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Robert Bevill, Blogger

June 27, 2011

4 Min Read

Lately I've been playing the story mode of Blazblue: Continuum Shift, a fighting game developed by Arc System Works and published in the west by Aksys Games.  I could write a whole column about how story modes in fighting games have to face problems that other genres do not, but that's not the issue here.  Instead I want to touch on how the game handles its story mode in the form of dozens of different endings depending on what character the player is playing as, and how different choices made throughout the game will alter the course of the story.

The "multiple ending" method of storytelling is something unique to video games, that movies or books just can't replicate (aside from a few exceptions, like the Clue movie, or choose-your-own-adventure books).  In Blazblue, each character has three endings: a "canon" ending, where the story is destined to go, an "alternate" ending where we see where things could have gone, and a "gag" ending intended to give the player a break from the drama of the story.  For the most part, this is handled in an interesting fashion.  The "true" path is relatively straightforward, and the "alternate" ending is due to a crucial choice made somewhere along the line.  This allows the player to watch the intended story as it unfolds, as well as give us a little extra background to the world.  Plus, since the individual stories are rather short and previously viewed scenes can be skipped, the entire process is pretty painless (aside from the few instances where the alternate endings require unintuitive means to access).

There are two approaches to multiple endings in games that I feel "work".  As Blazblue has already done, designating one path the correct ending and offering others as bonuses allows the world to feel fleshed out.  Alternatively, a game like Mass Effect is entirely too lengthy and complicated for one person to see all the possible story paths, but if you're like me, it doesn't matter.  When I play Mass Effect or Heavy Rain or Fallout,  I get the sense that the story I just viewed was MY story.  It's my interpretation of the game and the events that unfolded.  It can be fun to talk with others about how their story went, but the changes are rather subtle, so we can all feel like we've gotten our fill out of it.

However, some games can also get it terribly wrong.  For instance, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor for the DS.  I personally love the game, and consider it one of the best RPGs on the system.  However, despite the game boasting "six different endings", I have only seen one of them.  Not only that, but each ending is drastically different, and lasts for the entire final chapter of the game, which is a few hours of gameplay.  In order to access these endings, you have to play through the entire game, making critical choices that you would need a guide in order to figure out.  You're still given your overpowered allies from the end of the last playthrough, but fighting the same battles and watching the same unskippable cutscenes was a huge chore, and I quit before I could accomplish anything significant.  Also, since the game only has a single save file, I could not just "re-load" a previous save and make a different choice at the critical moment.

Another example of games that don't get it quite right are Bioshock and inFamous.  Both games have a "moral choice" system that lets you decide how good or evil you are.  The problem is, Cole MacGrath is the driving force of the story, not you, and the "moral choice" options feel more like a game mechanic than a method of storytelling.  There's a good ending and a bad ending, neither of which feel "true".  Jack in Bioshock may not speak, but he's still the one engaged in the story, not the player.  I won't spoil anything, but the two endings seemed so black and white that, again, neither feels satisfactory.  The reason that games like Mass Effect or Fallout work in this department is because the story is primarily player-driven, and that the choices you make aren't necessarily as clear as night and day.  The player is forced to second-guess themselves, and as such, the story may not go along their personal code of conduct.

Ultimately, alternate endings are a neat little way to make games stand out from stories in other mediums, as long as they follow one of the methods I described.  To reiterate, either make a "true" ending, and leave the others to the equivalent of DVD bonus content, or allow the player to craft their own story.  Also, most importantly: if you give a player a choice, don't make it feel arbitrary.  I don't want my decision whether to eat or get groceries first to determine whether or not my best friend dies.

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