You Can’t Choose Your Happy Ending

Spoiler Warning: While there are no explicit details of the endings of the games mentioned in this article, there’s enough discussion that you can reasonably infer certain plot developments or outcomes. If you haven’t finished Mass Effect 3, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Fallout 3, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, or Dishonored and you’re planning to, you might want to skip this.

If there was ever a gaming mechanic that I wanted to love, it’d be the moral choice system. The idea of being able to play through the same core story as other people yet come away with an entirely different experience is one which excited and fascinated me from the first moment I learned of its inception. Despite this, I’ve found myself falling out of love with the idea in recent years and, if pushed, I could pinpoint the exact moment when it happened.

I’d managed to stealth my way through the entirety of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, never once setting off an alarm and always opting to non-lethally take down anyone in my path, except for the oft-maligned bosses who demanded death to progress. I’d just reached the end of my journey when I came up to what I thought was an inconspicuous computer. Upon approach, it revealed three buttons, explained the consequences of what would happened if I pushed any of them, and told me to choose. Rather than take into account any of my actions beforehand or care whether or not I’d killed or spared those in my wake, it presented me my options and went “go on then, choose your ending“.

I froze. I sat and pondered, and couldn’t choose any of them. Perhaps the ability to choose between more than one ending – rather than being prescribed one based on my actions – threw me off slightly, or perhaps it was the fact that the effects of each choice were left ambiguous. Either way, I was stuck, unable to make a decision that would satisfy me or suit the way that I’d approached the story, or the way I’d interpreted it.

At one point I’d actually had to phone up my best friend, explain to him the entire plot thus far, and then try to get him to make the decision for me. He couldn’t choose, either. It took me a grand total of thirty-five minutes from the time the endings were presented to me to the moment where I finally closed my eyes and pushed the button that I thought might work the most.

Except that it didn’t. It turns out that all my whimpering and constant second-guessing was right, and the ending I chose because it seemed like the most conservative view turned out to be too extreme, so I reloaded the file and tried again. I picked another one, thinking again that it would lead to a moderated consequence, only for it to also go too extreme. In vain, I tried them all, and not just because there was a tasty achievement for doing so. Each time the implied outcome turned out to be nowhere near as harsh as the eventual one, and I found myself utterly dissatisfied with every potential conclusion offered to me.

It’s a story that’s become firmly rooted in my memories of the last generation, and the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s endemic of my problem with moral choice systems. It’s not just because I’m put off by endings that consist of nothing but stock footage and a generic narration telling you what happened next, but because I’ve started to believe that you can’t truly have a satisfying ending in a game with a morality mechanic.

While my realisation came from my time with Human Revolution, which – anecdote aside – is easily one of my favourite titles of the last several years, some may have suspected this from a different series altogether. These days, Mass Effect 3‘s ending has become ubiquitous with “disappointment” and the “gamers are over-privileged” mindset. Both the endings and the backlash have been debated and documented to absolute death, but it could still be a while before all the consequences and ramifications play out.

Personally, I was fine with my ending. I can’t say I fully understood it at first, and in the end I chose to just go with it, but the best I can say is that I “liked” it. I was a little disappointed with it, but not to the same extent as the vocal majority on the internet. When most of the opinions you see feel like complete overreactions it’s hard not to side with BioWare; they did the best job they could have done under the circumstances, especially considering that EA pulled forward the release date and gave them less time to fully realise everything they may potentially have planned.

Before long I found myself siding against those complaining, and part of me was fuming when BioWare had to go back and essentially re-do the endings just to placate everyone. To this day I still don’t believe that they deserved anywhere near as much ire as they received, and I still think that having to go back and change their vision of the ending at great expense just to appease people was a horrible moment that may set a worse precedent in the future.

The issue is that despite the myriad of different decisions you could possibly make throughout the Mass Effect universe, there were only three (or four, if you get the DLC that purports to fix the endings) ways that you could close out the story. Then there’s the fact that, like the aforementioned Human Revolution, those options were all presented to you at once and your only interaction is deciding which of them you dislike the least. Add in the realisation that none of these endings actually reflect your decisions you’ve made thus far, and you can reasonably understand why people were dissatisfied.

True, the number of possible endings on display were detemined by the total assets you’d acquired, which, in turn, was reflective of how you acted and behaved throughout the previous chapters, but that was mostly mitigated by the fact that, unless you bought every single form of downloadable content, you had to relentlessly grind the multiplayer just to get what’s considered the “best” ending. Even after that, it’s impossible to create an ending that millions of people are going to be happy with.

When the debates first rolled around, I remember one of my best friends telling me of her disappointment with it. First she had to sit through a ton of exposition essentially recapping the plot and explaining the entire motivations for the villains, was given a vague series of choices, and then opted for that “best” ending. Once she’d picked it, however, she was annoyed that the results which played out didn’t correspond to what she wanted – there was a specific event she was looking forward to that never happened. I argued at the time that it would have been an overly happy ending, and the way that the story built up meant that it could never happen, but that doesn’t mean that I’m right.

We may have played the same identical trilogy, but the context of our moral choices and the events that played out weren’t. We’d both picked different romance options, had alternative reasons for taking certain actions, and thus felt conflicting emotions when presented with the same ending. She wanted a happier ending for her Shepard, but my interpretation of Mass Effect 3 was such that it could never happen.

Now imagine trying to make a trilogy of games where your moral choices are tracked throughout each instalment, combine those with millions of players and their own potential contexts and expectations, then try to whittle your endings down to three (or four) distinct, definitive endings without pissing off the vast majority of your fan-base. While you’re at it, I think Sisyphus needs help pushing that boulder up a hill.

BioWare certainly didn’t succeed in accommodating everyone, and that’s actually fine; they’d have to spend at least an extra year in development and release Mass Effect 3 with about seven discs to come close to fully satisfying everyone, but it’s really something everyone should have seen coming. That being said, at least they tried. They knew they were never going to please everyone and at least attempted to stick to their guns before the backlash proved too much and forced them to alter their vision.

It’s not the only time that happened last generation. Remember Fallout 3? That took until the third DLC before Bethesda fixed their ending. Before then the action would definitively end during the final story quest – despite being an open-world adventure – locking you out from the possibility of end-game content and leaving you with a bunch of still images and narration vaguely explaining what happened as a result of your actions.

Where a lot of the ire came from, however, was the fact that they presented you a specific dilemma but only gave you one or two choices that could seem completely nonsensical depending on your party members. In an attempt to provide an ending that could work regardless of who you had in your party – or if you were tackling the whole thing solo – Bethesda ended up vexing the fans who felt their actions weren’t accommodated for. Truth be told, I was more annoyed by the fact they tried to wrap everything up with a bunch of pictures while someone talked over them.

The “Still Images And Narration” ending is perhaps one of my most hated, but it’s one which games employing a moral choice system opt to employ more than most. After investing so much time in the story and the world, to be fobbed off at the end with a vague explanation and some pictures feels like a slap in the face. In titles like Fallout 3 or Dishonored it just serves to spoil what wasn’t exactly the greatest of stories in the first place.

The latter in particular is a massive let-down; depending on how you’ve played, one of the potential endings consists of you tackling the final level and breaching the door to the final confrontation, only to be given a big speech that explicitly points out and ruins what would have otherwise been a great piece of subtext before abruptly ending. After all that, some pictures and a man explaining how everything else plays out is just a bit insulting.

The issue I have with the “Still Images and Narration” type of ending in particular is that although it’s often geared specifically towards titles with moral choice systems, it’s one which often discourages you from getting too invested in the actions you take as a result. When your only reward is dialogue, it’s hardly worth going through without killing anyone if the only consequence is the narrator adding “oh, and you didn’t kill anyone, either. Good boy!”

This leaves me in a rather sticky situation. I’ve already acknowledged that in some circumstances it’s okay that you can’t create a series of endings that will truly make players feel like all of their choices and actions were accounted for, but I’ve also claimed that the primary methods for delivering those endings aren’t good enough and don’t do enough to reward the players. The worst part is, I can’t think of a decent fix or a solution for all of this other than acceptance.

I don’t think that games will ever truly have satisfying endings as long as moral choices and multiple endings are involved, because there’s no real way you can make everyone happy from them. The closest I can think of is the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but even then I’ve seen people who didn’t like the way that played out, even though it’s the context of those endings that are significant, not the journey it took to get there.

However, if we go into those games knowing that most of our actions may end up being fruitless or have no overall bearing on the final result, then our potential frustration will be much smaller as a result. If you’re aware that those endings might completely disregard everything you’ve done thus far and take nothing you’ve done into account, save for a paltry line of optional narration, then we’ll probably get far fewer riots, although they’ll be no less valid. I’m not particularly glad about the outcome either, but I feel that if I recognise that I’m never going to totally love any of the multiple endings, then I’ll start enjoying them a lot more.

Unless you’re going to try and fob me off with some pictures while someone talks over it. You’ve just created a unique world filled with different personalities and ideas, use your imagination.

Last five articles by Edward


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