Maintaining player interest in games with "unhappy" endings

As someone who is just coming back to playing text adventures after a (fairly) long absence and having an interest in writing something in Inform 7 myself I thought i’d ask how people who have authored games maintain player interest in games that ostensibly do not have a happy ending? I’d also be interested in hearing about any recommendation for games that do this.

I’m aware that the Lovecraftian Horror genre is fairly well representing in interactive fiction and therefore I assume that there must be games out there that do not have what is commonly perceived as a happy ending?

Your assumption seems to be that people generally expect or want stories to have a happy ending. I don’t know if that’s true. It certainly isn’t for me. A story needs a conclusion, with certain rare exceptions.

I don’t really have preconceptions other than that of a game being played for entertainment purposes, as stated I am fairly new to playing Interactive Fiction and therefore don’t have enough experience to have formed my own opinions on whether or not most IF players prefer a happy ending or not - my concern is keeping a player’s interest in a game where there is obviously not going to be a happy ending :slight_smile:

Also if anyone has any recommendations for good freely available interactive fiction that does not have a happy ending (particular in the horror/lovecraftian vein) then they’d be gratefully received :slight_smile:

This might be a good place to start: … vecraftian

In general, you can search the IFDB by lots of things, or you can see the whole tag cloud here:


Many thanks :slight_smile:


The idea that people by default want/expect happy endings in IF seems very out-of-the-blue to me. Where did it come from?

I think it’s generally true that people expect winning endings, and that a happy ending of the protagonist is a big distinguishing feature between a ‘failure’ ending and a ‘winning’ one. (And in narrative videogames more generally, it is not exactly controversial that gamers can get spectacularly butthurt when they can’t get the final ending that they want. But fiction writing should not be about gratifying the audience in all things.)

There are more or less three things an ending can say:

“You lose. Try again and do better.”
“The end. We’re done here.”
“An end. Try playing again for a different outcome.”

As long as the player has a good idea about which one of these a given ending represents, unhappy endings pose no major problem.

This can be a pretty involved process, though; setting the players’ expectations is important. Building up a sense that there’s no way the protagonist is getting out of this one is one good way of doing it. Recent games which are effective at this include Bee, where you’re flat-out told that victory is impossible, and Nostrils of Flesh and Clay, which is less explicit but nonetheless makes it very clear that the story is very unlikely to end well for the protagonist.

In particular, Cthulhu-mythos stories tend to be divided into two camps: classic flavour, where there’s little that mortals can do to have any effect on the ineffable schemes of godlike beings, and CoC RPG flavour, with more heroic characters who can not only prevent the emergence of the elder gods, but (to take the extreme case of Arkham Horror) have a reasonable chance of defeating them with a flamethrower and some holy-water grenades. Signalling to the player about what kind of story you’re telling will go a long way, I think.

Perhaps my choice of the word “happy” was poorly chosen, perhaps “satisfying” would be a better choice of phrase?

Many thanks - that’s all very interesting/useful advice :slight_smile:

I gather that Infidel (if not Zork 3) garnered a certain controversy among adventure gamers by, spoiler warning, featuring a “just desserts” unhappy ending, and certainly lots of folks felt like heels for being unable to solve Planetfall without leaving Floyd to his fate. I can’t think of too many other mainstream adventure games that treaded this path – I know the 2008 Prince of Persia suffered criticism for it also. Dissatisfaction with an unhappy ending in the books is the whole impetus for the creation of the Beyond the Root game. Here in the West, it’s a bit of a given. In other cultures, the individualistic myth of You Always Get What You Want isn’t played up as much – I’m told that eg. Harlequin romances in Japan end at the penultimate chapter, when things are at their worst.

Certainly more possible outcomes make for more possible interesting stories.

I think there are always certain expectations on the basis of what is teased or hinted at, and sometimes people may expect a better ending than they get.

For example, Lord Bellwater’s Secret.

[spoiler]It’s made obvious that the player is eligible for an enormous inheritance, but there does not seem to be a way to successfully collect it. One review criticized it on this point:

The ending is happy enough anyway, but it’s about managing what players expect to be able to achieve vs. what they can actually achieve.[/spoiler]

I consider it important to communicate to the player how good of an ending they have achieved so they don’t sit there agonizing over how it could’ve gone better, or replaying the game only to discover they’d already exhausted the possibilities.

I’m not sure how hurt to feel at being so talked-down to :slight_smile:

Only the first paragraph was in reply to you; the rest was more intended for LARGEJO. (Apologies if I seemed to be lecturing you, rather than answering a question that someone had asked. The Internet is hard.)

So, not very hurt at all then. Check :slight_smile:

I learned a lot about this subject from reading spoilery reviews of A Killer Headache. The game suffers from a not-very-satisfying ending, and also a lot of ambiguous progress in the middle. I’m not sure what to recommend, but it gave me a lot to think about.

Here’s one: