WARNING: The following discussion includes spoilers for both Mass Effect 3 and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead.
Choices in video games. Choice is an element that has been in games from the very beginning; it’s one of the major aspects that separates this medium from any other form of entertainment or art. Whether it’s choosing which path to explore in Sonic the Hedgehog or making decisions that determine the fate of the galaxy in Mass Effect there has always been an element in games that relies on the play style of the player. In recent years, though, with elements of RPGs finding their way into virtually every other type of game, choices have become bigger and more pronounced. Many games now feature some kind of morality system, be it “Karma” in Fallout, “Paragon/Renegade” points in Mass Effect, or even paint and thinner in Disney Epic Mickey. The idea is that the way you play is designed to shape the story. Obviously some games pull it off better than others, and in some games the “morality system” only amounts to some superficial changes while the core experience exists completely separate from it. That being said, there’s one particular criticism I have seen levied at these types of systems that has come up a few times this year, and that’s what I would like to talk about today.
“In the end, all the choices I made didn’t matter because the endings were roughly the same regardless.”
This is the wrong way to look at these systems. Don’t get me wrong, at a glance that statement looks perfectly reasonable; we want our choices to matter, we want the way we play to have significant impact on the game, and changing the conclusion of the story is the most obvious way those choices can be reflected. However, just because one method is the most obvious way to do something does not mean it is the only way or even the best way to do it. In fact, I would make the argument that having multiple, dramatically different endings based on the way the player has played is probably absolutely the wrong way to go about this.
Before I get into the hows and whys of this, let’s think through it; how many games can you think of that have multiple distinctly different endings in which all of them are equally thematically strong? There’s only one I can think of and it’s sort of a special case(1). The rest, though, either have endings that are functionally similar or endings that are distinct yet few, if any, of the variations work on a thematic level. The endings of Fallout 3 are all pretty similar, and the differences are mostly covered in an epilogue montage separate from the actual ending. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic had a reasonably good “Light Side ending” but the “Dark Side ending” was obvious, silly, and worst of all completely divorced from the rest of the narrative. And let’s not even get started on BioShock’s Mother Teresa/Adolf Hitler heavy handed black and white endings. If there’s a game that I’m missing that has two or more different endings that are all effective and evolve naturally out of the narrative let me know in the comments, but as far as I can recall there’s only one game I’ve ever played that meets that description.
The problem with this approach is that the ending of a story is the culmination of not only the plot, but also the narrative and the theme. A good ending must evolve naturally out of the story to the point where it is essentially inevitable while also still being unexpected and surprising (this is absolutely as hard as it sounds). The reason that multiple endings don’t typically work is because while the story is being written there is usually a single ending that evolves out of the narrative, one that is thematically resonant with the rest of the story, and is emotionally satisfying, regardless of whether it is happy or sad. I have heard the art of writing a story compared to paleontology; you are not creating as much as you are discovering, like the bones of a dinosaur, and in the end there’s only one way those bones can fit together to make a dinosaur. Inventing extra pieces to satisfy the need for multiple endings is like tacking an extra head onto the skeleton, no matter how you put it together it’s going to lack authenticity.
In my opinion, the best way to handle choice in a game is to allow a player to influence the journey while having the destination pretty well locked down. This is how you’ll get the most mileage out of player choice without compromising the integrity of your narrative. Establish relationships with other characters that evolve dynamically depending on the actions of the player, create opportunities for cause and effect scenarios where a decision made can either be a benefit or a detriment to the player later on. Hold the player accountable for their actions and have real stakes and real repercussions, but keep the structure of the story intact, including the conclusion. The reason it is so important to have the ending locked down is because it’s the element that the entire story is building towards. Everything culminates with the ending, and if your ending is a moving target it’s hard to craft an experience that has a powerful payoff. As Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and WALL•E has said, you have to know your punch line.
To illustrate this I’m going to look at a couple examples, one of them gets this idea right for the bulk of the experience, but fails to stick the landing, and the other pretty well does everything right in this category. Here’s where the spoilers start to come in, so if you’ve ignored my warning thus far now is your last chance to back out.
First, let’s talk about the Mass Effect trilogy, specifically Mass Effect 3. Mass Effect was a massive undertaking; establishing this new science fiction universe, all of these characters, and creating a compelling story is hard enough, but BioWare went ahead and upped the difficulty to levels bordering on insanity by having all of your decisions made in each game carry across the entire experience (an experience that can easily last 120 hours or more). Player choice was a major element of these games, and for the most part they nailed it. Decisions made as early as the beginning of the first game had significant payoffs, both good and bad in the second and third games. Relationships with characters were complex and layered and developed over the course of these three games, creating strong emotional bonds between them and the player. Mass Effect 3, by necessity, was almost entirely payoff for these choices and character arcs, and for most of the game it really worked. Being able to return Tali to Rannoch, the home world of her people, was incredibly powerful, as was helping to restore alliances between the Quarian and the Geth. Legion, finally referring to himself in the singular, accepting himself as an individual, sentient, and alive being just before sacrificing himself for the good of his people was deeply moving. And that’s just one example; the game was full of these kind of payoffs, however, when the game reached its conclusion it left a lot of people upset (understatement of the year). There were some people that genuinely enjoyed the ending, but the vast majority of players were angry and frustrated by it, going so far as to organize protests and campaigns demanding BioWare change the ending of the game(2). One of the most common complaints was that the endings didn’t have enough variation, that the differences were mostly superficial while all three endings were very similar.
While I was certainly no fan of the ending(s) of Mass Effect 3, the fact that they were very similar was not the issue here. I’m going to try to avoid going off on a tangent, but there’s an issue that’s relevant to this discussion that I want to touch on really quick. The reason that people cited the lack of variation in the endings as the main issue is because it is a tangible detail. Issues of theme, character development, and story structure are complex subjects and they can be hard for some people to grasp, let alone talk about. When there is something about a work they don’t like they tend to grab onto things that they do understand rather than the underlying issues. These are the tangible details, things that your average audience can instantly recognize and discuss without having to delve into the deeper issues of the work. Most of the time these tangible details are not really the problem, rather they are a symptom of a bigger underlying issue. In the case of Mass Effect 3 lack of variety and plot holes are the tangible details(3) that most people focus on, but in my opinion the real issue here is that the ending jettisons several of the core themes of the series in favor of a solution that comes completely out of left field. Remember what I said a good ending must be? Inevitable and a natural extension of the narrative while also being unexpected? Well, BioWare got the unexpected bit right, but there was nothing about the ending that had been set up beforehand. It was not a payoff to anything; there was nothing about the Catalyst’s solution that reflected the narrative and themes established throughout the series. In fact, the Extended Cut of Mass Effect 3, released later on, proves this. It adds more variation to the endings and plugs some of the plot holes, but in the end these extended endings retain all of the main issues that the original endings had. They’re still completely incongruous with the rest of the series, and they still fail as payoffs because there was nothing to set them up. As much as I dislike the original endings, the Extended Cuts only exacerbate the problem for me; they have all the same issues as the original but they lack the authorial conviction. They are pandering to the fans, trying to fix superficial problems without addressing the underlying issues.
That’s enough about Mass Effect, though. I could go on a lot longer, but that’s not the point of this column (besides, just about all of my points on Mass Effect 3 have already been discussed ad nauseam). The next game I want to look at is Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead.
I recently finished the fifth and final episode of the game, and if you haven’t already heard, I loved the hell out of it. It easily ranks as one of my favorite games of all time, and the writing and characters are easily the strongest I’ve ever seen in a video game. Today, though, I was reading about it and I came across this quote from a review done by GameInformer. “The story was amazing,” they said, “but in the end your choices in the story never really mattered. They were only added in for the sake of realism.” With all due respect to GameInformer, this is insane, and it completely misses the point of what Telltale Games was trying to do. Yes, no matter what you do Lee dies at the end; you have some control over how he dies, but the net result is still the same. No matter what path you choose through the game, Lee has to die. That, though, is the key. Lee has to die. That is the culmination of the story, that’s what everything is leading to. Lee could not go on living, and Lee’s death is essential to Clementine’s development as a character. The Walking Dead has an ending that absolutely meets the criteria we’ve established. It is inevitable; the game is chock full of set ups foreshadowing not only Lee’s death, but also the fact that by the end of this Clem will be on her own. Yet it is also surprising; with even a tiny bit of genre savvy, you should expect Lee’s death from the moment you start playing, however, when he was bit at the end of Episode 4 it felt like a punch in the stomach. The ending absolutely sings, and any potential alternate endings would have only betrayed the narrative.
That being said, despite not having much variation in terms of the ending The Walking Dead by no means invalidates the decisions you made. A big part of the game is the relationships you establish with the other survivors, and the dynamics of those relationships are impacted significantly by the choices you make through the course of the game. Lee has to die, but the condition he leaves his companions in is full of nuance and variation. There are payoffs and consequences to the decisions you’ve made throughout the game, most of them just happen before the conclusion. In a way, it’s very much like Mass Effect. Both games spend most of their final acts paying off the choices you made earlier in the story, and it ties up the arcs of most of your companions before going into its final moments, but then, at the end, it has something definitive to say, and neither game compromises that statement by allowing extreme variations in the endings. The difference is that The Walking Dead’s statement is in line with the themes of the rest of the work while Mass Effect 3’s is not.
The fact is, the ending doesn’t have to change for your choices to be relevant. The thing about storytelling in games is that there is a give and take between the author and the audience. There’s a give and take in any medium, but it’s arguably more pronounced in video games. This is due to the fact that the player needs to be able to participate in the world created by the author and feel free to make their own choices while at the same time not contradicting the narrative and themes established by the author. In any game that attempts to tell a story the player is being guided by the hand of a storyteller, but that guiding hand is ideally as invisible as possible. The player needs to have the illusion of freedom, the sense that they are truly shaping the narrative, but it is also essential that the story is structured by the hands of a storyteller. If it is not there is no hope of it being cohesive or effective. The choices made by the player are important, and the storyteller has a responsibility to honor those choices and provide opportunities to make them have real meaning. Choice can even play a role in the ending, as it does in both Mass Effect and The Walking Dead, the key is that both games don’t sacrifice the integrity of their endings by allowing choice to take away from the narrative.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, the title of this column is a play on this misconception that the ending is ideally where all of your choices should pay off. This is not necessarily the case. Hopefully the choices the game allows you to make deal directly with the main theme of the work, and in that sense the ending should absolutely reflect those themes. However, in terms of cause and effect situations that are created by the element of choice, I feel most of these should come up consistently throughout the work rather than being saved for the end. Too many games incorporate player choice simply by adding a “good/evil” meter, and the consequences of your actions are reflected only by which cutscene plays at the end of the game. This is easily the least interesting way to play with the element of choice. Being able to respond to the choices a player makes is a quality that is unique to video games, and it is something that we should be doing in more interesting ways. Games like Mass Effect, The Walking Dead, and Spec Ops: The Line are doing this right, and we need to look to these games as shining examples of what video games can do rather than complaining that there wasn’t enough variation in the endings. I want games that deal with interesting themes and challenge us on emotional and intellectual levels; I want games that take the element of choice and use it to create a deeply personal experience, and to do that we can’t just have choice amount to nothing more than a mechanic that selects which cutscene you watch after you beat the last boss. Games have stories to tell, let’s allow them to be told.
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(1)This game is Spec Ops: The Line. Initially I couldn’t think of any games that actually managed to pull this off, but I was talking with one of my friends while writing this column and she told me that I should check out the other endings for Spec Ops (of which I had only seen one). It turns out they are quite different from each other and they all generally work. I still feel there is one that is the most naturally fit to the narrative, but that could just be my personal story sensibilities coming into play. It’s hard to say that one is the definitive stand out. The reason, I feel, that it works is that even though the endings are different they all play with the same themes, just riffing on them in different ways. There’s not a “good ending” or a “bad ending” like so many games that involve choices tend to do, instead each ending is kind of a downer which is totally in line with the narrative. Yager knew what they wanted to say with Spec Ops: The Line, and all four endings reflect that conviction. If you’re going to give your game multiple endings this is the way to go. Don’t try to force a happy ending into a story that generally deals in tragic themes (BioShock, I’m looking at you).
(2)As an aside, I think this type of behavior is disgusting and absolutely damaging to the industry. As I discuss later in the article there is a give and take relationship that exists between the audience and the storyteller, and the “Take Back Mass Effect” campaign absolutely lost sight of that relationship and acted, quite frankly, like entitled brats. Also, for those who argued that BioWare giving in to the demands and releasing a pandering, watered down version of the ending wouldn’t set a terrible precedent, well, as a moderator of a video game forum, let me tell you that it absolutely has. Every single time there’s something about a game that someone doesn’t like the “let’s organize a protest! It worked for the Mass Effect fans” argument gets thrown into the discussion. This is terrible behavior that will lead to developers taking fewer risks and it’s all your (meaning the people that played a part in the “Take Back Mass Effect” movement) fault.
(3)For the record, plot holes are rarely a core issue. Most of the time they are a symptom of a bigger underlying problem. Movies and games are very much like magic tricks, and as such they have to play fast and loose with reality by their very nature. Most of the time these inconsistencies and logic jumps go unnoticed as long as the quality of the story telling is strong; it’s only when the trick stops working that the audience starts noticing the seams. Again, I could spend a whole column talking about this, but that’s not why we’re here, and Film Crit Hulk already did a better job with this topic than I ever could.