What is the best video game ending ever? My vote: 'Red Dead Redemption'

I finally beat Red Dead Redemption this week after about three months. Much of that time was spent on various side-quests. (I probably killed a few hundred birds, bucks, bears, and buffalo. As someone who hates Dances with Wolves, I really got an evil thrill out of killing buffalo.) However, even besides the sideline stuff, Red Dead‘s main storyline is massive. And it’s not perfect – I could’ve done without the Mexican Revolution – but the ending of the game is…well, incredible. And it got me thinking: What are the greatest video game endings? Let me know in the comments: more spoiler-y stuff on Red Dead after the jump…

Okay, Heavy Super Mega Spoiler Alert for people who are playing Red Dead or are interested in playing it…The vast majority of the game is about ex-gunfighter John Marston’s quest to hunt down the members of his outlaw gang. Marston would prefer to just work on a farm and put his violent past behind him, but government agents have taken his wife and son hostage, and won’t release them until he kills his old friends. I thought the game was over when I hunted down the last gang member.

Instead, you’re reunited with your family. You teach your son how to hunt and skin animals; you catch wild horses, and take your cattle out to graze in the field; you bicker with the wife. You become a normal, boring man. It feels wrong to call this stuff “fun” in any classic game sense. Rather, it feels important. (It also feels like some of the people who made Grand Theft Auto: Vice City have grown up and had children of their own.)

Then, soldiers attack your farm – sent by the same government agents who hired you before. At a pivotal moment, you’re staring right in the face of a dozen soldiers. I was trying to figure out how I could take out all 12 of them with only six bullets in my gun…when they killed me. Definitively – I looked like William Holden at the end of The Wild Bunch, cut to ribbons like Swiss Cheese.

This isn’t the first time a video game has ended with the death of your character. (The last Call of Duty pulled that trick pretty much every other level. Oh, Call of Duty Astronaut, you were too beautiful to live!) But what happens next really pushes the game into darker, truly sadder territory. You take control of John Marston’s teenaged son, Jack, who rushes back to the farm just in time to bury his father. The game flashes forward a few years, when you’ve become the spitting image of your father (albeit with less scars and more facial hair). In a final mission that forms a quiet coda to the main game, you hunt down the government agent who murdered your father – now just an old man fishing in the stream.

Much of the “Farming” sequence of the game focused on John Marston’s hope that his son wouldn’t have to live a violent life like him. Thus, Red Dead Redemption ends, after at least fifty hours of narrative gameplay, with the ultimate dream of the main character in tatters. His son has become a gunfighter, a man of violence. Life is chaos.

It’s one of the most traumatizing endings in video game history. It’s also my new personal favorite: an effective combination of technical ingenuity with subtle storytelling beats. I tend to like the slightly weirder endings, though. Red Dead‘s reminds me of the equally soul-imploding capper to Shadow of the Colossus. And they’re both descendants of the ambiguous, moody ending to the early-’90s Macintosh classic Out Of This World.

Still, not all great video game endings have to tear your heart wide open. Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time ends with a lengthy full-cast dance number (just like Slumdog Millionaire!) followed by a final freeze frame (just like The 400 Blows). The multiple endings of Twisted Metal 2 are like miniature Tales From the Crypt stories — like the Story of Axel, the Man With Wheel Arms. Good endings don’t even have to be stories, at all. Super Mario Brothers 3 has some of the most difficult gameplay ever, and this is your reward.

What’s your favorite video game ending, PopWatchers? And fellow Red Dead players, have you recovered emotionally yet?

Comments (144 total) Add your comment
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  • Rob Grizzly

    Nice. I finished Red Dead about a month ago, and I have to agree. It’s the best videogame ending I’ve ever seen. The last act (I loved when my jealous wife met Bonnie McFarlaine) and the epilogue with Jack are phenomenal.

    I’ll never forget when I beat the first NES Metroid and found out my hero was…a girl?! It was an awesome and unique revelation at the time.

    I also liked the endings to both Metal Gear Solid 4 and God of War III. They wrapped up two epic sagas in very satisfying ways.

    • em

      Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

      • Jessica

        Agreed. I mean the whole story is awesome but the ending wraps it all up nicely.

      • Daryl

        Absolutely agreed. Great Story, great ending.

    • Bobby

      Hard to say best ending but I know WORST ending: God of War III.

  • Jay

    Sadly, I haven’t actually “beaten” a video game in close to a decade… but I always liked the ending to classic Metroid.
    You kill Mother Brain, then you have to escape while the entire place is coming down all around you only to find out that the character you’ve been playing this whole time was a chick!
    the first ever video game twist ending :)
    Added replay ability to go through the game again in a bikini

  • Josh

    I haven’t even gotten to play through the full first hour of Red Dead Redemption yet because my PS3 is a piece of junk. Does that mean I’m not going to bother now that I know how it ends? Not really, no. There’s still plenty between the beginning and the end. And I likely won’t remember it between right now and when I get to actually play Red Dead Redemption. Playing Final Fantasy IX at the mo, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to afford a Slim PS3.

    Anywho, favorite video game endings, huh? Let’s see… . . . You know, come to think of it, I’d be hard pressed to pick one. Not because I have so many favorite endings, but because I have so few! I’m more about what happend during the game than what happens once you’ve beaten it. I can’t say nothing really stood out to me, but of all the games I have beaten, I’d have an easier time picking my biggest letdowns.

    • John

      I played FFIX when it first came out ten years. Not sure if you’ve beat it yet, but that game is easily my favorite ending to a game

  • JJ

    Getting to the end of any Zelda game always felt like an accomplishment. I especially enjoyed the “Ocarina of Time” ending.
    Also hated the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2, by the way.

    • DrChocolate

      DING! I lost a month of college to “Ocarina of Time.” No lie. After all that investment I was wholly and completely pleased with that ending. Fantastic Game.

      I particularly loved the ending to the original Halo too. Such cinematic, climatic gameplay.

  • Stacie

    I remember replaying Super Mario on the SNES a number of times just to see the ending. When you puch all the buttons at the same time Mario is forced to do a weird Elaine-like dance.

  • Desmo

    I know it may not have the best ending, but Heavy Rain had one of the best plots. That was enough to compel me through the rest of the “game”.

    • sam

      I totally agree. Heavy Rain is amazing.

    • Tronik

      The endings in that game are also pretty good. I remember beating the challenges, and getting all the characters to the final stage only to have it end with a bittersweet ending for Ethan & his son (fellow Heavy Rain players know what I’m talking about).

    • Amy

      Totally agree about Heavy Rain. I LOVED that game.

  • RyanK

    Maybe it’s just on my mind because of Other M coming out, but I loved the ending of Super Metroid. You finally get to face the Mother Brain, only to have it nearly kill you. But just before it deals the final blow, the metroid comes in and attacks the boss, then shields you from its attacks while it gives you some of it’s power. After all that drama, you’re finally able to kill the boss and think it’s all over, when suddenly they entire planet begins to self-destruct! You’re then forced to gather yourself and escape the planet in just 3 minutes in what becomes a fiendishly difficult platformer. You run like crazy to escape to your ship just as everything below you gets wiped to pieces and the entire planet is destroyed. Absolutely awesome ending, especially considering when this game came out.

    • YH

      Totally agree. How fun was it to unload your hyper-charged cannon at Mother Brain over and over again. One of the most satisfying final boss battles ever.

  • Vanashke

    The multiple endings of Heavy Rain, awesome! Everyone I have talked to has seen one different than I. Fallout 3 pretty cool as well. Ratchet and Clank’s Up Your Arsenal with Dr. Nefarious on the comet with Lawrence, priceless. Ico was good too. Both of Bioshock’s were also satisfying. But Heavy Rain will remain my top for now.

    • Vanashke

      I totally forgot Portal! GLaDOS was brilliant and the song during the credits: inspirational. So great.

      • RyanK

        AWESOME ending. Heck, just for the song alone.

      • Steve

        Still Alive!

  • Chris

    The ending to Final Fantasy IX is my favorite. It’s a little cheesy, but I liked that the characters get a happy ending.

  • Shakespeare

    COME ON DO YOU GUYS OR GALS EVEN PLAY VIDEO GAMES? I’VE ONLY HEARD ONE MENTION OF A FF GAME AND IT WASNT EVEN THE RIGHT ONE. I WOULD SAY THE BEST ENDING TO A VIDEO GAME WOULD BE FF10 IF YOU DONT COUNT THE CRAPPY SEQUEL, OR FF7.

    • RyanK

      I just typed an immaculate ode to the FF7 ending, only to hit “post” and then have it all disappear. :(

      • erak

        The end of FFX was pretty anticlimatic if you ask me. He resolves all of his daddy issues with a high-five? What the hell?

        I would vote for FFVII’s ending… at least, my original interpretation of it. They mention throughout the game that Holy cleanses the earth of all that threatens it, and that could include humanity. After the credits, Red XIII and his kids overlook a grown-over Midgar, no humanity in sight. Seemed to me like Holy wiped everything out.

        Then, of course, the game’s writer said that’s not what actually happened and the ending lost a lot of its guts.

  • jen

    I kind of liked the ending to Maniac Mansion…

    • krista

      I love, love, love Maniac Mansion!
      Now THAT is a game that needs to be remade!

  • Merrydan

    I get something in my eye every time I finish Final Fantasy X.

  • Mark

    I will always love the ending to God Hand for the finale song and all the dancing during the credit scroll.

  • Tajah

    I loved the multiple endings (although not really endings because there are sequels) to Mass Effect 1 and 2 and Dragon Age:Origins

    • Rachel K

      Agreed! The ending to Mass Effect is pretty awesome. I just started Mass Effect 2 so I’m excited to see how that plays out. I’m a new gamer (have an xbox 360) so I’m learning the ropes. Any recommendations would be much appreciated!

      • Tajah

        Anything Bioware makes. They are god.

      • Andrew Ryan

        You need to pick up Bioshock for sure. Should only be $20. One of the best video game plot lines ever, FPS or otherwise.

  • Jimmy

    What about Madden 11? When you win the Super Bowl, you go to the White House and meet Obama!

    • James

      haha. Starcraft 2 had a decent ending, but the build up is better than the ending

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