Moral choices effecting story are all the rage in video games at the moment, and they have been for a long time. Perhaps one of the earliest examples of this that I personally remember can be seen in Microsoft's Fable, in which every choice was said to have an outcome which would affect how your character looked as well as how the story would ultimately end.
It is this ability for the player to directly influence plot that makes gaming so unique and fascinating in comparison to other forms of literature. Video game narratives offer lovers of story a visceral experience in which we get to actually be the protagonist within the story.
No other form of storytelling can really do that for us. I mean, imagine if we could be Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or Robert Jordan in Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls. If we could, it would change how the plot was perceived by the audience, and that's a very interesting concept.
However, every medium has its downfalls; often these downfalls are the second side of the coin that is their most intriguing asset.
Novels, for example, can offer descriptive prose. They can offer internal monologues. But on the flip-side, both are walls of text that can become dull and tedious. A film offers to truly show us what is happening rather than tell it, but struggles to get inside the head of a character like prose can.
Graphic novels, much like film, offer a beautiful vision of the events of a plot. However, they're static images and so can often lack the emotive punch that moving pictures can give us.
The double-sided coin of choice-based gaming
For modern game narrative, the double-sided coin is this: On the one hand, we as writers of game can boast to immerse players into the mind of the protagonist, not so that they can see what is going on, but so that they literally for an hour or two become that character. We can boast that a player's decisions will affect the ultimate outcome of the story's conclusion.
However, there are two ways that this talent can implode on itself. The first has to do with whether or not gamers in general can actually be trusted to tell a story; you laugh, but let's use an example here.
Can players be trusted to tell a good story?
Square Enix's 2015 episodic release #LifeIsStrange offered exactly this. They had a game where every decision the player made would affect things, would build towards a certain outcome
The game was for the most part narrative-rich, with well-written realistic characters for whom you really began to care. It was, at heart, a coming-of-age story. As such, it was from a narrative perspective built towards the central character, Max, learning about the world around her and growing and maturing into a more well-rounded person.
But once we reach the end of the game, the player is presented with a final set of choices that lead to different endings. A "good" ending and a "bad ending". The player (spoilers) is given the choice to save her town and let her best friend die, OR save her best friend and let the town get destroyed, potentially killing many.
The problem with this is that if the player chooses to save her friend and kill the town, that moral choice flies directly in the face of what the game has been building towards in its plot.
This is we call ludo-narrative dissonance when the gameplay directly contradicts the story elements. There is quite clearly a "right" ending in Life Is Strange, you watch the ending where she lets her friend die to save the town and you will see for certain that this is what the game writers had in mind from the start. Max grows up, she realizes that sometimes there is no way to save everyone, to make everyone happy, and that the right decision is often the hardest to make. The emotional weight and punch of this ending will leave you in tears, whereas the other ending will just leave you feeling like "I just completed a game."
So can we trust gamers to choose the right ending? This question leads us into the second issue with multi-choice endings in games. The risk that a player may not feel like they have gotten what they have paid for.
Satisfying the customer no matter the choice
This is essentially the video game version of the film and prose question, "does the protagonist get what they deserve in the end?" — not what they want, not what they need, but what they deserve.
This question converts to one about money. Does this ending feel worth the money I paid for the game?
You can have a great game, but if your ending is bad, that's what it will be remembered for. Think for a moment about Mass Effect 3 for example, or Heavy Rain. Both objectively great games with less than satisfying endings that left a bitter taste in fans mouths.
It's a difficult conundrum. We don't want to treat players like idiots by not trusting them to make good narrative decisions; that would just come off as condescending and dull. But at the same time, it must be acknowledged that professional writers are (usually) professional writers for a reason; we know how to tell a good story and as much as we have to trust players to make good decisions, players should be able to trust that we as the writers will lead them in the right direction.
Finding a balance
There's no easy answer to this problem; it is about striving to find a balance. No matter how many alternative endings you have in your games, each ending must be as epic and as emotionally raw and powerful as the other. What this requires is a special type of non-linear writing — knowing from the beginning that your story has three endings and no ending at the same time. We have to tell a story that has plot-points and beats which work equally towards each conclusion players can choose in the end game.
If we can get a mastery on this, then we can create stories that are truly multi-path, that will satisfy a player no matter what choice they choose, while at the same time wanting them to replay to find out what else could happen had they chosen different options.
It's not about trusting or mistrusting players, its about setting up strong definable architecture in your work that make it so no matter the choice a player makes, they are always going to connect emotionally with the outcome of those choices.
What are your favorite choice based games? Do you think the endings work? Let me know in the comments below.