Multiple Endings Are Often A Terrible Thing For Games
The following is a transcript of the above video.
Today I’m going to be discussing the issue of multiple endings in games and why I believe that, in their current form, they are a terrible thing for our gaming experiences. Now before getting into this topic and what I have to say, understand that I wish to emphasise the fact that I said multiple endings in their current form, and I am by no means saying that all kinds of multiple endings are bad. In fact, in this video I hope to highlight examples of where I feel multiple endings are done well, and contrast them to games that I feel did them poorly. Keep in mind that in this video I am mostly speaking from within the role playing and adventure genres as it’s where we are most accustomed to multiple endings as player choice plays a large role in the equation.
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First of all, I do understand why games try to employ multiple endings. While a cynic would easily say that it’s purely gimmicky, I do feel that on paper the idea is about player choice, and about creating some monumental moment or a string of moments that define both the narrative and the player at the helm of it. Now, on paper this sounds great, as especially in our role playing games we like to feel like we’re the ones taking these big decisions in order to change the outcome of the game. The idea of multiple endings is sound and a good thing for games. But lately I have felt that laziness coupled together with a lack of narrative focus has cost games dearly and reduced the concept of multiple endings to something easily hateable.
I’m sure one example comes to mind when we think of the worst kind of multiple endings. Of course it’s one of the most polarised games this generation, namely Mass Effect 3. Now, whether you love or hate the game, I would like to express why I think the multiple endings here were absolutely terrible for the game, and I think I can do that simply without breaking down the entire game. The simple reason is because there is one, singular moment where you literally decide how your game ends, and even a five year old can see that. Whether Paragon or Renegade, no matter which members of your squad lived or died, no matter who you romanced or which civilisations you saved or condemned, essentially, every single aspect of the narrative had not a speck of influence over the final outcome, and this means that the ending is totally isolated from the rest of the experience. You could play Mass Effect 3 a number of times over, but as soon as you reach that point, what you did becomes irrelevant to determining the outcome of the game. It is blatantly apparent that you decide how to end the game with a simple choice, and I feel this defeats the entire purpose of multiple endings.
I initially mistakenly praised Deus Ex: Human Revolution really highly for its handling of its multiple endings in 2011, and while I maintain that it was an outstanding game, I concede wholeheartedly that I was completely wrong for praising its multiple endings, as it took Mass Effect 3 and growing my understanding of narrative itself and of course acquiring more knowledge in the field to make me realise how badly I’d screwed that perception up. In fairness, in Deus Ex: Human Revolution you don’t control the story as boldly as in Mass Effect 3, and there aren’t nearly as many variables, especially when you factor in Mass Effect 1 and 2, but its failing is the same as Mass Effect 3: it is literally a case of deciding how you want your game to end at one point. This nullifies the concept of an organic narrative because the ending is not a real part of the story, it’s not a natural, flowing end to the game. It’s sitting on its own, and the biggest offense it commits by doing that is saying that what you did over the course of the story was factually irrelevant to determining where, and how, this story ends.
To summarise my idea of what constitutes a poor set of multiple endings is basically when you have an easily identifiable, isolated point at which you decide the manner in which the game ends. Where prior events play no part, and the ending is literally a selective choice. What is one of the worst offenses of this as well is that it basically breaks down to you choosing an ending, and then reloading your save to see the others. I just can’t see a point of multiple endings when you can seriously just browse through them like this, rather than be made to replay entire segments, or go for a second playthrough, in order to see a new outcome to a game. Surely it devalues the entire purpose of the narrative if everyone gets the exact same outcome regardless of how their individual experiences are different and every player can simply load their last save to see what else there is on offer and accept whichever ending they prefer?
I’ve established what I think constitute as a poor case of multiple endings, so what are examples of good ones? Well, the entire concept of multiple endings, for me, is meant to convey the idea that what you do in the story matters. That how you choose to define your character and story determines the outcome. This works best when the variables that determine your ending are invisible. What I mean by this is that there is no clear cut, singular choice that determines how the game ends. Rather, it is an experience and a multitude of factors and variables that lead to your given ending. Of course, the developers have still crated these endings and there are predetermined variables, which are basically set choices and moments in the story, that determine which ending you land up with, but because you as the player can’t see exactly what these variables are, or rather your experience is not a blatant choice, the impact is much greater, and it ends up feeling like your ending, and stamps it down that it was your experience.
I went on quite a tangent there, so let me solidify what I’m saying by providing what I believe are clear cut examples of excellent use of multiple endings. I’ll use two games, namely The Witcher 2 and Heavy Rain. On your playthrough of The Witcher 2 or Heavy Rain, it is very difficult to say exactly which variables led to your specific ending. Of course you can always highlight key moments in the game, as there is no story without critical turning points, but it is pretty unlikely that you’ll see exactly which variables in your playthrough got you the ending you landed up with. It feels like you as the player got that ending because of how you played the game and the choices you made within it. This is the most rewarding kind of divergent path because it feels more organic and progressive, and most importantly feels like a consequence of what you did and how you played the game rather than a clear outcome you chose at one particular point.
There is another game I wish to bring into this debate because I feel that it actually sits right in the space between both good and bad based on what I’ve described, but I’m inclined to also call it a great example of multiple endings, and the simple reason is that it is natural. The game in question is Spec Ops: The Line. You might be raising your eyebrows right about now, so let me explain why I feel it is an awesome concept. Yes, while it is clear and becomes obvious, upon closer inspection, what exactly determines the outcome, on your first playthrough you have no way of knowing this and the your choice carries out in real time, without you merely selecting and then watching. It is a natural part of gameplay that you have to see through, and how you handle it as the player determines how the game ends.
Unfortunately to explain my point I’ll have to spoil the ending, so please skip on ahead if you haven’t had the luxury yet of playing this awesome game. Right, so at the end of the game, you are confronted by a bunch of soldiers who ask you to surrender. The player is then put in control of the main character and then you as the player actually have to think about what you’d like to do and it’s entirely in your hands as a natural part of gameplay. Rather than stupidly let you decide from a selection wheel or something like that and then be made to watch a cutscene, the game naturally lets you play out the situation to what you want. For example, you can choose to fire on the soldiers, entirely out of your own. If you do this, then without a hitch, the game proceeds to let you play that situation, and if you get killed, this seamlessly becomes a real ending to the game, likewise if you end up killing all of the soldiers. And even within these paths, you can still have gameplay control over how it pans out. For example, if you decide that you wish to suicide, you may walk out into the open and force them to kill you by open firing, which feels different to you as the player than if you simply died while trying to fight them all.
Now, while Spec Ops: The Line has obvious, clear cut variables that determine its ending, namely whether you surrender, die or kill them all, the fact of the matter is that no matter which happens it is a natural extension of the game and it is your ending based on what you did in that first playthrough. Admittedly, it worked best as a first playthrough idea, and this particular idea might have to be explored more in future if it is to be expanded, as natural action did feature a number of times in Spec Ops: The Line. In narrative, the choices that eventually end up determining the ending could possibly be made more gameplay-focused and natural rather than clear selective choices and watching a cutscene. But this is something for the future, and for now I simply wish to applaud Spec Ops: The Line for breaking the modern sinking ship that is “choose which cutscene you wish to see” rather than “experience the ending as a result of what you did.”
In conclusion, I feel that multiple endings in their current form is are a terrible thing for games and narrative, and that developers need to go back to the drawing board and explore more natural player-defined stories that are apparent in games like The Witcher 2 and Heavy Rain. I think inspiration can also be taken from Spec Ops: The Line with the way that it involves gameplay in player choice, making narrative paths seem natural and flowing, rather than blatant choices followed by a cutscene.