BAD END THEATER is a puzzle-adventure visual novel game, developed and published by NomnomNami. Available on Steam, Itch.io, and Google Play, this game's reviews tells of how well it is received by audiences, with a 10/10 average on Steam, 5/5 average on Itch.io, and a 4.8/5 average on Google Play. Despite this, however, I have never seen anyone dive into the specifics of the themes of this game, when it is a game filled with them. So, that's what I aim to do today.
But, if you have not already, please consider buying the game, or even watching someone else on YouTube play it. It's only ten dollars if you wish to support its indie creator, and the well-known let's-player Markiplier himself even did an excellent video playing through it. I'm going to be discussing major spoilers for the game, and this is a game that's best experienced blind. Once you've done that, please come back to ruminate on what you have watched.
Now... This is BAD END THEATER, its themes, and the inherent tragedy of queer existence.
Conformation to Roles, Part 1: Humans and the Need to Conform
The theme of conforming to one's roles, and the consequences of refusing to do so, is incredibly prevelant throughout the story; mostly seen through The Maiden and The Hero.
The game writes of The Maiden: "You are in church, and you pray to your god, asking why you have been born into this role of a maiden. You respect the divine plan and all, but you're really just curious as to what the point of it is. ... Maybe you'd understand your role better if you were to just hurry up and get captured already!"
The Maiden is the catalyst for the story of BAD END THEATER; the story begins when she starts to wish to understand her role better, and, thus, goes to get captured by a demon, as everyone has said that she inevitably would be, as she grew up. When she learns that The Overlord had no plans to capture her, however, she thinks "maybe it's just that (she hasn't) been maiden-like enough." She doesn't believe that it could be true that maidens can just not be captured by demons. She doesn't want to believe she's been lied to her whole life. So, instead, she believes that, when The Overlord says that she didn't plan to capture her, that it is her own fault for not conforming to her role well enough.
The Hero, as well, has this theme in his story in spades; perhaps even more so than The Maiden, albiet, in more subtle ways. The Hero is revealed late into the game to only be a hero because he likes the gaudy costumes he gets to wear; he is only doing what he geniunely wants to do when he is creating clothes. Either The Maiden, the townsfolk, or his 'duty and legacy' decide what he does before him. He doesn't know what will get him accepted or lead to a successful outcome. He forces his future into misery and confusion because of other people's beliefs about how his fate should be, which have been drilled into and instilled in him so strongly that it's evident in almost every other line that he has. He has such good writing in this sense, and it's a more subtle tragedy than any of the other characters', but that doesn't mean it is not there.
Both human characters are obsessed with their roles and their legacies. But, on the other side of the coin, the two demon characters aren't. When The Maiden asks The Overlord what she can do to be a more suitable maiden for capture, The Overlord doesn't seem to understand, and instead replies, "Just go home and stop worrying about destiny so much." From The Maiden's point of view, she 'makes it sound so simple', and it is what draws The Maiden to her, what makes her want to stay to talk, and what sparks a romantic interest in her (which, trust me, we will get back to). The Overlord also stresses that she "won't let (the humans) bait her into being the evil overlord they expect," again showing her disregard to assigned roles, in stark contrast to The Hero and The Maiden. This worry about roles is a strictly human thing, born from human society; not natural to those outside of it.
And, when The Maiden says that it's nice to not constantly be told to watch out for demons while with The Overlord, she describes feeling...
Challenging Pre-Conceived Notions
This theme is mostly seen through the relationship between the demons and the humans.
At the start of the story, on the human's side, we have The Maiden, who was told demon overlords love capturing beautiful young girls like her, even though, as she notes extremely early on before even meeting any demons, she had never heard of that actually happening to anyone. And with The Hero, he assumes that The Maiden must have been captured by the demon overlord, despite there being no proof of that being the reason why she is gone from the village.
Furthermore, when The Hero encounters demons on the way to the castle, it's noted that "you can kill them to gain experience", but killing any demon underlings leads to The Hero getting attacked and/or killed later on. On the other hand, if he is a pacifist, he is able to get to The Maiden with no problem, even if, at first, avoiding fighting the demon underlings is painted by The Hero's inner monologue as cowardly (again showing how deeply his role has been ingrained into him, and how high his expectations are for himself).
Meanwhile, The Overlord, despite her name and her occasional harsh words, is actually a pretty good ruler. When The Underling gets lectured by her for leaving their post, despite being told not to, The Maiden "wonders what cruel punishment awaits them", but, to her surprise, The Overlord lets The Underling off easy before dismissing them. Even The Underling, who accidentally gets caught up in an assassination plot for The Overlord, doesn't hate her or their job; they have the option to tell the other demon underlings that they shouldn't overthrow her, and that she's actually a pretty good leader! After all, in their own words, "Life must be pretty dang good if the only thing you have to complain about is that you live so comfortably there's nothing to do."
When The Maiden and The Overlord meet is when this theme really begins to come into play. The Overlord shares many stories about demons with The Maiden and she realizes that they may not be the ruthless monsters she was raised to believe. It's revealed that The Overlord commanded her demons to avoid towns and villages, because she didn't want to risk giving the humans any excuse to send a hero out after them, which is why The Maiden had never heard of demons attacking her town. She notes, "You've always thought demons were violent and unreasonable creatures, but... It seems The Overlord could say the same of humans."
The Overlord also has these notions about humans challenged by The Maiden, noting, "This is the first time a human has looked at you without contempt." She's also surprised when The Maiden thanks her for ordering demons to steer clear of the village. She had always thought of humans as violent and unreasonable; after all, her servants are always being killed by them, despite her best efforts to make peace. However, this maiden... She was proving that all wrong.
Conformation to Roles, Part 2: The Inevitability of Tragedy
Something that you will quickly note of BAD END THEATER's titular bad ends is that the character's dying thoughts are often about how this only happened because of their lack of conformation to their roles.
This is most often seen in The Maiden's endings. When eaten by The Underling upon meeting them, she laments how she should have been more patient. She says that she isn't angry, "of course," instead thinking, "This is (her) punishment for questioning fate, (she) guess(es)." And when she rushes into the burning castle to try and save The Overlord... Well, I'll just give you the entirety of the ending narration, as it is very on the nose: "What were you thinking? This is all because you'd forgotten your role; only a hero could pull this kind of thing off. ... You can't help but laugh. What a joke! A maiden, saving The Overlord? If you'd just stayed true to your role, things wouldn't have ended like this. This is exactly the kind of punishment you deserve. You let the demon fire cleanse your rotten soul." And, again, when she is burned alive with everyone in the fire, she thinks about how she could have just pretended to not hear the underlings plotting The Overlord's murder, and if she could have just done as she was told, only The Overlord would have died. But she couldn't have done that. In the words of the game, "That path... Isn't an option for (her)." A line which not only breaks the fourth wall, but which also states that tragedy is inevitable.
The Underling, as well, when they are killed for not being deemed loyal enough to the cause of the rebellion, doesn't bother to struggle against the demons who go to kill them. They're outnumbered, and they "already know how things like this end."
There is a whole collection of endings which also reinforce this. In the endings where The Maiden returns to the village and tries to explain to everyone that the demons aren't evil, she is called a 'demon sympathizer'. In the endings when she does this without The Hero at her side, it's said that she couldn't have possibly returned without the help of a hero, and that she must, instead, be conspiring with the demons. When The Maiden breaks free of her role, her story about her doing so is not believed. Then, people call for a public execution. In these endings, The Maiden is burned at the stake; punished for trying to do something outside of her role in this world, punished for opening her mind, punished for sharing the truth: that the demons who do not believe in things like destiny are not inherently evil creatures. In these endings, her closing narration heartwrenchingly reads, "(Your friends and family) can only watch as you burn, and you can only cry for them. You are so, so sorry."
And, of course, the true end of the game is the one where everyone; the cowardly hero only in it for the costumes, the maiden who questioned god's plan, the traitorous underling and the demonic overlord; are burned alive for the sin of questioning their place in the world, instead of mindlessly doing as they are told.
The Relationship Between Creator and Consumer
Meanwhile, Tragedy, the creator and runner of the Bad End Theater, mocks the player for being disappointed by the true end, saying that they should have been aware of what would happen when they came. "It's a problem I've seen quite often," they lament. "At some point, you grew attached to my little cast. You started to relate to their flaws, their plights... You started wishing for their happiness." And it's true. Even things outright labeled as tragedies get people who become attached to the characters and the story. Even if the creator tries to prepare and warn the consumer of what is to come, when the writing is good enough, it still ends with the consumer emotionally gutted. And when you try to see if this is really the true ending for the characters by checking it from the other character's points of view, you are mocked by Tragedy for this as well. No matter the perspective, the true ending remains the same. That's what makes it true.
You (in the narration which describes what the player is doing) decide you want to save everyone. But there's nothing you can think of to save them. So, you decide, if there's nothing you can do by acting from within their story, you will simply take things into your own hands.
You're brought back to the character select screen. This time, with a fifth option: a plain character, devoid of any features, almost like a doll. This is your representation in-game. You boldly insert yourself into Tragedy's story, and you use your powers to warp everyone to safety. This could easily be seen as an in-game representation of 'fix-it fic'; a subgenre of fanfiction where the writer changes something that they weren't happy with in the original story, typically in regards to character death or in-universe tragedy. Even Tragedy; who, at this point, appears before you; mocks you for doing this. "I admit I've been encouraging you all along, but a self-insert story? How passe." They also add, "I can't abide you stealing the show without permission. It's quite disrespectful." Again, these can easily be read as a creator reacting negatively to fan creation; particularly fanfiction.
The final boss of the game is Tragedy, in an RPG-like sequence where you, the player, call upon each individual character to join you in battle. Each calling is prefaced with a sequence of you greeting the character, and realizing something about them. It is here that you find out that The Hero only really took on the role of a hero because he likes to craft clothes; the costumes attracted him to the role, not anything about glory or such. You tell him that he can make a living as a tailor, rather than a hero. You realize that The Maiden only wanted to understand her role better because she wanted to reach a place where she felt like she belonged, and to find fulfillment. You offer to give her that fulfillment. You realize that The Underling's friends bullied them into an assassination plot, only to betray them; that perhaps if they kept better company, they wouldn't feel so restless at their job. You offer to make work fun for them. You realize that The Overlord is very lonely, only surrounded by soldiers and not friends, and you offer to bring her peace; the peace that she has wanted for demons and the humans for a long time.
It is the consumer who realizes these aspects of these characters, not the creator. From the outside looking in, the consumer is the one with these observations, these solutions. And the consumer is the one who wants to bring them to these happier endings.
Now, I'm sure you want to know about how this ends; want to know the final bad ending of BAD END THEATER. But, first, we must discuss something else. Something incredibly vital to this game's story; something that, perhaps, you've already picked up on in this game's themes. And that is...
First of all, The Underling canonically uses they/them. This is not because they are a demon; The Overlord is a demon herself, and uses she/her. This is not a trait attributed to their nonhumanity; it is simply that they are a non-binary character. Their story is about them being thrust into the center of a murder plot by their 'friends', and then used as a scapegoat and killed when it goes badly. This could be some sort of commentary on the demonization (pun intended) of queer people; especially trans people. Even when The Underling gets to be the new overlord, in the multiple 'Lord Underling' endings, they're described as living the rest of their days in fear that their subjects will one day betray them, as they betrayed their overlord. Even when queer people are put into positions of power, they're still incredibly vulnerable; maybe even more vulnerable; to attacks and queerphobia. That's what happens when queer people are put at the center of a narrative or spotlight. A little good, sure. But ultimately, they live their life in fear that they will become targeted.
Of course, we have The Maiden and The Overlord; two women who both canonically grow a romantic interest in each other. The Maiden describes butterflies in her stomach while speaking to The Overlord, The Overlord is described as wondering if The Maiden is 'into' her, and she is later described as feeling lonely when The Maiden leaves. They often blush at each other, and their interactions are clearly (or should I say, queerly) romance-coded.
Of note in relation to this... The Maiden is religious. Her storylines start with her praying at a church. Now, you may remember the, "You let the demon fire cleanse your rotten soul," line. This demon fire is what burns these characters alive at the end. The 'true end' for these characters, in a queer narrative, almost all of which are canonically queer in some way (with the only exception being The Hero and, even still, it's incredibly easy to read his story as a metaphor for an unrealized transgender person), is to be burned alive by flames compared to cleansing flames. No matter what path you choose for these characters, it ends in tragedy, but the true end is for them all to die in flames directly compared to the cleansing fires religion touts. And I don't think that I have to explain how that fits into a tragic queer narrative.
This game seems to argue that queerness always ends this way. Deviating from your role, being open-minded and, most of all, queerness, can only meet a tragic end.
Meanwhile... You find letters as you gather more bad endings; from Tragedy, to an unnamed lover with whom they seem to somehow have lost touch with. Someone who always listened to the very end of their stories. Someone who wrote happy endings to all of the tragedies they wrote. Someone who, Tragedy hopes, if the theater becomes famous, will hear of it... Wherever they are.
In the game's true ending, if you collect all the bad endings, Tragedy will tell you the story of them and their past lover. There is no name given to this past lover. However, for the sake of brevity, I will call them Serendipity; the opposite of Tragedy.
You remove Tragedy's mask before they recount their story to you, though. Revealing that it was The Maiden's face behind that mask. It's not The Maiden herself, however; Tragedy explains that The Maiden was based on herself. "I'm not her, but it's not like she isn't me, necessarily," Tragedy explains. "That's how it is with fiction."
Tragedy, like The Maiden, was once a young woman, in our real world without demons or heroes; eager to set off and find some sort of purpose. And, like The Maiden, she met another girl. Another girl who she fell in love with. And for a time, everything was perfect.
"But their families, the communities they came from..." Tragedy laments, "Neither could approve of their relationship. This is the reality for many. This pair was no different."
Again, it becomes relevant that The Maiden (who Tragedy based on herself) is explicitly religious, and comes from what seems to be a religious town. It's not explicitly stated, but it can easily be assumed that the 'communities that they came from' refers to religious communities; especially given the story that we are given about them not approving of their sapphic relationship.
Tragedy explains that, because of the homophobia that they faced, Tragedy lost Serendipity. And this is why Tragedy loves tragic endings. She says that she, indeed, used to love the type of stories where love conquered all... But she can't believe in those stories anymore. She loves tragic stories because she, herself, was a victim of one. All of these tragic endings were a way of coping with how her queerness and the world's refusal to accept her tore her and her lover apart.
Because queerness and queer love is doomed, in one way or another, to end in tragedy. No matter what path you take.
... Or is it?
'Hopepunk' is a subgenre of fiction, defined as the opposite of grimdark. Traits of hopepunk include fighting tooth and nail for positive change, radical kindness, and love of all kinds conquering all challenges. Hopepunk is the opposite of tragedy. And, despite its narratives on the inherentness of tragedy taking place within queer people's lives... Hopepunk is overwhelmingly present within BAD END THEATER.
Even as early as the tutorial, if you choose to 'play nice' with both dolls, you can get a happy ending, with Tragedy even noting as such, saying, "I should've written out this possibility." Hinting that there is an ending where everyone can be happy, in spite of Tragedy's best efforts to only write bad endings.
Then, again, at the end, when The Maiden burns alive with everyone, she reiterates this: "You think that no matter what, you'll always strive for the path where everyone survives. It must exist, it simply must."
Finally, we can continue to the ending. You are able to summon each character in order to fight Tragedy in that RPG-like sequence which I mentioned earlier. When you choose to combine all of the characters' best attributes, you are able to, against all odds, reach a happy ending in this labyrinth of suffering. And you defeat Tragedy herself. With everyone's hearts united, you were able to take aim towards everyone's best possible futures.
After you defeat Tragedy, the credits show The Hero working as a tailor, The Underling as a model surrounded by supportive and kind people, The Maiden introducing The Overlord to the town, then the two of them looking over everyone in The Overlord's castle; heavily implied to be romantically together at this point. Finally, a happy ending.
... But something is still missing, isn't it? I've explained it all to you already, after all.
There is still one tragic ending we have yet to fix.
And, indeed, the options for what we say to Tragedy, after she explains her past with Serendipity, does say, "But this story does have a happy ending." The player character reveals she was Serendipity all along. This was a story told in the second person, with the 'you' who played the game and acted being Serendipity. She explains that, because she always wanted to fix Tragedy's bad endings, she was, of course, drawn to a place like this. Tragedy admits that this was her goal in creating the theater, but also admits that she didn't think it would ever actually work in reuniting them. The two of them embrace, so happy from their reunion that they are brought to tears.
"You knew I could never resist giving your stories a happy ending," Serendipity says. This also loops back around to the relation between consumer and creator; the painting of the act of giving characters you care for a happy ending, in spite of the source, as an act of love. Both for the characters, and the creator.
"Now, truly," the narration says, "Everyone can live happily ever after." 'Tragedy's End' is declared. Not only the end for the character named Tragedy, but the end of tragedy, the concept, for these characters, as well.
Because, as Serendipity puts it... Despite the tragedy that is undeniably present in queer existence...
"Sometimes, everything DOES turn out okay in the end."