I wanted some good jumpy climby fun, and I was all out of Tomb Raider, so I spent a few days replaying Prince of Persia. That's the 2008 reboot of the 2003 reboot of the series, if you're keeping track, and who isn't? It's on Steam, ten bucks.
Many many articles were written about this game and its audacious ending. I'm not certain I want to spoil it. It's a ten-year-old game, so you've probably played it; but it's a ten-year-old game, so maybe you haven't played it... okay, fine.
Big ol' SPOILER for Prince of Persia 2008: at the end, you and your NPC companion defeat the dark god -- at great cost. You are not happy with the cost. So, in a post-credits scene, you have the opportunity to undo it; and thus undo everything you've accomplished. Selfishly; self-destructively; tragically.
From a storytelling point of view, this worked great. It's in character; you're a wandering thief, you can be a selfish jerk. It's a sympathetic decision. It's plenty foreshadowed. The surprise is in the narrative construction: the character choice is not presented as a story choice. It's a force. Post-credits, you're stuck in a ruined, empty city. You've got nothing to do, literally mechanically nothing, but undo your success or turn off your computer.
Or jump off a cliff, I suppose. I didn't try that. But suicide is emphatically not in character.
So you can imagine all the reactions, negative and/or positive, from people who liked their story tropes traditional and/or subverted. Some of that is still online, you can read through it.
(Wikis remind me about the DLC episode which extended the story. I dimly remember playing this. Narratively, it did nothing but muck up the ending. You can skip it. It's not included in the Steam release anyhow.)
Ten years have gone by. What have we learned? What games have built on this idea?
I'm not talking about tragedy. Tragedy is cheap (and horror is cheaper). Two out of three walking simulators spring the reveal that you're dead, or everybody else is dead, or both.
I'm not talking about the trope where you've been terribly misled, and everything you've done is bad. Then you have to go back and fix it all, or perhaps destroy everything you've accomplished. That's a plot twist, but it still leads to a triumph. You figure out how to win and then you win.
I'm not talking about games where you can choose the good ending or the bad ending. You always know the difference.
I'm talking about a game where you can see a good ending (to the story), but the real ending (to the game) isn't that. The game says you walk on by and do something else. It's tragedy, but tragedy specifically in the interactive mode.
We normally think of this gimmick in horror games. Don't open that door! ...but you're stuck in the room, you have to open the door. Or solve the puzzle, or whatever. It raises tension or moves the plot forward; this is familiar. What's unique about PoP, I think, is using this gimmick to end the story. It's the "oh no" that you can't fix.
Soma goes down a related path. There's a good ending, but you don't get it because that's not how the universe works. Someone else gets it. It's a traditional tragedy, not something driven by game mechanics, but it left me with something of the same feeling. Perhaps because the body of the game does such a good job of showing you how the universe works.
It occurs to me that my old favorite Soul Reaver tries to pull the trick retroactively. (In the '90s!) The previous game, the original Blood Omen, ended with a good/evil choice -- cheap and unsubtle. Soul Reaver declares that your character chose evil. He decided to conquer the world as a vampire lord. Enjoy his thousand-year reign of blood and tyranny. But this does not occur within the play experience of either game.
I have to include Universal Paperclips. There's no "good ending", but the idea is the same. Everything you do in UP is awful; you do it because you know how to play idle-clicker games.
Oxenfree? Interesting suggestion. The original game is a tragedy; you are trapped. The "new game plus" extended ending offers the possibility that you can escape, but at the cost of undoing everything that you've experienced. This doesn't release evil(tm), but it nullifies all the relationships and character moments that you've become invested in through the game. That counts as far as I'm concerned.
What other examples can we think of? What narrative games mess with the concept of game-victory itself? (As distinct from "happy endings".)