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The Use and Misuse of Multiple Endings *SPOILERS AHOY!*
Posted on Thursday, January 10 2013 @ 17:47:40 PST

This member blog post was promoted to the GameRevolution homepage.

Stories always have an ending (we hope) and once the reader reaches it, that’s the end, though sometimes there’s an epilogue to extend and expand upon the ending. People were content with the ending, whether they liked it or hated it, because the story reached its conclusion and there’s no loose threads hanging around the reader’s head. This also applied to video games for many years, even the ones with a very basic and bare bones story. Players wanted to reach the end just to see what happened and once they saw it, they would talk to their friends about the trials they endured to see the ending.

Of course nowadays, most video games have more than one ending for the sake of extending the game’s play time. Most of the multiple endings are a simple good ending versus bad ending while others are more complex based on the player’s actions. While multiple endings give the player the incentive to play the game over again to see a different ending, it can also create confusion.

One of the major problems multiple endings have in video games is players trying to figure out which one is the canonical ending, especially if the endings are not fully clear. After all, it’s naturally not possible for multiple events that contradict each other to all happen at once and it gets more confusing when the writers behind the game don’t state which ending is the real one. Usually, a sequel addresses the issue since they take a leap from one of the endings in the previous games. However, by doing so, the sequel basically tells you that you wasted your time with the other endings.

An example of this is in Parasite Eve where if you beat the game normally, the ending shows that the rogue mitochondria awaken within everyone in the audience, including the main character, implying that the threat is not over. The alternate ending, which is found by beating the extra area in the game that unlocks after beating the main game once, shows the main character having her powers completely vanish after the (supposedly) spirit of her sister within her own mitochondria vanquishes the evil ones trying to take over her body. It was hard to tell which ending was the canonical one, but Square stated that the alternate ending is canon, even though Parasite Eve 2 shows the main character having her powers again.

Multiple endings can also cause major confusion if they are all vastly different from one another. Games that use multiple endings usually alter just a few key elements that justify a different ending while keeping everything else feeling familiar. When the key elements get altered too much, it becomes inconsistent and it confuses the players further as they try to determine which ending is the real one. One personal experience of this I had was Drakengard, a game that has several different endings. One ending involved the main character turning against his dragon partner, another ending showing the world being invaded by giant mutant babies (not making that **** up, I swear), and another ending showing the two main character being thrown through time and space until they reach the present (our own time) and are shot down by fighter jets. Each ending felt so different from one another that it felt like the story went all over the place.

Games that rely on good karma versus bad karma are also a victim to multiple endings. The gimmick behind the karma route is that the player feels like whatever actions they do in the game will determine what will happen next, so they will try to make their decisions carefully if they are seeking a specific ending. However, the technique of letting player actions determine what happens in the end is usually not applied properly and it is simplified to the point where Action A gets Ending A and Action B gets Ending B. While both routes can alter the script of the story and have the player character’s personality reflect upon the good or bad route, it can cause the willing suspension of disbelief to be broken if the character(s) act too obvious to the role they are assigned.

Let’s take a look at Bioshock that uses the good karma, bad karma gimmick. In the game, you encounter little girls known as the Little Sisters and they become vulnerable after you kill their Big Daddy guardian. From there, you can either choose to spare the girl’s life and heal her, which gets you a reward later, or you can harvest ADAM from her which kills her but nets you a nice amount of ADAM right away. To get the obvious good ending, you have to save every Little Sister and to get the bad ending, you can either just kill a few of the Little Sisters, which is enough for the game to consider you an evil prick, or kill them all for the same effect. The game continues as normal no matter what choices you pick and the only changes are some lines in the script and the ending. This means if you want to see both endings, you have to play through the game twice and do the same things again while only altering one type of action in the second playthrough. This is not a good example of the player being in control since it forces the player to mundanely alter some key actions while doing everything else the same and being obvious about it.

There are also a few games that may require the player to see multiple endings in order to unlock the true ending of the game. This not only means you have to play the game from start to finish multiple times, it also means that you are also going to be doing the same actions again and again while only slightly changing other actions just to change paths. The worst offender of this is Shadow the Hedgehog, a game that hyped up the gimmick of choosing which side you wanted to fight for (good versus evil) and having your ending be based on that gimmick. The game had 9 endings to see and that meant replaying the same handful of levels again and again while changing just one or two actions in order to change paths. There were several levels that players hated and being forced to go through the same bullcrap in harder levels to get other endings just screamed of padding.

Remember how you could choose a side in the game’s war between good and evil? None of that even matters because once you got all the endings in the game, an extra ending can be unlocked and that one shows Shadow choosing the side of good.  Not only does this mean you wasted several hours of playing to get all the endings, but you are basically told that it doesn’t matter what side you pick because the game is going to choose for you and show you how things really end. Games that use endings like this makes the player feel like nothing they do matters because the golden ending is the one that determines the fate of all the characters, not the player.

Multiple endings are quickly becoming a fading element thanks to the internet. Because the internet is around, players are able to see what games are padding themselves out to force the player to play longer. After all, why should a player force themselves to play the game over and over again when they can play once, go online to see the other endings, and never touch the game ever again? This becomes more apparent when the endings are badly implemented: they don’t change the game overall or requires the player to do something mundane just to change their path.

Are the days of multiple endings numbered? I do not think so, but the use of multiple endings has to be done better to engage the player. A player’s actions or change of actions should make the player feel like what they are doing is causing everything to change. If a player acts mean towards a bunch of kids for example, then all other kids later on will either be scared of the player or even try to attack while the ending shows the player being put under a curse because they were not nice to innocent kids. If the player acts nice, however, the kids will help out with information leading to secrets or they can offer you better items while the ending shows the player getting a nice reward for being nice to kids. Remember, developers, if the player character is represented by the player, their actions should determine what changes occur and if the character is their own character, they need a defined path rather than giving the player the illusion of choice for the sake of longer play time. If there is a planned sequel, then it has to be clear which ending is the canonical one.

The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of Game Revolution, but we believe it's worthy of being featured on our site. This article has been lightly edited for grammar and image inclusion. It has been submitted for our monthly Vox Pop competition. You can find more Vox Pop articles here. ~Ed. Nick
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