Note: Be warned that there will be uncensored spoilers in this opinion piece.
Second Note: This article contains my own expositions, interpretations and theories about the XIII games, and it is every reader's prerogative to agree or disagree as they choose.
Third Note: The current selection is liable to change with changing opinions and new releases.
Endings: everything has them, especially video games. With the shaky exception of MMOs, each video game has its dénouement, where the player either has to start a new game or plays areas and levels over again to gain achievements, look for hidden secrets or simply experience their favorite moments again, unless there's a cutscene theater available. Endings can tear us apart inside (The Last of Us) or leave us with a mass of hopeful joy within (Metal Gear Solid 1). They can even make us laugh (Bayonetta), scratch our heads (Tales of the Abyss), hang on the edge of expectation (Shenmue 2), or yell in frustration that we didn't get resolution (Too Human). Not many endings have become as noteworthy, or notorious, as those found within the Final Fantasy series.
In this one series is every single variation on the ending that's possible to imagine, made available to us through XIV/XV main titles, over a dozen sequels and oh-god-it's-that-many spin-offs. Who could forget the swelling feelings of hope and sadness that accompanied the ending of Final Fantasy VII, the surge of hope in Final Fantasy VI, the one that had us wondering what the hell happened in Final Fantasy VIII, that had us in tears in Final Fantasy X, and of course the one that threw us a fully-fledged Gainax in the form of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. In this piece, I shall be taking specific endings (the ones that people might generally consider to be the strongest, the worst or the most confusing) and showing them as examples of the ending tropes in action. And of how, despite everything, they suit the games they were placed in.
This one's tricky, because even I'm puzzled by it. Of course, the whole story is apt to be more than a little convoluted, even for a Final Fantasy title. Involving complicated relationships between Sorceresses, time travel, destiny made by those influenced by it, a huge paradox, and finally a battle that in some ways transcends time and space in terms of its location and pretext. To be honest, the ending could have been a lot more straight-forward, even counting the fact that the core of the story was about time travel and subverting a pre-destined event. In fact, there's a nice twist to it, as Ultimecia's very actions caused the fulfillment of the destiny she sought to prevent.
If you think it through, many of the elements fit, except that Ellone's power is never, ever properly explained. Is she a Sorceress? Some strange manifestation of the Great Hyne? Just a powerful spirit? A Guardian Force incarnated as a human through some freak incident? We don't know, and to some, that could fault the entire ending. Then there's the whole psychedelic episode with Squall during the final cinematic, when he instigates the creation of the SeeDs and seemingly starting to lose his identity. This gives rise to the theory that everything in the game past the failed attack on Edea Kramer was an experience that happened in his head after he was fatally wounded. Unless you take into account the fact that Edea/Ultimecia had magical healing powers well beyond the medical equipment of a SeeD facility, and that according to my calculations the wounds Squall received were not immediately fatal...
X-2 is a black sheep in many fans' books, principally because it's a sequel that adopted a drastically different tone to the previous game, threw much of Yuna's more sombre character development out the window and creates a story that, in some ways, wasn't needed. Added to that, it's an "earn your happy ending" experience, which isn't what some might have wanted. Final Fantasy games before this have had one ending, with perhaps minor variations depending on which characters lived or died. But this was a whole other ballgame: to get the ending everyone wanted, you needed to complete every single part of the game, not miss any events, ect. ect. And this is leaving aside any girlishness that people encountered in the course of the story and the soundtrack that grated heavily when compared to previous entries in the series.
You can see that it's not what many people might expect from Final Fantasy in the early 2000s, but it's what they got. Regardless of what people thought of the battle system and such, it's more than obvious that they were wanting to explore more of Spira's history, reuse old assets and cash in on the immense popularity of the game at the time. Such a to-do. But the ending does sort of suit the characters as they have evolved in this game. In the normal ending, Yuna does gain a sense of independence, and her farewell to Tidus is touching. The good and perfect endings are really soppy: to be honest, they're soppy to the point of being slightly sickening for me. I would have been more than content if they just left it at that. And then the writer goes and warps things even further with Final Fantasy X-2.5 ~Eien no Daishou~ and Final Fantasy X -Will-. But that's a whole other article...!
Crisis Core is another example of an ending that is a little odd. But in this case, it's odd because we know what's going to happen. We're in control of a character that is doomed to die. There's no alternate series of events where he can be saved. His death is known, it is foreshadowed, foretold years before, and it shall occur. Of course, that could be said of many prequels, but it's different with Crisis Core as it shows the downfall of multiple characters, the tortured past which made them the characters they are in Final Fantasy VII. It also shows additional elements and dabbles in a little retconning for the sake of keeping those newer characters and fleshing out events. These few points could be seen as an argument against making the game at all, while they also support its creation as many of us are the wiser and the fuller for seeing and knowing them.
This whole piece therefor comes across as a tragedy, the tragedy of Zack Fair's brutal past and cruel death. It's not unlike many Greek tragedies in both myth and stage plays, where there is a tradition of people getting the worst of things. Even Perseus, the one with the most positive story of them all, ended up killing his father as foretold. It is the tale of a tragic hero, from his noble beginnings through his fall to his heartbreaking death. It's not made easier by knowing what's going to happen next: rather it's made harder still. If you play through something like XIII-2 a second time, you see multiple hints that it's going to end badly, but you still drive forward towards that bitter ending and the heart-wrenching finale. Yet still you go on.
I, personally, could puzzle out the ending, but I shall look at it from an outside point of view. You have watched a group of people kill a deity in space. You have watched them witness the death of the old world and the birth of a new one. All clear so far? Well it is a JRPG. Then, after that, comes the stuff that's not very well explained in either the English or the Japanese version. The souls of humanity go off to find a new home, but the Eidolons and Mog seem to go with them, which doesn't make sense since they are magical beings, and the humans are looking for a world without magic. And then there's the souls traveling to a solar system and new home world that's oddly familiar (a carbon copy of our own system and planet). Then there's the Epilogue, where we see our heroine resplendent in normal clothes and silly heeled shoes, setting out to reunite with her family and friends (after spending the other three games as a magically-gifted soldier, a knight to a goddess, and a goddess-in-waiting).
The reason the ending works is that there wasn't really any other option. The whole world was dying, and the reset button was going to be hit from the word "go". Well, I might well have been able to think up another way things could have worked out, but that's something else. In many ways, the epitome of a world without magic for such a work is this one, a world where traditions about magic and deities exist, but we rely on technology and help from others to move along. It was also meant to be an ending filled with hope, not the bitter-sweet endings that the franchise specializes in. That, in my mind, is one of the faults with the piece. It would have been nice if Lightning could have accepted her emotions and still stayed as the new Etro. But there... In short, this is the ending that can only be called a Gainax ending (if you want to know what it is, look at this page, and read up on Neon Genesis Evengelion).