Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
If you’ve seen a big-budget movie any time in the last fifteen years, you’re probably familiar with the concept of an epilogue. Epilogues are final scenes that tie up loose ends, raise thematic questions, or set up future stories. Not every story has an epilogue, however, as endings and epilogues aren’t quite the same. “[An Epilogue] is an addition after your dramatic climax and then the conclusion,” says Zara Altair of Pro Writing Aid. “The epilogue comes after your story is resolved.”1 Epilogues also frequently jump to a new location or point in time, further setting them apart from a more conventional ending. While epilogues are most commonly associated with fiction, such scenes can be found in stories of all forms (including the aforementioned ‘stingers’ at the end of blockbuster movies). Too many epilogue scenes can leave the story feeling bloated, especially when they’re more setup than payoff, but a well-placed epilogue can be both satisfying and exciting.
Video games have made good use of the epilogue over the years, especially in long-standing franchises. As game stories grow to add more characters and more plot threads, they require denser endings to feel complete. Since it’s rarely possible to provide that level of closure with a single scene, epilogues have become an important tool for developers who want their stories to end right. The closing credits have proven to be fertile ground for these types of scenes, as epilogues don’t always need dialogue to function properly. As long as they provide closure, reinforce the theme, or set up future installments, they’re working as intended—no words required.
Types of Epilogues
Game Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1991), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Square-Enix, 1996), Cyberpunk 2077 (CDProjekt Red, 2020)
Tying Up Loose Ends
One of the primary uses for video game epilogues is to tie up loose ends, particularly those that aren’t closely connected to the main story. Games with lots of side quests, like open-world adventures or role-playing games, will often have subplots that benefit from closure outside of the main storyline. On rare occasion, these subplots can be so well done that players actually like them more than the main storyline, so they’ll really want to see how the characters from the subplot are impacted by the ending. Epilogues give developers a chance to close these loops in a satisfying way without intruding on the main storyline, leaving everyone happy.
There’s no shortage of examples of well-placed video game epilogues providing closure for players. Older titles like Super Mario RPG (Square-Enix, 1996) and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1991) use dialogue-free vignettes in the credits to follow up with their extensive casts, while more recent titles can take a cinematic approach with fully-voiced mini-scenes that adapt to the player’s choices. Cyberpunk 2077 (CDProjekt Red, 2020) plays video voicemails from the characters you’ve befriended (or betrayed), revealing how the protagonist’s decisions have changed their lives. Some are grateful for your friendship; others are less forgiving. Some can’t call at all because the player’s actions got them killed. Even though these voicemails aren’t traditional ‘scenes,’ as they’re just talking heads monologuing at the screen, they still provide closure for the characters with no reason to appear in the main ending.
Raising Thematic Questions
Game Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998), Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017)
A common rule of thumb in storytelling is that endings shouldn’t introduce new plot elements, but like all rules, there are benefits to breaking it. A well-timed epilogue twist can re-contextualize the events that came before, forcing audiences to ask questions about the world they thought they knew. These questions frequently reinforce the story’s theme, which is oftentimes a question of its own. For example, in a story where characters are seeking to understand their identities, an epilogue that reveals something new about a character’s background or lineage can give their struggles a different meaning. The specifics will change from story to story, but the potential for the epilogue is the same.
Like epilogues that provide closure, epilogues that raise questions show up in lots of video games. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998) takes great pains to show how the timeline has been changed by Link and Zelda’s actions, but a final scene that shows Link and Zelda repeating a previous encounter makes players wonder exactly how different things have become. Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017) throws a much bigger curveball by revealing that the protagonist is one of the aliens they’ve been fighting, and the whole game has been a test of their willingness to help humanity. This revelation is taken to the next level when the player is given a final choice: extend an (alien) hand in friendship, or kill the humans that have been imprisoning you. Both options answer the story’s thematic questions about the nature of humanity and the potential for cross-species collaboration, and it’s up to the player to decide which answer feels right.
Setting Up Sequels
Game Discussed: Metal Gear Solid Series (Konami), Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix, 1995), Chrono Cross (1999)
It’s one thing to re-contextualize the past, but what if you want to build anticipation for the future? Good news: epilogues are great at that, too. Writers who know they have sequels in the works can use epilogues to hint at new conflicts and characters, piquing the audience’s well before the next release. These preview epilogues, also called ‘stingers’ or ‘teasers,’ are particularly effective for adapted works with built-in fanbases. Characters or plot points that seem new to people who only know the adaptation will be familiar and exciting to people who know the original work. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has used this concept to great effect over the years, hinting at future conflicts that will please longtime comic fans. Writers who wish to do this with their works should use such referential epilogues carefully, as they risk alienating newcomers if they rely on prior knowledge to make sense.
The bigger video game franchises get, the more opportunities they have to tease future installments in their epilogues. Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series is particularly noteworthy for this, as each game ends with a stinger that sheds new light on old conspiracies while introducing new ones that promise to be even more bizarre. Similar teaser endings have become so popular in games that developers who remaster old titles may add them in after the fact, tying together titles that only had a tenuous relationship in their original forms. Square-Enix did this twice with Chrono Trigger (1995), adding new epilogues in both their Playstation and Nintendo 3DS remasters. While the endings depicted different scenes (with one being animated, the other in the original pixel art), both strengthened the connections between Trigger and its sequel, Chrono Cross (Square-Enix, 1999). Of course, it’s impossible to say if those scenes would’ve been the same if the developers had known to put them in from the start, but fans were nevertheless appreciative of the additional connective tissue.
Epilogues may represent a small portion of a story, but they still have huge potential. When used properly, they can tie up loose threads, reinforce thematic questions, set up sequels, or any combination thereof. Writers who want to use epilogues in their own works should first consider what they’re trying to achieve, then keep that goal in focus as they craft the pitch-perfect ending.
Setup and Payoff
Using foreshadowing to plant questions, then answering them at the opportune time.
StoryScan: DEATHLOOP and Endings
An incurious protagonist punts DEATHLOOP’s key questions to its endings.
StoryScan: Prey and Setting
Prey (2017) maximizes its setting, a labyrinthine space station, by using it to illuminate the plot, the characters, and the theme.