Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Choice and Endings

More and more games are pushing the concept of choice in gameplay, whether it be as simple as skill trees, or as complex as plot changing decisions. However, one problem that many, many games, particularly when it comes to plot changing decisions, is that they do not understand how to reconcile those choices with an ending. There are some spoilers for Alpha Protocol and Dragon Age: Origins here,  so if you haven't finished those games and intend to, you may want to tune out...

The greatest trap that many developers seem to fall into is the concept that the player must decide the ending. Now, I'm a firm believer in allowing the player to make decisions and to have those decisions affect the outcome of the game, however, there is a time for the player to make those decisions. The key thing to remember here is that in the majority of cases, the time for the most important decision is not right at the end of the game. This isn't to say that there shouldn't be some kind of ability to make a decision at the end of the game, but this should not be the primary decision point.

 The main part of the game is where decisions should occur

Let me reiterate this point: the player should not be making the overriding and ultimately game-changing decision in the last five minutes of the game. Certainly, a very significant choice right at the end of the game is great. In, Alpha Protocol, deciding to side with the final antagonist or go against them is a significant point. In Dragon Age: Origins, deciding who will deal the killing blow to the Archdemon and hence die is a significant choice. However, in both of these cases, previous choices affect this outcome. In Alpha Protocol, the final enemy in the game varies based on decisions that you've made earlier. That's right, the final boss changes based on previous choices. In Dragon Age: Origins, the person making the killing blow doesn't have to die if you've performed a magic ritual (with suggested bad consequences) earlier in the game. These games have decisions at the end, but they are not the be-all and end-all decision.

This concept has been overlooked by many designers in recent years, and I'm certain that you can quite easily think of one or more titles that have this approach. Now, this isn't to say that this is always equivocally bad, but it is very challenging for it to fit thematically with a game, and for it to happen in a way that doesn't make the player feel like they've been cheated. If the player has had decisions to make before this point, such an ending largely invalidates the meaning of all those choices, making the journey (which some would argue is more important than the destination) pointless. Again, there are some cases where this kind of end-game decisions does work, but these are rare games, typically ones that have a significant philosophical thematic focus during the rest of the game.

Planescape: Torment is a rare gem for which an end-game decision works

I'm not going to point the finger at games that have made errors in this area, but it's a worrying trend that has been showing up more and more. From a personal perspective, I'm making certain that I will not include this shortcoming in any of my creations. The Shattered War will feature decisions throughout the entire game which will ultimately affect the final stages of the player's journey and its ultimate conclusion.

Frequently, the most cohesive ending that makes the player feel like their story is complete is to have the end of the story play out logically without any overarching decisions that invalidate previous choices. When players finally discuss the ending with their friends who made different decisions, that's when they'll realise the effects that their choices made. That will provide them with the inspiration to go back and play the game to see how things could have turned out differently.


  1. I agree with just about everything you said here. It might just be the games I'm playing, but it seems like too many games think that a last-minute decision before the credits is enough to say that the game has "multiple endings." Just off the top of my head, while I like the canon story of Star Wars: the Force Unleashed, the light/dark decision happens just before the final boss fight and only changes the boss and final cutscene. To make things worse, most of the foreshadowing supports the canon/lightside ending, while only one or two previous plot hooks make their way into the dark side ending. The sequel, aside from being a more confusing and lore-breaking story in general, doesn't even have that much effect from the choice. It's just a button press for light/dark that gives a 2-minute cutscene, neither of which have any buildup or make sense.

    I think I also have to mention Deus Ex: Human Revolution. While I liked the endings to that game (mostly because they all have a monologue that tries to validate your choice no matter what you pick), they were still a final-moment multiple-choice test. Plus, I'm sure some people expected at least some recognition for things like side quest resolutions in the ending, even if it wasn't like Fallout: New Vegas's neverending slideshow.

    I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying that I agree with you when it comes to endgame decisions. I should learn to condense my posts.

  2. Nothing wrong with a long reply. :) Some things deserve a long reply, and sometimes that is required to provide the needed evidence for your argument and thoughts.