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Video games have a fairly unique aspect of interaction that sets them apart from other forms of storytelling. The idea that you get to shape the story being told to you, rather than simply letting that story wash over you, is an appealing component of video games. And capturing that appeal means trying your best, as a designer and/or writer, to incorporate this interaction into the game’s narrative.
However, while that premise seems good on its face, it leads to a particular problem with a fair amount of video game writing. Let us call this the “Choose Your Ending” problem.
Put into simple terms, the Choose Your Ending problem occurs when a game has been following a very structured and consistent narrative for much of its progression, only to provide a player with a choice at the very end that impacts the game’s final sequence, usually in the form of changing the game’s epilogue. Sometimes that choice can alter the entire world, sometimes it can just change a minor thing. But what is important in understanding this problem is that generally the player is faced with a choice about how the game should end and the main character’s role in that ending.
The idea of giving players this kind of choice has immediately obvious justifications behind it. It is a way to accomplish several goals at once. It can encourage players to replay the game, thus promoting more playtime and engagement. It gives players an opportunity to interact with the game’s narrative, which can be expected from many players to the point that contributing something might seem better than doing nothing. And by setting up the ending choices in a stark light, it can give the impression that the player’s choices matter, which is a key point to that interaction. And it can allow a writer to explore different possibilities within a storyline that might not otherwise be possible.
But despite these justifications, the idea of allowing players to choose an ending is a design decision that is fraught with a great deal of peril. From a storytelling standpoint, it often undermines the writing of the rest of the game, and can leave a player with a sour taste for an otherwise well-done game.
While not all forms of allowing players to choose an ending are bad, we should step back and think about the idea of Choose Your Ending as something that should be rarely done. As a starting point, we should think of Choose Your Ending as something to avoid, and only settle upon it when it is truly the best course of action
I will note, of course, that by “Choose Your Ending” I do not mean interaction with the narrative, or the ways in which that interaction shapes the story and alters how the game ends. That kind of “choice” is the ideal for video game storytelling as a whole.
What I refer to with this idea of “Choose Your Ending” is that the player’s interaction with the narrative is limited to the ending. That is, rather than shaping the story, you’re simply choosing which story (or which part of the story) you’d like to be told. And those end up being two very different things.
So what I’d like to explore in this essay is the nature of the Choose Your Ending problem, and why it is a problem in the first place. Namely, I’d like to explain why it ultimately harms most, if not all, games that use this kind of choice, and when it should be used (if it’s not going to be outright avoided).
Writing and Choice
In thinking about players choosing their own ending, we’re dealing with a core problem: the nature of writing itself. Often when stories are made with various characters and a plotline, the presentation of those characters and plotlines takes on a particular flow over time. Usually the more time that a character is developed or a plotline is built up, the stronger that flow.
But over time, the flow of that narrative is going to override the possibility for real “choice.” That is, a character that has been developed over time will start to have a particular thought process that the player will be able to not just understand, but expect. And as that thought process becomes clearer and clearer to the player, the premise that the character could make radically opposed choices – like those offered to the player at the end of the game – becomes somewhat unbelievable.
The problem is that for many instances of Choose Your Ending, the choice comes at the very end of the game, after the game has built up the plotline and established the characters and their motivations. And when the player is given the choice, it is usually a choice that means the main character will do very different things. But often, only one of those choices will usually fit with the characterization. Meanwhile, the other one will appear on its face as plausible – the writing will often try to make it seem possible – but will otherwise be a choice that the character would never make in the first place. For example, the main character might have gone on a quest to reunite with a loved one, and have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to find that loved one and talk continually to others or themselves about trying to reunite. And then the game might set up that the character must make a choice to reunite with or to abandon that loved one. Yet in these cases, the very nature of the plotline means that the character would only ever choose to reunite.
The result is that the player is offered a choice where it feels like there’s only one “correct” option, and another option that doesn’t make sense.
Presenting a choice in this way ultimately cheapens the value of writing that has come before, because it gives the impression that the plotline and characterization don’t actually matter. Presumably, of course, this isn’t the intention of the writer or writing team in presenting this choice. But we cannot ignore the importance of what has come before and how it affects what happens in the present. In that same vein, we cannot pretend that earlier writing has no impact on current choices.
So when deciding to present this Choose Your Ending scenario, we cannot pretend that earlier plot and character development hasn’t come before. And if it has, we need to account for it. Otherwise, we will end up with a sort of “false” choice.
It is, of course, possible to establish a Choose Your Ending scenario by avoiding too much plot and character development. As long as the player isn’t able to set expectations about where the story will go and what the character will do, the ending choices can all make sense.
However, just because it’s possible to make a Choose Your Ending scenario that makes sense does not mean it is a good thing. This brings us to the next problem of the setup.
The Value of Choice
We often talk about interaction and choice being a special component of video games, and that might give the impression that when a game lacks interaction, it must therefore be bad. As though a game absolutely must contain as much interaction as it possibly can, or else it has failed in some way.
And to some extent, I feel that a lot of the tendency to include ending choices comes from the idea that if the story doesn’t have that choice, it won’t be a real game.
But this idea, both as a premise of making games and as a premise for judging them, misses the core value of choice and interaction. Merely having choice and interaction for its own sake isn’t a good thing. Adding more interaction doesn’t automatically make the game better. In other words, just because you can do something you couldn’t before does not mean that the game will improve, unless that new action has some meaning for the player. For instance, games often have ways of walling in players to define the playable space. Theoretically, a developer could remove those walls and allow players to wander around an empty void. That would create more interaction than was otherwise possible, and mean more choice. But that wouldn’t be a good thing to do.
But by the same token, we can’t begin from the standpoint that more interaction and choice is automatically better for a game. The value of that choice is going to depend on what that choice ultimately means for the player.
And it might seem like giving a player a choice in endings is meaningful. But it ultimately fails in two ways.
Firstly, because for most players the choice is going to feel cheap. It might appear as a way of trying to “trick” the player into playing again, with a change in the last five minutes of the game being the payoff. It might appear like a way of avoiding settling on how a story ought to end. Whatever the exact basis, players can often react to these choices negatively – especially when the choice is done poorly.
Secondly, because these choices often contribute very little, if anything, to the actual story. Since so many of the choices often mean small alterations to the narrative with minimal player interaction, they don’t actually have much value. It’s like removing the walls: it’s something the player can do, but why would the player want to change the ending? What’s the reason for picking a particular ending?
Which comes to the main issue: the value of interaction within narratives is that the story – as I said earlier – is being shaped by the player and their actions. Which means a well-crafted video game narrative is going to depend on more subtle changes that are given to the player over the course of the entire game, and the different endings will be a culmination of all of those different changes. A single branch that comes at the very end of the game doesn’t accomplish anything. The player isn’t shaping the narrative. The narrative has been shaped, and the player simply gets to press a button at the end. It ceases to be interaction in a meaningful sense, and becomes interaction in only the most technical sense.
So the Choose Your Ending tendency ultimately cheapens the value of its own interaction. In a way, by adding a small bit of interaction to the story at the last minute, it raises the question why the rest of the narrative could not have incorporated this interaction as well. The presence of choice in one place highlights the absence of choice everywhere else.
If there is no need for a game to incorporate these choices – if the game’s narrative fits with a single ending just as well or even better than with multiple endings – then adding this choice is ultimately counterproductive.
Working Within Limitations
So if these are the core problems of the Choose Your Ending phenomenon, is there any way to make it work?
To reiterate, when we’re talking about Choose Your Ending, we’re not talking about alternate endings period. We’re talking specifically about a game being generally linear in its narrative until the end, at which point the player is given the opportunity to choose which ending sequence they get. So we’re focused a subset of narrative interaction, rather than talking about interaction more generally.
So one thing we could obviously do is make the player’s interaction with the story more comprehensive. That would get rid of the Choose Your Ending element completely.
But we’re focused right now on making Choose Your Ending itself work.
And for that, we would need to be working with a story that fits two criteria.
Firstly, the main character of the story should be able to viably make both (or all) choices. Which means that to some extent, the character and the storyline should come across as something of a blank slate. Not to mean that there can be nothing. But either the narrative can’t push too far in describing the character’s motivations and reasoning, or the ending choices have to both fit within those motivations and reasoning. The more information we get, the more we can put together about what kinds of decisions they would make – and more importantly, what kinds of decisions they wouldn’t make. When we have too much information, certain pathways become closed off, no matter what signposting might be put in to try to make the ending make sense.
Secondly, the choices have to have a certain weight to them. Merely saying “here’s two different ending sequences” keeps us within the meaningless choice problem. Those endings need to have some kind of value, a certain payoff to the player’s struggles that makes all endings feel important. Which means doing more than just giving them a different cutscene. It means writing the endings so that the player struggles with what choice to make. And just as importantly, does not feel that they should just pick one ending and then go to Youtube or reload the last checkpoint to watch the other ending.
These are both difficult tasks, which is why there are so few examples of games that are able to successfully offer an ending choice that feels good. But these examples are effectively exceptions that prove the rule. The fact that so few games are able to do it right suggests that offering choice in this form should be generally avoided in the first place.
Much as we think of interaction with narratives as a core element of video games, there are plenty of games out there which offer no interaction with the story beyond mere gameplay. And yet, a lot of those games often get praised for their storytelling.
Because good storytelling in video games is almost always going to take precedence over the player’s involvement with the story. An amazing story can get a player to ignore the fact that they had no involvement in its development. But interaction – especially bad interaction – will not distract from a bad story.
So in thinking about ending games, the idea of Choose Your Ending is an easy way to incorporate interaction. But it is also a bad way. While it is not impossible to do this task well, it is like walking a tightrope: you are more likely to fail than succeed.