Endings in Choice-Driven Games: How to Get Them Right
Every path has its destination, but some roads are more rewarding than others
From juggernauts like the Mass Effect series to indie darlings like Citizen Sleeper, much is made of the value of narrative choice in video games. In essence, it stands as one of the unique qualities of the medium. On paper, the act of playing a story-centric, narrative-driven game allows any prospective player to craft a bespoke story centered around their own desires and expectations. This additional layer of interactivity makes for a dynamic and strangely intimate experience, singularly unique to video games as a medium.
With Mass Effect 3 now ten years’ old, countless efforts have been made to iterate and improve upon Bioware’s daring foray into the world of narrative choice. Like Mass Effect 3 itself, however, this decade of iteration has often been something of a double edged sword. For each satisfying denouement offered by the likes of The Witcher 3 or Triangle Strategy, we have been subjected to the underwhelming disappointments embodied, perhaps, by titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect 3.
This is not to say that Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Mass Effect 3 are “bad games” - far from it. Both are exactly the kinds of thrilling sci-fi romps that occupy well-earned places of respect in the gaming canon. They offer compelling narratives, engaging gameplay and, as with any good sci-fi, have something to say about what it means to be human.
However, both titles failed to offer satisfying conclusions. In stark contrast to the choices offered throughout the main body of their narratives, the climactic final moment of both titles seems reduced to a choice between three buttons, all of which seem to fly in the face of prior player choices.
Though the player still has agency, there's no denying that it's easy to feel let down by these titles. It's clear that the conclusions of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect 3 are both missing something.
A Lack of Catharsis
Like many clever-sounding words bandied about by English Literature Majors the world over, “catharsis” is an overused term. In a wholly original feat that no games journalist has ever tried before, let’s try to unpack the term and use it to shed some light on our problem.
Many take catharsis to be synonymous with “emotional satisfaction”, but its actual meaning is a little more complex. It is both an emotional release but also a “cleansing” (derived as it is from the Ancient Greek kathairein meaning “cleanse”). It signals both an emotional crescendo and the satisfying expression and dissipation of those emotions.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect 3 neglect this process of dissipation, leading to lackluster and unfulfilling endings that seem out of place compared to the main bodies of both games. Both Adam Jensen and Commander Shepard sacrifice a great deal to reach their goals. Paragon or Renegade, killer or savior, both characters give of themselves, emotionally and physically, to get where they’re trying to go.
As players, we expect that the final moments of both stories will be coloured by these sacrifices. Instead, in the case of Commander Shepard, we find ourselves asked, quite literally, to press a button that will decide the fate of the universe. This act of arbitrated button-pressery is divorced from Shepard’s wider journey. In this moment, it doesn’t matter how many of our friends survived, who we kissed or how many moral event horizons we crossed. Shepard’s story becomes a means by which a button-pressing machine is delivered to an apocalyptic supercomputer.
Adam Jensen suffered a similar fate. Weighty decisions about who to spare and who to let die are left to the wayside as our gravelly-voiced hero is given four choices to make about the future of his world. Like Shepard, this decision takes place outside of the context of Adam’s personal journey and the wider narrative.
By removing the protagonists from their personal contexts, we are denied, in the final moments of these games, access to that second all-important element of catharsis: cleansing. Our feelings about these characters and their stories are never allowed to properly manifest because, in these fraught final moments, the games cease to be about them. As players, our emotional expression is muted, leaving us unsatisfied.
Endings with Heart
However, by looking at Mass Effect 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and understanding the importance of catharsis, we can gain a greater appreciation of the more fulfilling endings we’ve been treated to over the years.
Triangle Strategy and The Witcher 3 are very different games in many respects. Both offer weighty choices that snowball as the narrative progresses, ensuring that the endings of both titles remain narratively grounded and allowing the player to experience rewarding conclusions.
In The Witcher 3, the fate of Ciri, Geralt’s adopted daughter, turns on the extent to which the grizzled monster hunter supports her through the struggles she faces. Be emotionally available, and, come the ending, she’ll respond in kind. These delicate narrative flourishes are surprisingly abundant in Witcher 3 and allow the ending (no matter which you end up with) to reflect the journey of your Geralt.
Triangle Strategy, though lacking these flourishes, archives a satisfying ending through a subtly different technique. Though one chooses from three distinct main ending paths in an act of literal arbitration (magical weighing scales are involved), each choice is inexorably bound to one of the main supporting characters. Triangle Strategy’s main endings each represent the ambitions of a character with whom you’ve interacted for over two dozen hours. You’ve fought and bled beside them. They’ve had your back, both narratively and mechanically.
Having to choose between your precious teammates hits hard, and does a great deal to deliver on the game’s main thesis. Though heavy-handed at times, Triangle Strategy sets out to prove to the player that leadership is difficult and that, no matter what, you have to make sacrifices. This thematic consistency, coupled with strong characters, helps Triangle Strategy deliver cathartic endings which feel robust and well earned.
Delivering a satisfying ending is tough, especially in choice-heavy titles. However, by placing endings in the context of the trials and tribulations of a game’s main character(s) and by committing to narrative consistency, video games writers have treated us to a wide range of memorable and cathartic experiences.
Choice-driven games are, by their nature, bold and ambitious. When done right, they reward their players with the feeling of a story that is truly theirs. As lovers of games, we must cherish this unique facet of our medium and celebrate its successful use, while learning from (and, perhaps, cherishing) those titles that didn’t quite hit the mark.
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