Recently I’ve noticed a rather strong correlation with the presence of branching story paths/endings in single-player focused gaming in relation to a positive experience I have with the game. Giving the player different outcomes to a game certainly empowers a player in the choices they make and if done correctly, builds stronger ties between the gamer and the world they immerse themselves in. Perhaps developers focus more on the user’s experience and immersion when involving branching endings in the game, and it’s this attention to detail that coincides with a visible net positive experience. While this development decision may not always result in a quicker turnaround cash grab, it is certainly a game attribute manifested beautifully in almost every genre of yesterday and tomorrow. I will be analyzing some games I’ve played with multiple endings that stood out to me (warning spoilers), and with this hopefully giving some insight on what details games are doing right in different ways.
Shadow the Hedgehog, 2005
Shadow the Hedgehog is the first game I experienced for myself with the concept of differing endings. It’s a third party shooter that’s kinda sorta Sonic with a bunch of guns. While it did have awkward controls and a surprisingly dark storyline, the different storylines, namely “Hero,” “Normal,” or “Dark” offered a good amount of replay-ability and a memorable universe. In this game, the player gets to decide Shadow’s fate rather transparently. The targets he killed largely correlated to his path and the game is upfront after every level which ending the player was headed towards.
Next on this list is an FPS with a bigger reputation. Bioshock takes place in an underwater city designed to be an excluded utopia. All was well until ADAM was discovered, which grants superhuman strength. The main character, Jack has his airplane crash, getting him stuck in a now declining post-apocalyptic biopunk inspired realm. Jack is ‘capable’ of making moral decisions such as killing or not killing characters. The most prominent decision (which dictates the ending of the game) is choosing whether or not to kill the Little Sisters, which are genetically modified young girls designed to harvest ADAM from dead ex-users. A prominent theme of the game is the Orwellian experience. In the earlier parts of the game, the player is monitored by Atlas, one of the primary antagonists. Atlas controls the main character through a hypnotic trigger, forcing the player to do what he says at command. Later in the game Jack is cured of this endeavor, making the further decisions of the player (with now more options) that much more impactful and appreciated. Undergoing the lack of choice environment empowers the player when they get to take morality upon themselves. A quote in Bioshock that can resonate with the player’s experience as Jack is hypnotically forced to kill an important character is, “A man chooses. A slave obeys.”
Undertale is an RPG about a human who while adventuring, has fallen into the Underground, a land under the Earth’s surface that you cannot escape from due to a magic barrier. The inhabitants of the Underground are monsters, who were once considered equals with humans. A war broke out forcing the monsters inside that realm. The player is given the decision to either fight, kill, or flee monster encounters. There are three main endings to the game which break the magic barrier, “pacifist mode” where the player does not kill a single enemy and befriends necessary NPCs, “normal mode” which is every other outcome but the other 2, and “genocide mode” where the player kills everyone. One memorable theme of Undertale is the game’s frequency at breaking the fourth wall. Saving in the game is considered “determination,” and other characters are capable of affecting the save file. Clearing the game in genocide mode for example will result in the data files permanently tarnishing any pacifist attempts at the game. Main characters act differently to the player depending on what route they are taking. Unlike the repetitive grind of random monsters seen in games such as Final Fantasy, Undertale looked to make each random encounter a unique experience by giving each NPC unique flavor. This personalization results in a video game that encourages the player to feel empowered to see that there are different ways to play the game. The replay-ability to achieve the ‘perfect’ ending is appealing, especially since most players do not discover that they could spare every character until a follow-up play-through is made. After the pacifist ending is complete the game and its characters within it highly encourage that the player quite physically stop playing the game, adding the empathetic appeal the gamer has with the world of Undertale and its inhabitants.
Stardew Valley, 2016
Next on the list is a farming sim RPG, Stardew Valley. In Stardew Valley, the player takes the role of an individual who is sick of a mundane office life and yearns to be in a simpler more laid-back life. The player decides to take over his/her deceased grandfather’s farm which takes place in the valley. The player can freely decide their own days, doing things such as fighting monsters and mining in the mines, foraging goods, growing seasonal crops, raising animals, fishing, and building relationships with NPCs in the town to name a few things to do. The open-ended approach to this game allows players to enjoy the game and play at their own pace. One of the main quests of the game is the Community Center. Through donating bundles of requested items to the center, the player can acquire bonus items and new mechanics and eventually restore the center, improving the life of the town. Alternatively, the player can turn to Joja Corp. to turn the center into a warehouse. This forces the players to acquire the new mechanics through simply paying in straight cash for each bundle. Each path incentivizes players differently, however it is insinuated through the calling of the game and the NPCs within that restoring the community center is the ‘right’ decision. Regardless, making this decision will ultimately impact the experience of the player playing the game.
There are countless games that excellently made different endings. Mass Effect, Fallout, Infamous, Inside, Dishonored, Heavy Rain, Fire Emblem Fates, Chrono Trigger, and Talos Principle are to name a few.
In conclusion one clear takeaway I see in how different games handle different endings is that different endings encourage the player to think differently about the video game’s universe. It is this thinking differently that empowers players to make decision that reflect how they want to guide their experience. If for example Shadow the Hedgehog only offered paths of “Dark,” “Pure Evil,” and “Most Evilest,” it could exile a realm of players who desire a more positive result. Thus, I claim an inclusion of a personifiable pathway will generally yield more of that sweet critical acclaim. Also, it is important for games with different pathways to not simply be a Morton’s fork with the illusion of ‘choice.’
It should be worth noting, there are tons of fantastic single-player focused games out there who don’t spout the notion of multiple endings. Pokémon, Zelda, Mario, and Banjo-Kazooie are to name just a couple. Recently, it has been announced that the new Zelda game to be released in March, Breath of the Wild will have multiple endings. Considering the mess that is the varying Zelda timeline, it will be a nice twist to a series that generally will not focus on that experience.