Death and a Platformer: The End

BBC’s The End has a laudable goal: to get people to think about death. As such, it falls under the encompassing banner of educational games, but it presents its concepts in a way that makes them seem unlike any sort of learning you’ve ever done.

And it has a card game, too*.

At its core, The End is a prime example of that most venerable of genres: the gimmick based 2-D platformer. Godfathered by Braid, The End is a pretty standard run from left to right platformer with a neat little gimmick, the ability to turn shadows into solid platforms. Unfortunately, it’s one that doesn’t work especially well. Rather than try to model all sorts of light, the game takes a shortcut and just makes shadows from the players perspective pretty much only when they are necessary to advance.

Whenever you beat a platforming level, you get to play a card game. Did I mention that? A third of the time it’s a card game against a horrible mash up of Meat Boy, Doctor Fetus (from Meat Boy), and Goro from Street Fighter. He is my favorite.

Let’s back up again, before this review is taken over by my love of in-game card games. The End is noteworthy because it lets you create a character. It gives you a lot of customization options, and it doesn’t gender them. Gender is determined by appearance: if you give yourself a skirt and a girly hairstyle, your gender is implied. Same if you have a beard. If you have a pink beard and a skirt, like I do, you might be some sort of alien who learned how to dress like a human from movies.

And then when the game starts up, you promptly die. I don’t know quite what this is supposed to mean, besides that it enables the light controlling mechanism for no reason, and it lets you play Deathcards for Death Objects, which are pointless collectibles.

You get these collectibles by playing the card game.

I wasn’t a big fan of the platforming in the game, but I loved the card game. I loved it, ludonarrative dissonance and all. The basic premise is ludicrously simple: you are dealt a hand of eight hexagonal tiles, then place them on a hexagonal board. Each hex has three numbers on it, and each determines the value of two sides of the piece. Higher numbers beat lower. That’s it. That’s the game. Well, that and whenever you win a game, you get a collectible power, which allows you to give your pieces bonuses; at first you can raise the value of a specific side, or protect a specific side from damage, but eventually you get powers that let you rotate pieces or (my personal favorite) transfer all the points from one piece to another piece, allowing you to capture four tiles at the last second in an unbelievably cheap fashion.

Okay, I’ll be negative first: this game’s existence makes absolutely no fucking sense. Why are these pseudodeific monsters challenging you to card games for motorcycle helmets? No reason. It goes further than that, though? But why is the game asking a dead person questions about life and death at the end of each level? No reason. Why do you choose answers by going into doors locked with keys found midlevel? No reason. Why can you make shadows solid? No reason. Everything here makes as much sense as a psychic tire on a killing spree, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun. And The End, despite its heavy “subject matter”, hits fun on the head with this little “mini game”.

I’ll be completely honest with you: the educational component means zilch to this game. It’s taking an educational route at odds with games like The Cat and the Coup. The Cat placed you directly in the shit and made you understand someone else’s position by placing you inside it. The End takes an extremely difficult subject, coats it with some low quality chocolate and a phenomenal candy shell, and it hopes you take the time to learn about the things it wants to teach. It’s like your social studies teacher showing you a movie about Stalin but letting you play Game Boy at the same time, hoping you’ll get sucked into the dictator’s life.

Does it work? Maybe. It depends how conscientious the gamers playing it are. The End asks you, at the end of every level, an important question, such as “Do you believe people have the right to die?” You’re given a yes or no choice, and when you make it you can click on a link allowing you access to more information about the topic, such as an explanation of the Japanese’s beliefs on the subject.

The problem with this type of education is that I can just skip through the questions to get more candy. There’s no consequence to your choices. The game’s goal is to get the atheistic youth of Britain and the world to confront issues of death before they’re thrust into those situations, but it does nothing to really engage in this respect. If I don’t want to engage with death, I don’t have to.

Where The End succeeds as a game, it fails as an educational game. This, obviously, isn’t a terrible thing. It’s a pretty fun platformer coupled with a severely entertaining card mini game, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. On the other hand, the desire to play “one more level” almost certainly torpedoes its educational value—why would you read about death when there are horrible monsters to shame at a children’s game of cards, or platforms to jump? The End‘s desire to be entertaining, ultimately, trumps its educational value.

Still, it’s well worth a look. It can be played here, in your very browser!

*That’s another show, how much I love stupid little mini games.