Player Choice vs a Good Ending
This article is all about endings and if a game is mentioned, there is a pretty good chance it will be spoiled – you have been warned.
Endings are hard, especially in games that we love. Saying goodbye to the characters we care for and having to accept that we will (probably) never see them again is tough.
And while a good ending can put a cherry on top of a perfectly iced cake, a bad one can spoil the whole party. What we don’t often consider is how hard it is to be on the other side of the coin. Tying up all the loose ends and bringing something to a satisfactory conclusion is a really difficult thing to pull off and in the age of internet outrage, you’re going to be making people mad no matter what you do.
The more open ended and wide ranging the game you are making is, and the more agency you put in the players hands to make decisions, the more difficult ending the game or series is going to be.
Problems with choice
The obvious game to bring up when talking about endings people hated is Mass Effect 3. While I didn’t feel the need to get out my pitchfork, I also didn’t think it was a great ending. Seemingly all the decisions my Shepard had made over two games (I never played the original Mass Effect) were rendered pretty much meaningless and the destruction of the mass relays destroyed everything we knew about the game’s universe.
I think what people found most difficult was that essentially every decision their Shepards made in the series boiled down to three choices (less if you didn’t build up enough military strength), and those choices essentially led to the same conclusion just with a slightly different cutscene.
Lots of games that put player choice on the back of the box end up leading to the same or at least a very similar ending. It doesn’t really matter what choices you make in the first season of Telltale’s the Walking Dead, Lee will still get infected and die.
Now, you might be right to be a bit disappointed that you couldn’t go back and make a different choice that would save Lee from his fate, but that’s not really the point. In games like the Walking Dead or Mass Effect, the choices you can make are there for you to create a personal connection with the protagonist; act the way that you think you would act in the same situation, or act in ways you would never dream of. What’s important to remember though, is that it’s not your story and just like in real life, you don’t have full control, sometimes there is no right answer.
I’m sure Bioware spent a huge amount of time trying to come up with the perfect way to end the series. I actually think that they would have been better off approaching it more like the Walking Dead, with the whole game leading to one single conclusion. Saying goodbye to Lee in that way, using the relationship you built with Clementine as a powerful emotional tool really worked. A single, powerful ending would have allowed them to send Shepard off in style.
If you aren’t going to build a game from the ground up, allow players to make choices that dramatically change the game and have multiple endings like Heavy Rain or Until Dawn, there is no point trying to give players a faux sense of influence on the outcome. These are, after all, not our stories to tell, they are ours to experience.