To the end (and back again) – Endless play in Nidhogg
If you were to trace my interest in video game endings over time, the graph would resemble a cascading wave of disinterest. I came into the gaming landscape at an age where my heightened sense of imagination was paired with a looser understanding of reality, and Rareware were the bees knees of mascot platformers with Banjo-Kazooie. As the cliche goes, it was more than just a video game to me. I was enamoured with the young man (or bear) rescuing his fair maiden (or sister) from an evil witch (that part stayed the same) because I recognised the interactive manifestation of the fantasy genre I found so compelling in books. The familiar starting point of an ancient villain disrupting the hero’s normal way of life, an epic quest spanning across countless lands, and the final triumph over evil at the end of it all was an effective power fantasy that worked because everything was so familiar. The predictable prologue and epilogue placed a greater importance on the journey through Banjo-Kazooie rather than the outcome. You didn’t play to see the ending, you played to simply… play. That was the story.
It’s in this creative state of mind that Nidhogg, a two-player only 2D fighter cum platformer released in 2011 and seemingly exclusive to video game expos, was born. It’s a frantic, unpredictable, emotionally engaging race between two players to reach a finish line. Both players either die and respawn countless times, or a handful of times. Your trusty sword is either kept on your person, or tossed in reckless abandon to catch your opponent off guard. The simple platforms and jumps are devilishly difficult when under pressure, and a single slip up can turn the tide in your disfavor – nothing is certain in Nidhogg.
But all of this excitable gameplay is cushioned around two predictable elements that strengthen the core experience. You’ll always start each round placed in the middle of the arena with your sword raised, your foe in front of you, and a beautiful chandelier swinging above your head, and the round will always end with both of you dead. The losing player will tail behind in the infamous Edge of Screen, and the winning player gets the briefest chance to run past a crowd of cheering spectators, leap up a hill, and get eaten by a giant penis-worm monster. The flashing “Winner” on screen is more like a knowing wink than a genuine impression of respect.
If you look back over the history of games, the ending of any one game has always been quaint and uneventful. Monopoly is a timeless classic brought out at any family occasion and yet I haven’t met anyone whose reliably finished it. Are Mario’s adventures any less significant because his princess is in another castle? No, because what has been enjoyable is his leaps and bounds across wonderfully designed levels, and no one would hesitate in telling you the greatest moment in a game of Monopoly is when the board is flipped over in mindless rage. In both cases, the end goal is there – we know it’ll come and even know what will happen – but all the emotional reactions that takes place on the journey there are unpredictable.
In recent times, there’s been greater priority placed on the end of a game. Bigger titles like Mass Effect have ballooned into three-part epics, and the writing has come along for the ride. This emphasis on story and determinable outcomes has shifted our focus from being in the moment to thinking ahead of the moment. You’re playing to a script rather than playing to your imagination. When I think of play, I think of spontaneity and imagination. I think of the child who finds the bubble wrap of a present much more exciting than the present itself. I don’t see structure or “an end” as being an important aspect of play. The narrative focus in video games has actually swung back to bite Bioware in the ass recently, as players have been conditioned to think the ending of Mass Effect is more important than the journey. As if a bad ending – whatever that means – has invalidated all the things they enjoyed throughout the franchise.
The inexplicable appearance of a giant man-eating worm at the end of Nidhogg demonstrates that simply playing the game is the end goal. There’s no lasting glory or lusciously framed battle poses by your simple stick figurine to reward your dedication and superb finger movement. There’s no narrative other than the narrative formed while playing against your friend. Your victory, such as it is, is a glorious death in the maw of a worm-dragon-god-penis monster. The absurdity of the situation trivializes the importance of victory and lets both players simply explore and tease out a multifaceted combat system because, well, that’s all you can do.
Nidhogg’s ending encourages you to stay in the world. It illustrates that every action, big or small, and every battle, no matter how long or short, is the most important part of the experience. It removes the one-upmanship of victory by excising any sort of end screen, and cuts out any extraneous button presses to throw you into a new round almost immediately. There’s a breathless urgency to its proceedings and a comforting familiarity in its repetition that encourages you to not only learn the basic mechanics, but to discover entirely new strategies by repeating the same scenario. Nidhogg celebrates the end of your game as an opportunity for another adventure, all you need to bring is a friend.