own surprisingly affecting conclusion.
I’m bending the rules here by including multiple games from the same series, but the endings of both Portal games are so memorable and well-executed that it just wouldn’t feel right to have one on the list and not the other. The great thing about Portal’s ending — and why it arguably trumps the conclusion found in its sequel — is its minimalism and attention to detail. Honestly, there really isn’t even much in the way of plot to be found in Portal, but what is there delivers in spades. The final confrontation with GLaDOS is easily one of the most memorable in gaming — challenging, humorous, and even a bit tragic — as the A.I. slowly begins to lose her mind in a literal sense throughout the fight as Chell strips her of her personality cores.
The game then concludes with a quietly foreboding moment, as an unconscious Chell is dragged off by an unseen robot that thanks her for “assuming the party escort submission position.” Then the credits start rolling, leaving us with the song “Still Alive,” which not only reveals that GLaDOS is … well, still alive, but is now also one of the most popular video game songs of all time.
4. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
The Uncharted series has always been known for great storytelling, but developer Naughty Dog pulled out all the stops with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. However, the ending comes close to being wrapped up too neatly: no main characters die, Nathan and Elena have rekindled their marriage, and Sam and Sully are off on an adventure together. If things had wrapped up here, Uncharted 4 wouldn’t have much in the way of a satisfying ending, but then the epilogue starts.
We meet a teenage girl living in a beach side home who goes snooping around her parents’ stuff. It turns out that this is Cassie Drake, Nathan and Elena’s daughter, and we learn that the family have become successful artifact hunters (the legitimate kind) in the years since Nate’s final adventure. Of course, Cassie is bewildered to discover all the crazy things her parents were involved in, prompting Nate to finally tell his daughter the whole story. It’s a fitting ending for Nathan Drake, as he was able to make a life for himself that is both grounded and exceptional, and also leaves the door open for future Uncharted stories featuring his daughter.
3. Shadow of the Colossus
When you boil it down, Shadow of the Colossus is really just a game comprised of 16 boss fights, but that oversimplification does this game, and the emotional journey it takes players on, a disservice. What’s interesting about the ending of Shadow of the Colossus is that it represents the biggest chunk of pure narrative found in the game, but still manages to pay off all the little story details spread through the rest of the game. At the beginning of the game, Wander is warned that his quest to revive his loved one, the maiden Mono, will come with a great price and this warning is paid in full by the end, as Wander is possessed by the entity Dormin and transformed into a shadowy giant.
With each successive Colossi that Wander slays over the course of the game, his physical appearance begins to reflect the destruction he has wrought and it all comes full circle with this final transformation. In the end, Mono is revived but not before Dormin’s spirit is cast out by Lord Emon and Wander becomes a baby boy with horns sprouting from his head. It’s an ending that has initiated much debate over the years, as it’s been suspected but never confirmed that the baby boy is actually the horned boy from the game Ico. Plus, Wander’s horse Agro, who appeared to have died a bit earlier in the game, is revealed to be alive and well, which is truly a moment to be cheered.
2. Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption is a game that really starts to lose steam in its middle section but once you hit the last act, all is forgiven. Rockstar’s open world Western has one of the most affecting conclusions in all of gaming. Protagonist John Marston, who spends the whole game being forced to track down and kill fellow members of his old outlaw gang by federal agent Edgar Ross, thinks he’s in the clear after finishing the job and returning to his farm, where he’s reunited with his wife and son. Tragically, just when he thinks he’s in the clear, Ross returns with a posse and guns John down.
Of course, that can’t be the end of the story and in one of the most jarring twists I’ve ever seen in a game, we cut to John’s son Jack a few years later, who seeks vengeance on Ross and kills him in a duel. Then the credits roll. Killing off the main protagonist, especially one as likable as John, was a risky move on Rockstar’s part, but they arguably pulled it off by giving John a hero’s death, as he perishes while trying to defend his family. It’s an emotional conclusion that feels ripped right out of a great Western film and stands as one of the most affecting in video game history.
1. The Last of Us
When it comes to narrative-focused video games, no one does it better than Naughty Dog, and their 2013 masterpiece arguably delivers the best story and ending in all of gaming. To be fair, there are some that believe that the ending didn’t work and was a let down compared to what comes before it, but I’m of the behind that it perfectly reflects the moral ambiguities beating at the heart of this story. After realizing that Ellie will have to die in order to save humanity from the cordycep parasite, Joel goes on a rampage to save her life, gunning down dozens of men and women in the process. In so doing, Joel saves Ellie’s life but potentially dooms humanity at the same time. To make matters worse, Joel lies to Ellie about what happened, telling her that the Fireflies were unable to create a cure.
It’s an incredibly selfish, even horrifying act, but one that is distinctly human and even understandable, as having lost his own daughter years earlier, Joel is unable to lose Ellie too, who he now sees as his own child. There’s no way a challenging ending like that is going to please everyone, but it’s hard to think of how the game could have ended any other way.