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Sad ending: Is good storytelling at odds with 'winning'? Exclusive
Sad ending: Is good storytelling at odds with 'winning'?
September 6, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

September 6, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Many players crave more authorship and storytelling in games -- until they get an ending they don't like. That's a challenge for developers focused on strong narratives, and it raises an important question: Is a well-spun tale at odds with the player's natural desire to solve problems and win?

Though it's considered niche, the market for traditional point-and-click adventure games remains vocal and patient. For those folks, there's Wadjet Eye Games, indie label for story-driven puzzlers like Emerald City Confidential and the Blackwell games, among others. The company's known to carry a torch for the genre, and focuses particular effort on writing and voice acting.

Most recently, the company teamed with XII Games on Resonance, an adventure about a mysterious technology disaster, the legacy of a dead physicist and the looming threat of a shadowy corporation. The game unfolds through the perspective of four protagonists -- a scientist, a nurse, a police officer and a journalist -- and the player is eventually free to switch among them (think Day of the Tentacle) to solve puzzles in teams.

The multiple-character gameplay is also an important tool for the game's storytelling, as the player's information about each character's true motives is often intentionally obscured. As the story builds to its climax, it's often easy to wonder who's really on the right side -- and that's when one can guess at what the "right" side really is.

A careful balance

One challenge for point-and-click stories is that the difficulty of the puzzles needs to be carefully balanced against the story. The times when these games have needlessly frustrated progress with a disproportionately-complicated obstacle or unintuitive solutions remain legendary tales, perennially-ripe, even though in some cases it's been a decade or more since.

Meanwhile, neither do players like to be made to feel like they're being sent on obvious errands just because the developer wants them to have something to do between one plot point and the next. But Resonance generally manages this balance well with puzzles that are meaty, engaging and feel worth persisting at -- and this is largely because players are invested in finding out the true story within the game's fast-paced events.

What was the late doctor's research really about? Who is the intriguing man seen disappearing behind one of three Roman-numbered doors? How to fool elaborate security systems and unravel sinister databases? There's a sense of genuine and well-paced urgency throughout Resonance that admirably commands the player's attention.

And the promise that each of the four characters knows something the others don't buoys the game mechanic whereby characters use events in their long-term memories to trigger discussions; they can also store short-term memories, images of objects in their environment, to ask other characters about later. In a game that's partially about the terrible power of information and the importance of memories past, this is a fun twist.

Based on what players learn about the larger stakes and the motivations of the enemy, there are two possible endings, a degree of agency that feels appropriate for the story. Without spoiling specifics, though, neither ending is particularly happy. One, called the "lesser of two evils" ending, has the glimmer of a silver lining, but in both cases the characters we've come to like and root for experience Pyrrhic victories.

And the game affords players so much agency (even allowing them to experience the game's expository chapters in any order they like), that it's easy to finish Resonance, and conclude that now that we've got all the information, we should be able to go back and prevent some of the disasters we didn't have the clarity to prevent when we first encountered them. What would have happened if you declined to follow a certain instruction now revealed to have been sinister, or had you made a different choice? Would the outcome have been different if you'd let a different character take the lead at a crucial juncture, or tried to trigger a key conversation earlier?

These are natural questions for a player who's done all a game's requisite problem-solving -- but who is still told there are some problems that just aren't solvable. Of course, that's the way of the world, and if our interest is in sophisticated storytelling, that clearly means there isn't always a happy ending. There may be a thought-provoking ending, or a tragic one, but to refuse to allow the player to complete all possible tidy heroics is a valid narrative choice.

Emotional impact

In the history of games, a "bad," unhappy or unsatisfying ending has been the player's penalty for failing to be thorough enough, to take enough care of other characters, for avoiding avenues to key story arcs. Past-gen games -- particularly horror titles from Japan -- would often provide different endings based on subtle elements like how much damage the player sustained or how many supplies they consumed.

Receiving an ambivalent ending has often been a way for the developer to gently let the player know they should go back and give it another try. And because players want to succeed at all the available challenges and scratch that itch for sorting chaos and solving problems, they almost always would, learning their way through the guts of a game until they had figured out how to attain the conditions they felt were optimal.

Frustrating the player's wishes can be a way to create emotional impact. JRPG fans will always remember there was no way to save Aeris, although cult stories about secret methods to do so persist in some internet corners even today. Shadow of the Colossus wouldn't be as indelible if there were ways to dodge the sad bits.

When Silent Hill 2's protagonist at last arrives at the hotel where he's to rejoin his supposedly-late wife Mary, the game knows the player will charge up to the third floor where she's said to be waiting -- and intentionally blocks off this easiest of avenues. The player will hear the rattle of a locked gate and the sound of her calling from down the hall, and there is hardly a more incredible device in the entire franchise.

Games that know how and when to deny the player power are permanently memorable, and sad stories have as much a place in gaming's lexicon as happy ones. But when endings make us feel like we can't win, suddenly those of us that said we cared the most about storytelling are upset.

The clearest example of this kind of fan ire is the Mass Effect 3 controversy, only to be salved by BioWare's agreeing to release a different conclusion to the expansive trilogy. Good storytelling means your fans get invested in the characters you've made -- and it also makes them less willing to accept the fate you've decided for them and their world.

Does that mean developers interested in good stories have to make sure players have a way to save the world, even if it's hard? Not necessarily, but it raises important questions about the role an ending plays in one's overall satisfaction with a game experience.

Just a few years ago, the commercial trend seemed to favor less effort and investment in a game's ending. Many bigger studios were pointing to studies about how few players actually finish games as evidence of the idea that the journey matters much more than the destination. But I continue to believe we're in a renaissance for story-driven games, with audience interest in new and classic forms alike quickly ramping up.

Clever game designers and writers will continue seeking smart ways to tackle the problem of creating strong tragedies or complex outcomes without making players feel like they're being forced to fail.

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Matt Robb
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I think the real trick to the "can't win" ending is that you have to feel like it was inevitable.

If you allow the player to make choices that seem to point towards a happy ending, then have some contrived twist that invalidates those choices, they're liable to be unhappy. It can't feel contrived. On the other hand, if the story makes you feel the tragedy of being doomed in spite of a grand struggle to do the right thing or save the world, then the ending will feel legitimate.

Joe McGinn
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Agree ... in Dear Esther I felt like it was inevitable, I would have had no problem jumping off that tower. At the same time Esther was utterly ruined by taking away that choice, by taking away interactivity and replacing it with a movie. It was brilliant up to that point and killed by that one mistake.

So lesson two: have a little trust in your audience. A game is interactive. When you take away interactivity precisely at the tragic moment it loses all emotional power.

Joe McGinn
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I think the hatred towards the Mass Effect 3 endings is a good example of what you're talking about Matt. It felt manipulative, unfair, almost deceitful on the part of the developers.

Jeff Spock
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Atypically for BioWare, I wouldn't trot out ME3 as an example of a good but tragic ending that fans refused to accept. I would trot it out as an atrocious, satan-ex-machina ending that in many ways recursively ruined the excellent storytelling in much of the trilogy.

However, the question of endings is fascinating, particularly given the desire to provide player agency and multiple outcomes. After all, if "Romeo and Juliet" was a game would they both have to live to avoid 'forced failure'?

Another tragedy of game storytelling is not that studios don't care about endings because few players make it there; what is worse is that the FX / cutscene budget might be gone before development gets to that point and you're left finishing your epic tale with rushed 2D art and voice-overs. No, this is not hyperbole. BTDT.

There are methods for getting around the issue of tragedy. After all, who expected Max Payne to finish with the detective noir equivalent of marrying Prince Charming? The techniques differ depending on game genre, story genre, and the number of protagonists, but here are some thoughts that have been kicked around on some of the projects I've been on:
- There is a meta-story that is a tragedy, and the player succeeds brilliantly in their part while living the greater failure.
- The player does indeed watch Romeo and Juliet die, but in the denouement he sees the Montagues and the Capulets burying the hatchet (or the doloire, given that it's Renaissance Italy)
- The dev team lets the player win the triumphant last conflict, then closes with an image of the unwinnable next one without the player having to actually struggle and fail.

Smarter people can doubtless come up with more, and it's a subject that could certainly use more exploration. But as game development matures, I hope to see a lot more game story that feels like "Sling Blade" or "Macbeth".

Michael Rooney
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Deus/satan-ex-machina is not the right word. The ending didn't come out of nowhere. The ending came entirely from inside the story. The same threat at the beginning is the same threat at the end. The device they built was capable of doing exactly what it was supposed to do from the moment it's introduced. Nothing external to the existing story up to the ending comes in to destory or save anybody or change anything.

The only thing deus-ex-machina-ish about the ending is how Anderson got onto the citadel.

Chris OKeefe
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I think I missed the part about Ghost Child: Destroyer of Worlds at the beginning of the game, but what do I know, it came out years ago.

Honestly it was about as deus ex machina as I think a story can get. Although it wasn't quite a god who appeared and changed the fate of the galaxy, deus ex machina requires two things;

1) An event, being, or object appears to solve or direct the solution of a crucial problem. Check.
2) This event or being is generally not foreshadowed or predictable, and is not internal to the story up until that point. Check.

You know, it's funny, but as I was writing this comment I decided to double-check wiki to see if my recollection of this kind of plot device was sound, and it actually uses Mass Effect 3 and the Catalyst as an example of a bad deus ex machina. 'Wiki being wiki' arguments aside, I find that pretty funny.

It is a deus ex machina. The destroyers may have been in from the start, but the destroyers were not the deus ex machina. The catalyst was.

David Navarro
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Chris, *exactly*. And what makes it worse is that the ending to Mass Effect 2 was the complete opposite (a hard-fought victory, towards which all the efforts made earlier in the game contributed meaningfully), and set up expectations that were dashed in ME3. Well, not so much dashed as stomped flat, doused in gasoline and set alight.

Michael Rooney
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1. The child is just the manifestation of the Reaper intelligence communicating with Shepherd. He makes this quite clear if you pay any attention through the course of the game.

2. In what way was it not foreshadowed or predictable? The Reapers are attacking earth at the beginning of the game, they are attacking it at the end. The plan is to get onto the citadel for the last portion of the game, and you get onto the citadel. You set out to create/use a weapon that can destroy the Reapers. The weapon can destroy them just as it was supposed to throughout the entire game.

The fact that the villain (the reapers) tell the hero all of his options or their backstory is not at all unique to Mass Effect, nor is it in any way Deus Ex Machina.

@"And what makes it worse is that the ending to Mass Effect 2 was the complete opposite (a hard-fought victory, towards which all the efforts made earlier in the game contributed meaningfully)"
That is not the opposite of Deus Ex Machina. It is the real reason people are upset though. They're just mad that none of their choices made a huge difference except their last one, which is not deus ex machina.

edit: One thing that would have been nice is if you didn't get enough military support you shouldn't be able to make it to the catalyst at all, that would at least have indirect affects from all your choices.

Chris OKeefe
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1. It is not the collective intelligence of the Reapers, it is the original software that was built to command the Reapers. Up until that point there was no reason to think that the Reapers weren't independent. This might seem like splitting hairs, but (in my opinion) it is essentially the equivalent of Star Wars introducing a final 'Leader' of the Empire at the end of the movies that was never spoken of or alluded to, who then, through quality of being the ultimate authority of the Empire, is convinced by Luke of the error of his ways and essentially 'allows' Luke to destroy the death star by opening the vent that was used to destroy it.

Obviously open to argument, and it's a hasty analogy, but I think it's a fair one.

2. The citadel was not actually meant to be a weapon. It is the catalyst who allows the citadel to be used as such. The crucible is the weapon, it simply requires the catalyst to function. There is an important distinction there. The catalyst isn't revealed until the last minutes of the game. And it turns out to be both the barrier and the solution to their problems.

We can go back and forth on whether or not this constitutes a legitimate deus ex machina. I contend it does, but I'm not a literary student.

Ultimately it's irrelevant whether or not they used that particular device. It is clumsy, awkward, and abrupt writing either way. And even that is not the real crux of the issue; honestly, I think most detractors would agree that they would have been satisfied with the choices *if* they got to see the repercussions of their earlier choices displayed in the ending cutscenes. The fact is that they only did three 'versions' of the ending cinematic, and only one of those was affected in a meaningful way by the decisions you made earlier in the game, and even that cinematic was a simple retexture of existing cinematics. There is no dialogue or text or imagery that gives so much as the tiniest hint about what effect your decisions had on the galaxy, despite the fact that regardless of what you chose in the ending, there were many decisions made over the course of the game that would have made for very different results after the destruction of the gates.

So why not tell us what happened to the Krogans, or the Telurians, or the other races? Why not take the time to do so? Considering how much weight the game puts on those decisions, how much it hints at broad implications, to end the game on such an impersonal, lackluster note is just lazy.

Michael Rooney
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"1. It is not the collective intelligence of the Reapers, it is the original software that was built to command the Reapers."

My statement was poorly worded. I didn't mean the entire collective intelligence of the Reapers. For lack of a better metaphor I view the catalyst as a different model of Reaper similar to the way BSG's cylons had different models. The way I read it was that the catalyst predated the current Reapers and could have been their creator; either way they have the same shared goal/understanding.

It happened to manifest itself as a child, but I see no reason why it couldn't have manifested in any of many forms.

"2. The citadel was not actually meant to be a weapon."

According to whom? There's very little actually known about the operation of the citadel in ME lore even after the end of ME3.

"So why not tell us what happened to the Krogans, or the Telurians, or the other races? Why not take the time to do so? Considering how much weight the game puts on those decisions, how much it hints at broad implications, to end the game on such an impersonal, lackluster note is just lazy."

How many stories do you know go in depth on what happens after the end of the story? Some of them have epilogues, but I don't know of any epilogue that goes into detail on more than a handful of characters if it goes into any detail at all.

Maria Jayne
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I think it's important to distinguish the difference between a sad ending and a bad ending.

A sad ending proves you were emotionaly attatched and that the story writers did a good job in creating that attatchment which made you care.

A bad ending proves the ending was not well thought out and you just made your players feel cheated for investing any time in your game or their characters.

Evan Combs
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The only game I have played that I thought did a sad ending well was Halo:Reach. Although Bungie did have an advantage there with it being a prequel so they could easily intertwine a feeling of hope, even though you aren't going to survive.

Andrew Wallace
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I hadn't thought of this example, but you're right. You knew before the game started that Reach would fall and everyone would die, but by entrusting you with Cortana, who the player knows will be vital to saving the universe (though the character does not), the last level is imbued with a sense of heroic sacrifice- the other three games would not have been possible without this.

Ardney Carter
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Definitely agree with Matt and Jeff. 2 points you mentioned stood out for me.

"...if the story makes you feel the tragedy of being doomed in spite of a grand struggle to do the right thing...then the ending will feel legitimate"

"There is a meta-story that is a tragedy, and the player succeeds brilliantly in their part while living the greater failure"

I feel both of those elements are key to conveying to the player what's to come without necessarily giving awy the ending. When reading this, what came to mind was the DS title Radiant Historia. [Spoilers]

Throughout the game you are constantly reminded that the odds of you saving the world are ridiculously small (the reminders actually coming in the form of soft game-overs, itself an inspired idea) so when you ultimately complete the game by losing the life of the player character, it doesn't feel forced or cheap but totally justified and sufficiently moving. Granted, I've read online that there is a perfect path through the game that will allow you to finish with the protagonist in tact. But I haven't gotten around to revisiting the game to do that and I don't feel any particular urgency to do so because the tragic ending I got felt so appropriate. [end spoiler]

So I definitely do feel that tragic endings can be acceptable to players if handled properly. But, as was pointed out by the other comments, much hinges on them feeling appropriate for the setting and, perhaps, being hinted at just enough to raise the possibility in the players mind without necessarily giving anything away.

Douglas Scheinberg
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Seriously, go back and get the 100% ending. It's *even more* moving than the other one; in no way is it a cop-out.

Jonathan Jennings
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I hope spoilers are expected in a article like this but I know for me Red dead redemption was the perfect example of a sad ending that I "felt " was coming but as a player I didn't think or denied would happen occurred. IT did make progressing through the game kind of bitter sweet because you knew at some point john marston had to pay for everything he has done which is sad because by the time we interact with him as a player he jus wants a simple life with his family but after understanding that his goal is to get rid of people like himself what can you do but assume at the end this circle of killing off dinosaurs is going to come right back at you the last remaining dinosaur .

I enjoyed it personally but i always held hope that somehow karma would miss john marston but at the end he pays just like everyone he has punished .

To me the sadness made for a great story and definitely one i will remember , the goal of playing the game was to find out john marstons story and to see if he ever was redeemed of his prior life and that was what drove my gameplay as i tried to discover what his fate would be , i was hoping with every fiber of my being i could somehow intervene as the invincible omnipresent player i was but i could not.

anyway it was a lot of fun and in the case of RDR i never found the tragic story to be at odds with my progress.

Ron Dippold
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RDR is one of my perfect sad ending examples. I could feel it coming. It was inevitable. I enjoyed the brief happy tedium while feeling trepidatious. My stomach dropped when the inevitable happened, but it never felt wrong, and John went out like John should have.

I'm not sure I have a better example of how to do an extremely good sad ending in a video game. Games like One Chance are too short, and even otherwise fantastic games like Silent Hill 2 allow you multiple endings. RDR is THE honest ending....

Except then they didn't have the commercial stomach for it and they they pull the Jack thing. Sigh. But I guess I can excuse Jack as an epilogue ex machina. Yeah. Sure.

Stephen Hayden
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I agree with pretty much everything in this article except for the inclusion of Mass Effect 3. I don't think anyone would have complained about the ending being 'bad' just because it was 'sad' when you learned Shepard had to die. If that was the only issue I think there would have been very few complaints because anyone can see that if Shepard was faced with a choice to save the galaxy at the cost of her own life, she would willingly give herself.

The ending to Mass Effect was considered 'bad' because the main elements presented in the final conflict were not along the same line as the game's main story arc. The ideas in the element were present throughout the series, but they weren't the main idea so to speak.

But mainly, people thought it was bad because the core mechanic of the gameplay wasn't present in that last choice. The choices you made throughout the series did lead you to receive different endings, but the endings were so similar that it felt like the choices, i.e. all of the gameplay leading up to that moment, didn't matter at all.

There was no dislike of Mass Effect 3 because it was sad. As many other people have pointed out, there are lists of other games with tragic endings that didn't annoy everyone who played them.

Gian Dominguez
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"I didn't expected a harvest Moon game to have the ending I find in that one (which sadly I don't remember the name right now)."

Harvest moon a wonderful life.

Back on topic, "sad" ending are actually quite nice at time. My favorite example is Fatal Frame. Even the "best" ending in Fatal Frame 2 mean the protagonist ended up blinded. The "normal" ending which is the canonical ending had the protagonist kill the sister. But I didnt feel "bad" about it. If anything it felt like it was the natural conclusion to the story.

Yuliya Geikhman
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I love that you used Resonance as an example here, because the twist there caught me so completely off-guard. That was an ending that, as you say, made me feel helpless in the choices I made, knowing they would lead to an inevitable bad or worse ending.

But another game that did that beautifully (which Evan Combs' comment reminded me of) was Crisis Core. You KNOW how that game is going to end. You KNOW what's going to happen. And yet you get involved and almost hope that there's a way to prevent it.

Sad endings are good endings too. The best endings have left me thinking long after the game was over..

Joshua Darlington
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"Happily ever after" is a recent development. Here are a few examples of real endings for folk tales:

The original Greek "hero" was defined as a hero by their heroic death. Unfortunately, a sour ending is not good word-of-mouth marketing. People remember experiences based on their peak and end events. So if you are going to make the player eat dirt to save the farm, you do need that scene where the angels come down and tell the world that it was a good and noble death to be celebrated for all eternity... or whatever.

I think a lot of player dissatisfaction in story events could be solved with ENTERTAINMENT. Yunno, play with the player the way you would play with your friends in the play ground. Dare them. Promise them a good time and deliver. Not all players play a game the same way, but they are all looking for fun.

Matthew Weise
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The obvious response to this is that game developers (like Hollywood) remain perpetually confused about concepts like "catharsis". Tragedy isn't about "failure" - it's about an audience gaining insight, understanding, illumination, etc., and if done correctly this feels satisfying, not disappointing. Yes, even for a broad commercial audience. (Ever heard of Titanic? Braveheart? Come on, people.)

That's just the superficial layer, though. There's a deeper problem in (American?) culture. We, as a society, connect sadness with "failure" happiness with "success". This is deeply fucked up in a way that goes far beyond video games.

When you live in a culture where suffering, sadness, mourning, introspection, etc. - which are all *normal* part of human existence - have been pathologized by everything from the medical industry, to entertainment, to even the mythic basis of the society ("The Pursuit of Happiness"), there is no way for people to understand sadness *except* as failure.

As always, we should push back against this in games, but we should also recognize we're basically fighting a symptom of a bigger cultural sickness.

Joshua Darlington
profile image's_Travels

"John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a popular young Hollywood director fresh from a string of very profitable, but shallow comedies (e.g. Ants in Your Plants of 1939) , tells his studio boss, Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick), that he is dissatisfied and wants his next project to be a serious exploration of the plight of the downtrodden, to be based on the socially-conscious novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Sinclair Beckstein. Not surprisingly, Lebrand wants him to direct another, more lucrative comedy instead..."

Michael Rooney
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One unmentioned game with a great sad ending is the most recent Prince of Persia game. Also the sands of time ended in a somewhat melancholy way. Not necessarily sad, but not really happy either.

Ian Nancarrow
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I can't believe no one is talking about Bastion in this topic. Possible spoilers ahead:

The entire game is about the reflection of what was lost and how you must cope with the doom and destruction. You come to discover that you have the opportunity to "get it all back," or "move on." Neither one is increasingly happy or evident as a good ending, but your choice leads way in your mind how you send the characters off at the end of the story. In the end the feeling of worldly loss is still there - you can't save the people lost in the calamity, but you hope that the characters will make it through.

On a personal level, when I finished Bastion I found myself with the decision to return or to fly. I chose return, and soon after the "new game+" momentarily noted a sense of déjà vu. In my perspective, the game was declaring that my decision had no impact at all, that I just sent the characters back in time to re-live the entire ordeal all over again. As silly as it may seem, I found a part of myself that I didn't see before - that I'm the kind of person to recall the past first thing before thinking of the future - all thanks to this game.

Matthew Weise said it already. I kind of hit a realization through a game that was particularly based around reoccurring tragedy and hope, and even though the ending was not anything save-the-world, get-the-girl, sunshine-and-rainbows kind of deal, I found myself emotionally satisfied when it was all over.

Lex Allen
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I hate happy endings because they're not realistic, but if I don't give one, a lot of people will complain. My solution is to provide a "light" ending for people who don't want to chance an unhappy ending.

The problem is that Warner Brothers and Disney really have people used to predictable happy endings, but shouldn't you at least wonder if you're going to get a good ending or not? Knowing that the ending will be happy takes the fun out of the adventure I think.

Roger Tober
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I think this is genre specific. Although an adventure can get by with any ending because the reward is simply furthering the pre-written story, in a game in which the player chooses story paths, the ending is going to be viewed as a reward. That's why people got hugely upset about ME3, but hardly ever complain about how a point and click adventure ends unless it's a cliff hanger prelude to the sequel. A game with multiple story paths will never be a literary masterpiece, it will be the story blocks of a building put together by the player.

John Beiswenger
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Leigh, very good article. Exceptional. My younger son tells me you can't have more than one protagonist in a game, while Resonance has a scientist, a nurse, a police officer and a journalist, and the player is free to switch among them. I find that very interesting. I have the premise and storyline for a game (or screenplay) with the opportunity for multiple protagonists. John

Heitor Paola
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Still, one of the things that I found to be disappointing about Resonance was the fact that one of the endings (I don't know its name, but I do believe it is the "lesser of two evils") does end up being very "good". It may seem at first that the characters are in for some tough times, but newspaper cuts shown while the credits roll wrap up everything nicely, putting a bow above all the problems that seemed almost impossible to be resolved.