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The End of the Whispered World

This blog post contains whoppingly enormous spoilers. It’s mainly written for people who’ve played The Whispered World. If you haven’t played it but have an interest in doing so – and I can cautiously recommend it – you might want to, like, totally not read this at all.

I’m writing this blog post mainly to shout at Raze, who liked the ending of The Whispered World, but also because I intended to rant about this after letting the game settle for a bit, so that spoilers would become a little more acceptable. The game’s months old now, so I finally feel comfortable explaining exactly why its ending made me really, really angry.

What it boils down to is this: it’s Alice in Wonderland.

In case people are reading this who haven’t played it and who have no interest in playing it, I’ll sum up what happens. Just to warn you again, THESE ARE SPOILERS. They SPOIL THE ENTIRE STORY, including A BIG TWIST. Gosh, you really are stubborn.

You’ve just played through an entire game as Sadwick. At the start he was a depressed young boy working for his nasty family in a travelling circus. But then he met an oracle who told him the world was going to end, and it would be his fault. So Sadwick goes on a quest to prevent the world from ending, travelling to a whole bunch of magical lands in the process. He begins the game with no confidence, but over the course of it, it grows, and he learns about himself as a person.

Ultimately his goal has been to meet the king. But when he gets there, instead of the king, he finds simply a mirror. And he steps through it.

Beyond the mirror is a small, dark room, and there’s another “mirror” on the other side. Through that mirror, he can see… himself. In a hospital bed. He’s not dressed in a clown costume, but rather a hospital gown, and he’s in a coma. His dad sits beside him, reading a story. And it’s revealed that the story he’s been reading is the one you’ve just played through.

In other words, you’re in a coma, this has all been a dream, and your father’s story has seeped through into your imagination.

The game offers Sadwick a choice. I very specifically use “Sadwick” there instead of “you”. Either Sadwick can pass through the mirror in front of him, thus destroying the world you’ve just spend the entire game within and returning to the real world; or he can pass back through the mirror behind him, thus destroying the real world and remaining in the imaginary world forever.

The game gives you no input into this decision. Sadwick chooses the real world. He destroys the dream world, just as the oracle predicted.

Which turns what could have been an absolutely heartbreaking decision to make into something that… oh, the game’s just made it for you, and there’s nothing you could have done.

There are a great deal of things wrong with this, but they all centre around it being a pure Alice in Wonderland moment, when it could have been so very poignant.

I have no problem, technically, with the fact that it turned out to be all a dream. However, roleplaying the character of Sadwick, I am not certain I would have made the choice that was eventually picked for me. It would have been an extremely difficult decision to make – and as such a spectacular ending – for a couple of reasons. You can literally look at your father, almost in tears, begging for you to wake up. Yet on the other hand, you’ve finally found your place in this world: you’ve become attached to its characters and you’ve made a difference. I feel I’m understating how much The Whispered World manages to draw you into its imaginary universe. So let me spell it out. It is enough that it would be a difficult choice between that, and the real world where Sadwick’s family awaits.

This is also partially because we have absolutely no reason to be invested in Sadwick’s family. We’ve never met them. Only now do we recognise that there even is a “real world”, and that the one we’ve been in is in fact false. At the sight of his father, memories come flooding back to Sadwick, I’m sure. But they don’t come flooding back to me. And as such, I don’t feel compelled that passing through the mirror in front of me is the right thing to do.

And furthermore, it’s suggested that even though these people and places are elements of Sadwick’s subconscious, they’re as “real” as anything in the real world itself. And in passing through the mirror in front of me in order to save my own life and be with my family, I would be destroying all of that. I can’t be sure which choice I would have made, ultimately. But I do know that being forced to make that choice would have been horrible, and painful, and an absolutely wonderful thing for a game to dare to do.

But it doesn’t. It chickens out. It gives Sadwick a completely jarring change of character, and has him make “the right choice”. It’s contrived, it’s false, and it rips away all emotional investment from the player. It becomes a story that tells you “and then he woke up and it had all been a dream.” It becomes Alice in Wonderland.

It could have avoided that fate so easily. I can think of at least three ways around it. Either give the player that choice. Force me to make it. Give me the option of defying the oracle, and dealing with the consequences.

Or alternatively, pull the revelation slightly earlier in the game – and the big twist literally comes in a final cut-scene, that’s how late it’s left – and then have me arrive at the decision with Sadwick. Convince me, by way of additional narrative elements somehow, that the right choice absolutely is to return to the real world. That way, I would have felt it was my decision, even though it was predetermined by the game.

Alternatively, just don’t make it a matter of choice. Don’t offer Sadwick this choice at all. The Longest Journey springs to mind here. I’ll try to avoid proper spoilers, but a warning is in place nevertheless. The Longest Journey frames that you will have the opportunity to make a spectacular, world-changing decision at the end. But when that finale comes, you don’t. Your character was mistaken. And it’s tragic and terrible, because you’ve prepared yourself, but then… no. You don’t have that opportunity. You’re not who you thought you were.

If you really wanted Sadwick to return to the real world, don’t give him the choice: just send him back there. That in itself could be a beautifully haunting moment, as he awakes, and tries to come to terms with the fact that the world he’s become so attached to wasn’t real.

By giving Sadwick the choice, but not allowing the player to make that choice with him, it robs it of everything that was so almost wonderful. The game has many problems, but significantly, I cared enough about the world and characters it presented that the ending really made me see red. It could have been a miraculous example of videogame narrative. Instead, it falls absolutely, totally flat.

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8 responses »

  1. I was told to tell you that you are wrong :D

    /baby killer

    Reply
  2. When I said I liked it, I meant I liked the concept of it, as opposed to it NOT being an imaginary world (which is foreshadowed quite a few times in the game, so I’d kind of guessed how it was going to turn out, which might have lessened the fact I couldn’t choose – I didn’t even consider trying to choose the alternative though). I don’t disagree with the fact that it could’ve been handled better, though.

    Reply
  3. If you like the concept, watch the English TV series Life on Mars and then Ashes To Ashes.

    They are fantastic story telling and cover the concept of imaginary worlds from a coma in a more rewarding way in the end than Whispered World did.

    Reply
  4. Dear Lewis,

    thank you very much for your profound analysis. I agree wholeheartly!

    Giving someone who invested time in something (playing is investing time!) a choice and then take that choice away at the end is bad design because it is frustrating.

    Happy Holidays!

    Reply
  5. Great post. Thanks for writin’ it. I finished the game the last night and I cried for almost a hour. The finale is surely touching and it’s been great to brink back Sadwick in the real life to his family but….I am so attached to the “imaginary Sadwick” that I can’t even think to separate from him and from the sweet Spot.The sequence when Spot saves Sadwick’s life made me break down in tears, even if I expected it somehow. I’ll just keep Sadwick and Spot in my heart. I don’t even want to compare this story to Alice In Wonderland, maybe ’cause I don’t like that story too much, who knows.. :) I only know that Sadwick and Spot are very special to me and I like to think that they saved the world and they came back to the Autumn Forest to live their happy life…. Indeed, Sadwick told it “Then we’ll stay together forever, okay?”… Cheers. L.

    Reply
  6. I just finished playing this game and I agree with you heartily. To me, the ending feels like if at the end of Neverending Story Sebastien had chosen NOT to re-imagine Fantasia or ride the luck dragon or anything, but just went back to his mundane life. It’s not true to the emotion of the story. I enjoyed the game, but felt robbed at the end. Grr. Also, as a science fiction and fantasy writer, a hallmark of a bad, poorly thought out story is one where it ends with ‘and it was all just a dream.’ Grr. Grr. Grr.

    Reply
  7. I only just completed the game with my 8 year old Nephew. We played the game start to end over 20 hours and grew to love Spot and Sadwick as a tough lil duo. I was initially concerned that my nephew was too young for the story and a few moment aside (Sadwick saying “Goodnight mom” as he blew out candles made me want to tear up myself) it was good PG type fun. I tackled the tough puzzles but he solved many for himself and we were both invested.

    So we got to the ending and I had certainly been getting a ‘Neverending Story’ vibe for some time… I cleaned the mirror was a certain amount of dread… and was justly rewarded. Wow. To go from cheering Spot’s dramatic rescue to a world/heart breaking decision was really brutal. I have to say I tried breaking Sadwick’s world mirror first and was more than dismayed when it wouldn’t break, more for my nephew than myself as I knew what it meant. For an adult I guess you side with reality (life) in the face of fantasy (death) but for a child the consequences of it are almost meaningless.

    I liked that the ending tied up loose ends (like those electrical and stagnation pipes) really well and how the credits went even further.. indicating that even in the real world those marvelous characters are alive (if now in somewhat more mundane forms). I will point out that Sadwick is seen in the shattered mirror by the boy even after he wakes which was the one saving point I could use to console my fellow gamer.. Sadwick survives and is free to go home. I prayed for an after credit sequence to that effect but the pantaloon line just didn’t cut it for me. I so wanted the world made anew for the clown and spot.

    I would have liked a choice at the end, even if it just led to two slightly differing endings. I found RachelDryden’s comment interesting as in my Steam review I mentioned that the ending was like Neverending Story minus the final Falcor scene (I was trying hard to review the ending without spoiling it) and that if you couldn’t bare that (I once rented it on VHS and someone had wiped the final scene.. sadist!) this games ending might not work for you.

    I was put in mind of 70’s – 80’s kids movies where tough things happen, characters die (like in Beastmaster and Dragonslayer) and they don’t come back.. coz that’s reality and makes their deaths actually meaningful. When you have terrible movies like the new ‘Clash of the Titans’ where a character dies and says she wants to.. only to be revived because that’s nice for the hero ignoring her wishes (oh and is a relation of the hero in mythology) it cheapens things to the point where sacrifice is meaningless.. you expect death to be undone.

    I struggled to find an age rating for this game and one minor naughtish word aside (Pisssspot) I found it really open and interesting and suitable for my companion, It was a shame that ending was just so brutal and linear.

    Reply

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