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Sad ending: Is good storytelling at odds with 'winning'?

Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander looks at adventure game Resonance: Is complex, tragic storytelling at odds with the player's desire to solve problems and win?

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

September 6, 2012

6 Min Read

Many players crave more authorship and storytelling in games -- until they get an ending they don't like. That's a challenge for developers focused on strong narratives, and it raises an important question: Is a well-spun tale at odds with the player's natural desire to solve problems and win? Though it's considered niche, the market for traditional point-and-click adventure games remains vocal and patient. For those folks, there's Wadjet Eye Games, indie label for story-driven puzzlers like Emerald City Confidential and the Blackwell games, among others. The company's known to carry a torch for the genre, and focuses particular effort on writing and voice acting. Most recently, the company teamed with XII Games on Resonance, an adventure about a mysterious technology disaster, the legacy of a dead physicist and the looming threat of a shadowy corporation. The game unfolds through the perspective of four protagonists -- a scientist, a nurse, a police officer and a journalist -- and the player is eventually free to switch among them (think Day of the Tentacle) to solve puzzles in teams. The multiple-character gameplay is also an important tool for the game's storytelling, as the player's information about each character's true motives is often intentionally obscured. As the story builds to its climax, it's often easy to wonder who's really on the right side -- and that's when one can guess at what the "right" side really is.

A careful balance

One challenge for point-and-click stories is that the difficulty of the puzzles needs to be carefully balanced against the story. The times when these games have needlessly frustrated progress with a disproportionately-complicated obstacle or unintuitive solutions remain legendary tales, perennially-ripe, even though in some cases it's been a decade or more since. Meanwhile, neither do players like to be made to feel like they're being sent on obvious errands just because the developer wants them to have something to do between one plot point and the next. But Resonance generally manages this balance well with puzzles that are meaty, engaging and feel worth persisting at -- and this is largely because players are invested in finding out the true story within the game's fast-paced events. What was the late doctor's research really about? Who is the intriguing man seen disappearing behind one of three Roman-numbered doors? How to fool elaborate security systems and unravel sinister databases? There's a sense of genuine and well-paced urgency throughout Resonance that admirably commands the player's attention. And the promise that each of the four characters knows something the others don't buoys the game mechanic whereby characters use events in their long-term memories to trigger discussions; they can also store short-term memories, images of objects in their environment, to ask other characters about later. In a game that's partially about the terrible power of information and the importance of memories past, this is a fun twist. Based on what players learn about the larger stakes and the motivations of the enemy, there are two possible endings, a degree of agency that feels appropriate for the story. Without spoiling specifics, though, neither ending is particularly happy. One, called the "lesser of two evils" ending, has the glimmer of a silver lining, but in both cases the characters we've come to like and root for experience Pyrrhic victories. And the game affords players so much agency (even allowing them to experience the game's expository chapters in any order they like), that it's easy to finish Resonance, and conclude that now that we've got all the information, we should be able to go back and prevent some of the disasters we didn't have the clarity to prevent when we first encountered them. What would have happened if you declined to follow a certain instruction now revealed to have been sinister, or had you made a different choice? Would the outcome have been different if you'd let a different character take the lead at a crucial juncture, or tried to trigger a key conversation earlier? These are natural questions for a player who's done all a game's requisite problem-solving -- but who is still told there are some problems that just aren't solvable. Of course, that's the way of the world, and if our interest is in sophisticated storytelling, that clearly means there isn't always a happy ending. There may be a thought-provoking ending, or a tragic one, but to refuse to allow the player to complete all possible tidy heroics is a valid narrative choice.

Emotional impact

In the history of games, a "bad," unhappy or unsatisfying ending has been the player's penalty for failing to be thorough enough, to take enough care of other characters, for avoiding avenues to key story arcs. Past-gen games -- particularly horror titles from Japan -- would often provide different endings based on subtle elements like how much damage the player sustained or how many supplies they consumed. Receiving an ambivalent ending has often been a way for the developer to gently let the player know they should go back and give it another try. And because players want to succeed at all the available challenges and scratch that itch for sorting chaos and solving problems, they almost always would, learning their way through the guts of a game until they had figured out how to attain the conditions they felt were optimal. Frustrating the player's wishes can be a way to create emotional impact. JRPG fans will always remember there was no way to save Aeris, although cult stories about secret methods to do so persist in some internet corners even today. Shadow of the Colossus wouldn't be as indelible if there were ways to dodge the sad bits. When Silent Hill 2's protagonist at last arrives at the hotel where he's to rejoin his supposedly-late wife Mary, the game knows the player will charge up to the third floor where she's said to be waiting -- and intentionally blocks off this easiest of avenues. The player will hear the rattle of a locked gate and the sound of her calling from down the hall, and there is hardly a more incredible device in the entire franchise. Games that know how and when to deny the player power are permanently memorable, and sad stories have as much a place in gaming's lexicon as happy ones. But when endings make us feel like we can't win, suddenly those of us that said we cared the most about storytelling are upset. The clearest example of this kind of fan ire is the Mass Effect 3 controversy, only to be salved by BioWare's agreeing to release a different conclusion to the expansive trilogy. Good storytelling means your fans get invested in the characters you've made -- and it also makes them less willing to accept the fate you've decided for them and their world. Does that mean developers interested in good stories have to make sure players have a way to save the world, even if it's hard? Not necessarily, but it raises important questions about the role an ending plays in one's overall satisfaction with a game experience. Just a few years ago, the commercial trend seemed to favor less effort and investment in a game's ending. Many bigger studios were pointing to studies about how few players actually finish games as evidence of the idea that the journey matters much more than the destination. But I continue to believe we're in a renaissance for story-driven games, with audience interest in new and classic forms alike quickly ramping up. Clever game designers and writers will continue seeking smart ways to tackle the problem of creating strong tragedies or complex outcomes without making players feel like they're being forced to fail.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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