Many Endings

As readers of this blog are sure to know, one of the things I value most in games is choice. In most games, however, there’s only one way to finish a game. Even take games with multiple endings, like BioShock or the historical Chrono Trigger — both have multiple endings, but both require you to accomplish the same task to get there. While Chrono Trigger lets you reach this ending point in several different ways, there isn’t any ending that doesn’t involve defeating Lavos, the game’s end boss.

So, here’s something to consider. Why not have multiple game-ending scenarios? While Chrono Trigger has multiple endings, it only has the one game ending scenario — defeat Lavos. But what if there were others, like evacuate the planet, or prevent his arrival, or somehow peacefully resolve the Lavos problem?

Granted, this idea is best executed in an open-world game, like Grand Theft Auto, and has been implemented in some games, like Galactic Civilizations 2 where players can win by by force, through social power, by political power or by technological mastery.

In the 3D Mario games, players collect Starts (and star-like objects) to progress through the game. In Mario 64, you need Stars because their power unlocks the doors. You need Shine Sprites in Mario Sunshine to restore the sunlight. You need Stars to power the observatory in Mario Galaxy. But what if there were alternate solutions? Mario 64 could include secret passages to let you circumvent some of the doors. Mario Sunshine could have had some other way of attracting light, like lenses and mirrors. Mario Galaxy could have given players star charts, maps, or a space ship so that they could reach the game’s areas without the observatory.

And this is the sort of thing that you could do with a game that wasn’t designed to allow it. Players should be allowed to discover their own method to succeed in a game, including in it’s narrative. Many games include optional side-quests and missions, but they rarely offer you alternate methods to complete the game.

An easy way of approaching this idea is to your game offer a single problem to solve as the end point of your game, but offer multiple ways of solving it. For example, say you have a game where a character gets stuck inside an underground facility — the game starts with them entering in via an elevator shaft and the elevator stops working, blocking their exit. The goal of the game, then, becomes ‘Exit the Facility’. The player could solve this in a number of ways — restart the elevator, climb up the elevator shaft, find another elevator or exit, create a new exit, or even call for help.

Now if we offer the player a big area to explore, they can find pieces to use to solve this problem. Each potential solution would have a number of steps to it in order to solve it. To restart the elevator, you’d need power, tools and replacement parts. To climb the shaft, you’d need climbing gear and a way to access the shaft. Finding another elevator means thoroughly exploring the facility and probably coming across a number of elevators that don’t take you to the surface before finding one that does. Maybe the player finds an air vent that leads to the surface — which they’d need to be able to scale and clear of obstructions, and maybe even deactivate power to ventilation fans. To dig their own exit, they’d need to find tools to dig with and a near-surface site to dig from. Calling for help could mean finding communications equipment, possibly repairing it, then finding someone to contact and convincing them to come help.

Of course, the BULK of the game would all be the same; exploring the facility, looking for ways to solve the problem. While each path may lead to the same result, escape, they lead there in different ways. Each one is a meaningfully different ending, which could have different story elements attached. The whole thing could even be filled with small checkpoints and other goals in order to supplement the story — maybe players could be searching for something inside the facility like artifacts or loot, or maybe they’re searching for survivors or something of the like. We could even monitor how far they get in each potential escape method and work THAT in to the story. A player who finishes a single strategy without attempting the others may have a carefree ending rap up — “I was never worried, it was all under control.”. Someone who nearly completes several escape methods before finally getting out, or takes a long time to escape, may instead have a more dismal or terrified — “I was beginning to think I was going to die down there!”.

This wouldn’t be much more difficult than adding optional side-quests in to any game, but it would add a lot more depth, and it would make the game feel more realistic. At the very least, it would change the game from a mediocre series of events to a scenario puzzle to be solved.

Thoughts?

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4 Responses to “Many Endings”

  1. Clint Emsley Says:

    Scribblenauts seems to do some of the same things you’re talking about. It gives you a goal, and then practically infinite ways of achieving that goal.

    I think this works best by combining simple goals with extremely emergent gameplay. Set up a simple set of rules, a simple goal, add some content, and then let the player do whatever they want.

    But really, Scribblenauts is about the only example I can think of that does this. Roguelikes tend towards that as well (especially since the journey is usually more important than the destination), but it can still be relatively limiting, especially in the end game. (I’m looking at you, Nethack.)

    • Greg Says:

      My experience is that it’s easier to say ’emergent game play’ than it is to implement. Particularly in big teams, simple mechanics can be easily defeated by an awful level design, and simple or not, if the balancing of the mechanics are bad then the end result will feel like a one-button game with a bunch of superfluous extra features.

      It’s still the thing to aspire for, though — emergent game play; if it works, it’s great and if it fails, you’re usually not doing any worse than your typical boring rigid title.

  2. Clint Emsley Says:

    Oh, plus Scribblenauts lets you tie a baby to a lion. That’s instant win.

  3. Dusan Vlahovic Says:

    Very interesting article. I love the idea of giving more freedom to the player and affect the outcome of the game in real ways, like Fahrenheit.
    But that wouldn’t work for every game, there are heavely script based games that require a linear pat.

    There’s something for everyone and i’m more inclined towards the idea of freedom.

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