Spoiler note: This article discusses the pre- and/or post-credit endings of the following games: Earthbound, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season One, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Dead Space 2, Kingdom Hearts 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Ico, Portal 2,and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Also the movies The Avengers and Star Wars.
Whether it's the influence of the recent Avengers series of Marvel movies or just that video game storytelling is continuing to develop, post-credits scenes seem to be getting more and more common in games these days. The tradition of hiding some sort of Easter egg after the credits has been around in movies at least since the post-credits tagline “James Bond will return . . . “ was first used in 1963’s From Russia With Love (though post-credit scenes weren’t popularized until 1979’s The Muppet Movie).
The younger medium of video games didn’t pick up on this tradition until the 90s, however (with the exception, apparently, of the Japanese version of Contra), when classics like Earthbound and the Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy franchises began using the technique. Since then, video game post-credit scenes have become increasingly common as the industry has grown and developed.
In video games, as in movies, these scenes can serve different purposes. Some are used for comedy, some to provide a cliffhanger and set up a sequel, and some to change what we thought was the ending of the game we just played. These different purposes bring with them very different risks and rewards. So let’s take a look at some key examples in each of these main categories to see what’s gained—and if it’s worth risking that, by putting these scenes after the (very long) credits, many players may not see them.
Post-credits scenes in movies, following in the tradition of The Muppets Movie, often provide a blooper or comedy bit. The schawarma scene in The Avengers is a famous recent example of this. Games do this too. Take Portal 2, for instance, whose post-credits sequence humorously features the companion-turned-nemesis Wheatley contemplating his mistakes while floating in space with a demented AI core. The Call of Duty series has offered fun post-credits scenes that were also playable in various ways. CoD 4: Modern Warfare treats players to the short, silly “Don’t Call Me Shirley” airplane level (which refers to the 1980 comedy film Airplane!). The post-credits scene in Call of Duty: Black Ops provides a zany transition from the serious campaign into the craziness of zombie mode, starring the Cold War leaders featured in the campaign.
Cliffhanger or Minor Twist
Some post-credits cliffhangers set the stage for the game to follow but still let the previous game standalone. If you miss these scenes, you still basically understand the story of the game you’ve played, and you can usually get caught up pretty quickly in the sequel without having seen the earlier post-credits scene. Dead Space 2 falls into this category, offering a post-credits (audio-only, like the Metal Gear Solid post-credits tradition) radio transmission revealing that the recently destroyed Marker site was #12, suggesting that the problem is far bigger than we had previously realized, and setting the stage for Dead Space 3. This doesn’t change the overall tone of the game, nor did we really think everything was okay forever after DS2, so this scene is exciting but not crucial.
Other games like Earthbound (the antagonist has survived and plans revenge), Kingdom Hearts 2 (mysterious message in a bottle), the Gears of War series, and Batman: Arkham Asylum (a variable scene teasing the survival of one of three villains) also fit in this category of games that tease a sequel without massively changing the preceding story—generally, they just suggest that what we’ve seen is not the whole story, and that there’s work left to be done for the heroes.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One ends with a scene that sits halfway between ‘missable sequel set-up’ and ‘game changer,’ with Clementine alone in a field spying two figures on the horizon. It tells the player that Clem made it out of the city safely but raises questions about what she’s about to find, so while it furthers the story a bit, it’s not really crucial in my mind.
Final Fantasy VII presents a classic, similarly borderline case that it would be remiss of this article to overlook. The main ending shows the apocalyptic Meteor being met by the power of Holy and the Lifestream (if you’re not a FF player, just roll with it), which seem to absorb its blow. The scene ends with a bright light washing over many of the protagonists (some of whom close their eyes) and a shot of the (deceased) protagonist Aerith smiling amidst the Lifestream to which she sacrificed herself (Obi-wan-like). The impression is that extreme things are happening but in the larger, life-on-earth sense, it will be okay. In the post-credits scene, we see co-protagonist Red XIII and two cubs running and leaping to an overlook which reveals the corrupt city of Midgar, now overtaken by nature (but not, say, vaporized by Meteor). As the shot fades to black, we see the game’s logo and hear the laughter of (human) children, suggesting that either the humans may also have survived (like Red XIII) or at least that life, in the larger sense, has been able to go on because of the heroic efforts of the protagonists. This post-credits scene elaborates on this without changing the overall tone, so while it’s a shame to miss it, I feel players could still get the gist of the game’s meaning from the pre-credits ending, just not all the specific details.
I think that comedic and cliffhanger post-credits scenes are great. If you don’t stick around for them, it won’t spoil the game, but if you do, you get an interesting Easter egg (unless the joke is the least funny thing ever, like in the post-credits scene of the otherwise terrific movie Guardians of the Galaxy). Post-credits scenes are Easter eggs, and this is how Easter eggs are supposed to work: missable bonuses.
For my impressions on post-credits scenes that DON’T work this way—that offer revelations that significantly change the game you’ve just played—see my accompanying article on game-changing post-credit scenes.