[When are alternate endings a necessity, and when do they become a gimmick? A look into the importance of alternate endings and nonlinear gameplay/story in games, as well as analysis of the endings of games like Half Life and Infamous.]
This article - which includes story spoilers for some games - was posted on http://dtwgames.com. Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location: http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/alternateendings.html.
One of the things that make video games unique compared to all other forms of art/entertainment is their ability to change in response to the player. This is a great aspect of games, as it allows players to make meaningful decisions, which are at the spine of every game, and watch their effects play out in a unique way.
This is one thing books, movies, and other forms of entertainment can’t do – the novel’s course is not affected by who the reader is or what his/her point of view is. However, alternate endings should be used with caution, as including them for the wrong reasons can actually hurt the overall experience.
Alternate endings in games go way back, and many significant games have included them, like Chrono Trigger, Deus Ex, Half Life, and Metroid. But when is it necessary to include multiple endings in games? When is it foolish to include multiple endings?
Back in the day, most games which included alternate endings did so as a gimmick, as most games used little or no deviation from the main storyline. There were no choices that changed the story (although there are some exceptions). More and more today, though, it would be unreasonable to NOT include alternate endings. For example: Heavy Rain.
In Heavy Rain, the player switches between the lives of four different protagonists, all going after the origami killer. Along the way, you paved the story, as messing up in a critical situation would lead to your character’s death (permanently). You may miss out on some clues that directly change where the story is going. Therefore, not including many different endings for each route you take through the game would be not foolish, but impossible, as the game features a branching story.
Some games’ alternate endings do not enhance the experience, like Half Life’s endings. At the very end of the game, after the climax, Gman gives you the choice of either working for him, or fighting him in a fight which Gordan cannot win. Choosing to obey Gman pops up a screen of text, informing you that Gordan is now working for Gman.
Choosing to disobey Gman leads to your death, shown in a three-second clip and a page of text. That is it. The alternate endings are not decided by how you chose to play the game or important choices you made along the way, but are decided by a gimmicky decision that had nothing to do with the plot (well, not really anyway).
In fact, choosing to disobey Gman leads to a rather disappointing ending which, contrary to what the rest of the game did, punished you for sticking up for yourself. After playing for hours, the player does not want to learn that it was all for nothing. Even though you could replay it, the first ending you acquire is the real ending for the player (and Half Life 2 assumed you made the choice, the “correct” choice, to obey Gman).
These alternate endings that are based only on a small portion of the game towards the end are weak, as the player does not feel as though he/she deserved the ending he/she got. Instead, the player should have an idea about what kind of ending they are going to get, so it is important to inform the player if he/she has no way of knowing what the consequences of his/her actions are.
In Infamous, playing corruptly, making selfish decisions and creating havoc for the innocents of the city, is going to lead to an evil ending, in which Cole becomes corrupt with power over the people. Playing heroically, putting others before you and going out of your way to help people, is going to lead to a heroic ending, in which Cole struggles with being seen as a hero, worried he will not meet their expectations.
The endings in Half Life are uneducated – although Gman tells you he is impossible to defeat, the player should not actually be expected to believe this. The player feels challenged, and most often will refuse to work for Gman, not even getting a chance to fight. The choice was not gradual and was not worked towards throughout the game, rather it was something tacked on, completely unnecessary, that was made to intrigue the player, not close the game.
The endings in Infamous, the paths you choose throughout the game, fit your actions and the way you played the game. It ties in with the story, and closes at the climax. Rather than choosing after the boss fight whether you want to be good or bad, taking your story in dramatically different directions, you play good or evil throughout the game, earning your given ending.
And better yet, you can play heroically and halfway through the game turn to the dark side to save your love, get your way, or whatever. Even though there are two endings, there are many stories that could be played out because of the story’s ability to adapt to your style and decisions.
If a video game embraces aspects only found in games, like adaptive storytelling, various playing styles, story decisions, etc., it could be bettered by alternate endings, as YOU are the character. This is a very important truth of gaming. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens creates a character – Pip’s story is going to close a certain way, and only one way, because his personality and background directly decides what he will do next - the story is linear.
A game designer has no way of knowing what the player is like, and as designers let players play a certain way or make certain decisions (based on who they are and what they have experienced in their life), the story has to go certain ways - the story is nonlinear. And although multiple endings improve replayability, that should not be a reason for creating multiple endings – the first ending is the one that counts, and the rest are just the player messing with the possibility space.
As the industry grows and technology improves, games are going to allow more and more possibilities to the player, and the 88 possible final cutscenes found in Star Ocean: The Second Story are going to be necessary to give the player the feeling that what he/she did mattered, and the decisions he/she made left an important influence on the story. As the possibility space offered to the players expands, so do the number of closings possible.
So, alternate endings are just a gimmick, something the company can write on the back of the box (--over 175 possible endings for unlimited replay!), unless they are made to close every possible path a player could take on his/her special way through the game that reflects his/her thought process and own self. THEY ARE NOT NECESSARY IN ALL, OR EVEN MOST CASES THOUGH. In games that focus on the character the designers created, there is only one possible outcome that you play out (most games do this).
If you want to learn about exploring a possibility space and the necessity or unnecessity of multiple endings, try out some of these games with multiple endings; some of them you might not have even known there were multiple endings (list)!
I also recommend you play an interactive fiction game called Aisle (game), which explores the possibility of the possibility space in just one choice (with 136 alternate endings). After you play through as many actions you can think of, try going through this list (guide), during which you will learn a lot about the character and his history, all made possible through inventively using the alternate ending.
This article was posted on http://dtwgames.com. Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location: http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/alternateendings.html.