On Storytelling: Playstyles and Endings

Last week I wrote about my experience with Signalis, and said that I had two things I wanted to talk about. Last week had to do with a little twist about two-thirds of the way through the game, and today has to do with endings.

One of the things that I thoroughly enjoy about video games as a medium is the ability to create multiple endings. A novel or movie or television show invariably ends only one way. You can change your experience of the story by stopping early, but the story still goes on without you towards that end. We can certainly pretend or imagine things to be different – we can imagine how a story might progress if a certain character had lived, or been in a different place, or been a different person altogether – but the actual text we are dealing with does not change.

With video games, our interaction can change the nature of the story itself. This outcome isn’t always true, of course. Many video games have very linear storylines where a player’s interaction may only matter on the margins, or perhaps not even matter at all. There’s still plenty of fun and enjoyment to be had from such games. But one way that we take hold of the medium itself is through incorporating the player’s interaction into the storytelling.

However, there’s more that needs to be done than just having multiple endings. I wrote a long while back about what I called the “Choose Your Ending Problem,” where some games will basically lead you through a linear storyline and then at the very last moment give you a choice of how you want the final cutscene to play out. I argued in that essay that these final moments generally undercut the rest of the game, because either both endings felt empty, or one ending feels like the “obvious” choice and so there’s no reason to pick the other one beyond completion.

But in playing Signalis I came across something that bugged me…though I am hesitant to call it a real issue. By no means does it run into this Choose Your Ending Problem. But it does something else that I felt the need to explore.

So call this a spoiler warning for Signalis. I won’t be revealing any plot details, but in talking about the mechanics behind the different endings I’ll need to reveal in some ways how to get the different endings. Those who would prefer to not know and go in blind would do well to stop reading here before playing the game for themselves. Which is certainly something I recommend, particularly if you enjoy the survival horror genre.

Figuring Out How to Survive

So Signalis has, by my understanding, four endings. I say “by my understanding” because at the moment I’ve only beaten the game twice. About 75% of the way through my first playthrough I penned the previous essay, and a few days after completing it I penned this one. After finishing the game the first time, I decided that I wanted to show it off by streaming it. But I did not really have a plan to play it four times to get every ending. Which means that in order to get this information I had to look up information online.

There are three primary endings from just getting to the end of the game, which all depend on how you play the game. And then there is a secret ending from performing specific tasks.

These multiple endings are actually something of a staple of the genre. I mentioned last week how so much of Signalis clearly takes inspiration from the classic survival horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, both in its mechanics and its storytelling. And both of those game series allow the player to get multiple endings depending on a variety of different factors.

So what’s bugging me? It’s how you get those different endings.

Your three main endings are gotten through one of the following methods:

  1. Use healing items as quickly and often as possible and take a long time to complete the game.
  2. Avoid fights and try to get through the game fairly quickly.
  3. Be aggressive towards enemies and don’t really bother healing, including dying quite a number of times.

Now those mechanics on their own sound interesting. Literally the way that you play alters the ending you’ll get. What more could you really ask for? This is precisely what I’m talking about when I say that interaction should affect the storytelling, right?

Yes, but there’s still a slight hitch that I keep running into. Which is the genre of the game itself. As a survival horror game, you are strongly encouraged to be careful and thorough. If you’re paying attention to what the game is telling you, you’re supposed to be doing things like avoiding fights and searching every room for materials. You’re supposed to be prepared because you don’t know what’s coming next, so you need all the materials you can get and save.

What I mean is that the very nature of the game pushes you towards endings 1 and 2, and the more familiar you get with the game, the more likely you’ll wind up just getting ending 2 over and over again.

This, of course, if you don’t look up a guide.

In fact, if you’re careful and have familiarity with the genre, you could well end up only ever getting one ending over and over. Again, that’s if you don’t use a guide.

And so the thing that irked me when I first looked up the mechanics behind the different endings is that it felt a bit like the game was punishing you for “playing well.”

I don’t think in the slightest that conclusion is the intention of these endings and their requirements. In fact, the more I’ve reflected the more I’ve questioned to what extent it should even be considered a “punishment” to not get a particular ending. Getting multiple endings requires an investment of time and effort anyway, so why would it be wrong that one or two endings are hidden from you unless you go through the effort to get them…which may well include looking up the requirements?

All of this to say that this essay is ultimately not a criticism, but another exploration. I think the mechanisms behind getting these different endings are still interesting and still a good example of how the medium of video games can use the player’s interaction to affect the story.

I think what is ultimately missing here – and missing from plenty of other attempts to mesh storytelling and interaction, including in some of my favorite games – is some kind of clear signposting for the player about those different endings. Some kind of clue that there are other possibilities and how those possibilities might be achieved, without necessarily telling the player outright what to do.

Which is a weird tightrope to walk. If at some point you do start including those clues, the discussion merely shifts to whether those clues are sufficient. Conversely, if you make the clues too explicit, then many (though certainly not all) players will feel like they’re being directed, like their personal interaction is meaningless. It can feel like whatever devs do, it’s never really enough.

Is there an optimal point, a set of perfect indicators that tell a player that they can do something and puzzle through how to do it…but without making it too obvious?

I think the answer is “no.” These matters are always going to depend to some degree on player curiosity. The player will have to want to get more out of a game, want to figure out how things work, and want to replay and try again. And that means being willing to suffer some kind of disappointment in the effort to see something new. There won’t be a way to make everyone perfectly happy.

Instead, I think it’s valuable to start with an appreciation for when designers do what they can to incorporate interaction into the storytelling. When games try to do things like making the way you play a game change the ending. Or when they hide little secrets that can change the story that you experience. There are a wide range of possibilities for how to accomplish this task, and just beginning from the standpoint that all of those efforts are good on their own is something we should keep in mind.

After that, we simply acknowledge that we’re quibbling over details. Not that such quibbling is bad, just that it helps to keep ourselves grounded on what we’re doing. If a game could have done something better, know that “better” is always going to be lurking around the corner no matter what.

Concluding Remarks

I’ve rambled a bit in this essay, because my own thoughts here are rather jumbled. My thoughts on this subject began when I read about the various endings and how to get them, and learning that the very way I was playing was pushing me towards a specific ending. That if I’d played again without ever having read the guide, I would simply wind up with that same ending. It felt like the very way in which I play was being judged.

Of course, I’ve said a handful of times in other essays that our initial feelings aren’t always right. And so exploring those feelings in more detail helps us get a better grasp of what we want and whether we should want it. Putting these thoughts down has given me a different perspective, one that I would never have ended up with if I’d just left myself with this newfound knowledge.

Because the simple answer is I don’t know what I would want Signalis to do instead. Even if I argue that I think the implementation could have been better, I don’t know what “better” even looks like. Which itself gives away the nature of the problem. The difficulty of what is being asked – to beautifully and seamlessly marry the medium of the game with the storytelling – creates a monumental task. And it is witnessing the enormity of that task that I am brought to a new appreciation of Signalis and what it has done. Indeed, I have a new appreciation for all the games that have attempted to blend interaction and narrative and fallen short in all their little ways.

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