(Editor’s Note: Patrick’s views are his own and do not reflect on Pixelitis as a whole, but we expect everyone to be kind and remember Wheaton’s Law. Also, this article contains spoilers for Metal Gear Solid, Breath of Fire II, Silent Hill 2, Mass Effect 3, Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.)
Open-ended gameplay in games these days has been quite the rage. Although games like Fallout and Deus Ex may not have invented open-ended gameplay, they have certainly revolutionized it and inspired today’s developers like BioWare, CD Projekt RED, and Bethesda. The attention given to subsequent titles in major game franchises like The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Deus Ex, and Fallout continue in this tradition.
But did you ever notice how certain titles like Deus Ex offer you a multitude of different choices in their quests throughout the game, and yet these different outcomes never substantially change the ending of the game? I take issue with how that’s handled from time to time.
Multiple endings in games are not a new phenomenon by any means, but I’ve noticed a certain slacking off in the way developers have handled them.
Let me start with the original Deus Ex, which remains one of my favorite games of all time. Throughout the game you are given many ways of handling certain objectives. Don’t want to fight Anna Navarre head-on at UNATCO HQ? Learn her killphrase prior to coming across her and she’ll explode into itty-bitty pieces with the utterance of just two words. Deus Ex excels in these sort of open-ended occurrences.
When it comes to its endings, however, Deus Ex doesn’t determine which ending you get by looking at how you’ve made certain story choices. Instead, you choose the ending you want around 20 minutes before the game ends.
You are contacted by three different individuals, who all have their own agendas in regards to what they want JC Denton to do. Tracer Tong wants the world to undergo another Dark Age by destroying the global communications hub in order to prevent anyone from assuming control of the world. Morgan Everett wants JC to kill Bob Page so that the Illuminati can come back to power and use Area 51’s technology to secretly control the world. Finally, the Helios AI wants to unite with JC Denton and rule the world as a benevolent dictator whose logic and knowledge knows no bounds.
All of these story decisions are fascinating, but I find issue in giving these decisions to the player right at the end of the game. The player can simply save their game at the crossroads, pick an ending, watch it, reload their save, and then check out the other two options as well. There’s no weight on the player’s shoulders, because the player knows they can always just reload their save and watch the other endings without having to play the entire game again. This could have been avoided if the game monitored your actions throughout the storyline and adjusted the ending accordingly.
Why do I take issue with games letting you choose the ending right at the end? Because from a game design standpoint, it’s the easy way out. To me it exudes laziness on the developer’s part. Perhaps I am being too harsh, as I understand that games have deadlines and there have been plenty of cases where endings had to be cut simply to save time, but it doesn’t stop me (and many others) from feeling very underwhelmed. If you want to keep a player engaged throughout the game, shouldn’t you also reward them with a good endgame?
Let’s fast-forward eleven years after Deus Ex was released. With Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Eidos Montreal had the chance to improve the first game’s final decision-making flaw at the end, but instead they took a further step back.
At the end of Human Revolution, players are essentially given four different buttons to hit, each one dispensing its own ending monologue courtesy of Adam Jensen. The game takes certain factors throughout the game, such as the amount of times the player killed or incapacitated an enemy, and changes a bit of dialogue in the ending to reflect this.
When marketing a game’s “multiple endings,” a PR person will tell you that these small variables would constitute a completely different and unique ending, but I disagree. Changing a few lines of dialogue in the monologue does not make it a completely new ending. It’s just an example of how to underwhelm a player. All the hard work a player has put into trying to make the best choices that he or she feels will give the most rewarding outcome gets shoved aside to make way for a “choose your own ending” device. At least the original Deus Ex made you work through a different part of the final level in order to achieve a certain ending.
If the original Deus Ex‘s “Control/Join/Destroy” choices look familiar to you Mass Effect 3 players, it’s because it’s pretty damn similar to the choices BioWare gives you at the end of that game. I’m not about to go into a tirade about how underdeveloped and disappointing Mass Effect 3’s ending is (GameFront said it better than I would have), but I do have to express my disappointment in the game’s handling of player choice and outcomes in the end.
Just like the Deus Ex games, Mass Effect 3 gives you multiple endings to choose from right at the end of the game, entirely disregarding any of the big decisions you’ve made up to that point.
The truth is, however, that the three different endings offered are nearly identical to each other, aside from minor differences, like the color of the explosion that hits each mass relay and whether or not Joker and crew acquire synthetic abilities (kind of like JC Denton merging with the Helios AI). Other variables, such as whether Earth survives or what happens to the Reapers, are shown in incredibly brief cutscenes. It’s oddly similar to the minuscule changes that happen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s endings. Even then, at least each of the endings picked by the player in Human Revolution contain an entirely different outcome and unique dialogue.
The choices you made in Mass Effect 1 and 2 greatly affect the outcomes of many events in Mass Effect 3, and yet they don’t affect the ending in the slightest. One may think that this was the developer’s intention, but you have to wonder, especially given one choice quote from ME3 Director Casey Hudson in an interview with Game Informer:
This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff.
We know now that these endings really aren’t that different from each other. Now I know ultimately that Mass Effect 3 is BioWare’s baby and despite disappointing its more vocal fans, they have created a captivating game featuring characters one can really feel emotionally invested in and an atmosphere like no other. It’s a shame that a game that succeeded in outwardly displaying multiple outcomes during the narrative arc failed significantly at its conclusion.
So, I’ve been giving you several examples of games that don’t deliver well on their multiple endings, but what about games that have succeeded?
I have not played through Heavy Rain, however I hear that the ending can change considerably depending on which main characters live or die, among other decisions that the player makes throughout the game. This is something that more open-ended games need.
Silent Hill 2 handles multiple endings quite well, in that there are many factors throughout the whole game that determine your ending. Simple things like how often the player heals themselves, what items they examine, and their gameplay interactions with Maria all help determine the ending he or she gets. There are a boatload of incredibly subtle variables that players might not pick up on their first or even second playthrough.
Some games determine a game’s ending by a simple choice you make around the halfway point. In the case of Breath of Fire II, if one decides to heed a certain character’s words and kill him along with the machine he’s attached to, that sets the game’s ending. This happens in the last quarter of the game, a couple of hours before the final dungeon. Metal Gear Solid also does this. The ending is determined by whether or not Solid Snake decides to cave-in to Ocelot’s torture.
What I like about these examples is that the player isn’t told that they have sealed their fate in the game. Rather than outwardly exclaim “the decision is here, pick an ending!” the game takes into account what you’ve just done and changes the ending accordingly. This – to me – is a better way of handling multiple outcomes. It’s quite ironic then, that more linear games like Breath of Fire II and Metal Gear Solid have done a better job at showing two endings that are drastically different from each other than a game that’s all about multiple outcomes up until the ending.
Sure, Breath of Fire II and Metal Gear Solid may only have two endings each, but at least both games won’t let the player cheat the system by telling them that an important, ending-changing decision is coming up. By determining the outcome early on, it avoids the “pick-an-ending” device that so many developers are using these days.
The industry could use more games where the ending can change dramatically depending on several factors throughout the game. Why do so many games that tout player choice wind up with endings that disregard narrative choices and opt solely on a final decision that determines the game’s ending?
When a player shapes the ending of a game’s story with their actions and decisions throughout gameplay, it enables the ending to click into place rather than detach itself. It also engages the player to try something new in subsequent replays. Why was my first Silent Hill 2 ending the one where it alludes that James Sunderland kills himself? Because I simply didn’t take care of him throughout the game. I distanced myself from Maria, I examined the knife I acquired plenty of times, and didn’t heal him as often as I should have.
A game’s ending is a greater surprise when it secretly gauges your story and gameplay choices. When you let the player decide right at the end, however, it’s quite a letdown.
Note to developers: get your gameplay and storyline to gel together. Blindside us with a unique ending crafted by our actions, and not a “Choose Your Ending” machine.