Spoiler note: This article discusses the pre- and/or post-credit endings of the following games: Ico, Halo 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Bioshock Infinite, and Spec Ops: The Line.
In another article, I discuss post-credits scenes played for comedy or as cliffhangers—scenes that don’t massively change the game you’ve played. This article is about games that save such a shock for after the credits that you can’t fairly say that a player who doesn’t see it knows how the game ends.
The first game like this that I remember is Ico. Before the credits, the game ends with Ico’s companion Yorda (now more spirit than human) saving him from a collapsing castle but remaining behind herself, presumably stuck there or even dying. Yet after the credits, a short scene in which the player controls Ico has him finding Yorda washed up on a beach back in her human form, apparently alive. Though fans debate if this scene is reality or dream, it completely changes the ending and missing it would leave a player with a totally different impression of Ico’s story.
Halo 3 does this with Master Chief—suggesting he’s dead before the credits, only to show him going into suspended animation after the credits, setting up another sequel down the line. I imagine most fans of Halo stuck around until after the credits convinced that something like this would happen, because by 2007 most of us knew that post-credits scenes were a thing and most of us wanted to believe that Bungie wasn’t going to do us like that by up and killing Master Chief in a game series more about fun than gritty storytelling.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess also saves a major twist for after the credits, one less about life and death than about the state of Hyrule. The post-credits scene shows Midna breaking the Mirror of Twilight and heading back to the Twilight Realm. This leaves no known way for Link and Zelda (or anyone else) to again cross from Hyrule to the Twilight realm, decisively separating the worlds of light and shadow.
Bioshock Infinite’s pre- and post-credits endings are particularly drastic. The pre-credits ending has the player-character, Booker, sacrificing himself to prevent monstrous future versions of himself from wrecking various timelines; this has the side effect of also winking his daughter Elizabeth, the game’s main companion, out of existence. So, you know, everyone we like is dead. After the credits, though, we see a scene from early in Booker’s timeline when Elizabeth (then called Anna) would just be a baby, where we hear a music box-like lullaby from a room with a crib (which may contain Elizabeth, though we never definitely see or hear her), suggesting that a timeline remains where they both live (and hopefully don’t wind up in another dystopia). The story is not the same without this ending—it suggests that the deaths of BOTH protagonists are not final in all timelines.
The post-credits scene in Dragon Age: Inquisition is slightly less extreme for the player-character, but massively important for the player’s understanding of the multi-game world of Thedas, changing what we’ve learned about the world through dozens if not hundreds of hours of gameplay across three games. The pre-credits ending is relatively straightforward: you beat the bad guy, your companion Solas acts funny, apologizes, and disappears, and you celebrate with your buddies. After the credits, though, it is revealed that Solas 1) knows the immensely powerful witch (housing an elven god) Flemeth, 2) also apparently houses an elven god, 3) gave DA:I’s villain the device that let him do the terrible things that make up the main plot of the game—but now regrets it, and 4) has either taken Flemeth (and her god) into himself or had allowed his body and spirit to be taken over by her (probably the former). Combined with a couple things learned during the game proper, this massively changes players’ understandings of the power dynamics in the world, the relationships between characters, and where the series is likely to go next. A player who hasn’t seen this ending doesn’t understand how DA:I’s antagonist came to power, why one main companion acted the way he did (or who he really is), what happens to two major characters, and what conflicts were hiding under the surface of the main action of the game. Because this is a long-running RPG series with extensive lore and long games (I’ve easily devoted 250 hours to my first playthrough of the three existing games), this reveal is arguably bigger even than those of games like Bioshock Infinite or Ico that toy with the life and death of single-game protagonists.
Finally, we have the playable post-credits scene of Spec Ops: The Line, a dark, story-driven shooter adapted from the movie Apocalypse Now (and, before that, from the novella Heart of Darkness). The post-credits scene is only available to players who chose not to kill themselves in the pre-credits ending (I told you this game was dark). For those still alive, a U.S. military squad arrives to retrieve the player-character, Walker, and you have the choice to either hand over your weapon and go with them or fight them (a fight which you can win or lose), all of which lead to different (and interesting) endings. This is a game where three of the four endings occur after the credits. A non-suicide playthrough can hardly be said to have ended when the credits roll.
I think all of the scenes described above are terrific. But I’m not convinced they belong after the credits. As I mentioned in my other article about post-credits scenes, I think they work best as missable Easter eggs—great for those who want to stick around, but not a terrible loss for those who don’t. These games, by contrast, risk letting many players miss an intrinsic part of the game because the credits have indicated that the game is over before it really is. For those of us who do stick around, it adds exciting tension and there’s a great sense of euphoria when you realize that the game has one last crucial revelation in store. I was indescribably happy to learn that Yorda survived in Ico, all the more so because the credits made me really believe she and Ico had been separated forever. My mind spun at the world-shaking post-credits disclosures of Dragon Age: Inquisition. My faith was rewarded when Halo 3 confirmed that Master Chief isn’t that easy to kill. And the hope for a brighter future (amidst the inevitable risk of more mistakes) for Booker and Elizabeth offered by Bioshock Infinite’s post-credits scene felt more earned because, like Booker, I had resigned myself to a hard sacrifice in service of the greater good.
On the other hand, my wife beat Ico shortly before I did and she didn’t stick around to discover the post-credits scene. She isn’t as conditioned as I am to let the credits roll (often while doing something else) in case there’s a scene afterward, so she would never have known about that game-changing revelation if I hadn’t also been beat the game and then discussed it with her. This bothers me. She doesn’t play many console games to completion, and when she does, it’s because she really likes the game, so to punish a player like that, who’s invested in the game but not as familiar with the conventions of post-credits scenes, seems like a risk that might not be worth it.
The risk pays off for the many gamers who do stick around (or hear about it later and replay the ending or watch it online). More and more gamers are aware of post-credits scenes as a thing, so fewer people probably miss out on them these days. And, like any creative risk, doing something ambitious means not everyone will get it—that’s a chance you take when you try to tell a story creatively or unconventionally. It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition. But it sucks for those who are left out, so it bears careful consideration and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. As often as not, I’m inclined to think, game-changing post-credits scenes could work nearly as well before the credits without losing a meaningful fraction of their audience.
What do you think? Are game-changing post-credits scenes bad news or are they sometimes worth the risk? Under what circumstances? What percentage of gamers do you think miss them?