How do you execute multiple game endings well?

There are a lot of games that feature alternate endings or different variations and lure people in with the premise of “replayability”. Being able to follow different paths is amazing and it leaves you with the impression that your choices matter but ultimately, a lot of games don’t do it well. Hence, I wanted to share some thoughts on the topic today and share some concerns I have. I may not come to a conclusion here but I feel like it’s a nice discussion to have and would love it if you, dear reader, would take your time and maybe comment your opinion on the matter and share some insights.

So, first of all, spoiler warnings: There will be mild spoilers for some games. The TellTale Games and their premise, Undertales different routes, and Catherine’s endings get very mildly touched on and it may be a small spoiler if you don’t know anything about those games. I also talk about the number of endings in NieR Replicant and how they work but I don’t touch upon the story itself or anything that is actually spoilery…. Also, I talk a bit about Fable and Beacon Pines, so, again, premise-spoilers so not actual spoilers but I don’t wanna get shouted at for not warning you. So if you don’t wanna know stuff about relatively old games then don’t read this. Thank you.

When I talk about different paths, I talk about choices you make giving you the freedom of splitting off into different story-arcs or changing the outcome more and more with every choice you make. Beacon Pines does this quite well by splitting every choice into a plethora of branches on a literal tree. Some of these branches lead to dead ends but you bring something back from that: Knowledge. So you can basically return to a previous point and try out a different solution to see if that changes the way the story goes, which is great, in my opinion. Meanwhile, you have chapter selections in the Telltale Games and while they also allow you to change things, I don’t think that that’s quite the right choice game-design wise. So, you may think that these two solutions are similar or maybe even the same but the issue is that all the Telltale Games have an inherent flaw that Beacon Pines doesn’t have: Your choices don’t matter.

On the one hand, there is Beacon Pines where you can hit dead ends, you can hit bad endings, you get good endings and other possibilities that change the outcome of the story and how elements unfold. I know stuff like that because of the demo that I played and the Kickstarter promises but also because of an interview that is coming to YouTube soon. On the other hand, there are the TellTale games where you have a story that takes one character from point A to point Z. There are plenty of points where you make decisions that save or kill one person over another… Point B gives you the option of saving one of two characters: NPC 1 and NPC 2. You choose one over the other and there may be consequences but in the end, you still get to point Z which is the end of the game and it may play out slightly different but it doesn’t change the way that the game is played.

One of my all-time favourite games is Catherine Classic. That game has nine endings: Three “morally good” ones, three “morally neutral” ones and three “morally bad” ones. I add “morally” because “bad” in this context is associated with sins, Catherine, and essentially, things that are outside of the norms and morals of society… Meanwhile, “good” means here that you commit to Katherine, conformity and effectively, conservatism in a way aka marrying, loyalty and getting old together in a romantic way, I guess. The choices you make constantly alter the path that you’re headed towards. There is this karma-meter that changes to the right or the left based on your choices… These choices are presented to you as questions that often can’t be associated with “good” or “evil” and it’s hard to understand how being a “dog person” or being a “cat person” means that you’re good or evil… I guess dogs stand for loyalty which is good and… cats eat food everywhere where they get food, which is “bad”. You also can send text messages to Katherine or Catherine which, based on your choice of words, also gives you points on the karma-meter changing the path you take… Ultimately, this sounds like a great system but in essence, you end up playing the same game the same way every time and in the end, nothing really changes, apart from the end. You have different endings but not different playthroughs. Getting all endings can be not only frustrating but also boring and it destroys the fun parts of the game, in a way, which is sadly something I dislike about Catherine, but it’s fun when you get a new ending once in a while and it’s interesting.

So, TellTale has great characters and great stories but only one ending. Beacon Pines branches out the story itself and may have fewer actual endings than Catherine but at least the gameplay aka the actual plot changes along the way according to the path you take, unlike Catherine. I feel like these three games do things very differently… and TellTale Games tend to have the issue of endazzling you at first with the magic of “severe choices” but in the end, it doesn’t matter because you realise in your second playthrough that none of your choices actually mattered as you SPOILER end up alone as Clementine. And you may already know that because Lee doesn’t show up in the second game.

My issue with multiple endings is that it’s just a buzzword at this point that is used to promote games. “Immersive”, “Multiple Endings”, “Choices Matter”, etc. are words that people use to advertise but in the end, these are just shallow words thrown into the mix to get people to spend their money. At this point, I hate “multiple endings” because games make me replay the full game again… but it becomes tedious. 

I have nearly finished all of NieR: Replicants endings. I absolutely love the game and Ending A was great even if it made me a bit sad… but that’s just the way it is. Replicant is a dark game all in all even if it has its wholesome moments and I absolutely am in love with it. Now, NieR: Replicant actually features four endings plus one bonus ending that was added to the remastered version here. Ending A plays the story as normal. When you beat Ending A, you get to save the game and end up at a certain point in the second half of the game. Then you replay that second part and get more insights on the story and more background information on top of another ending after the final boss fight. After that, you get the same thing. You play the game with a bit more new content regarding the story and background info and you keep your stuff and go to the final boss and there you actually get a new final boss where you’re presented with a choice to make: Decision C or Decision D. C or D lead to different endings. If you pick D, you can now in Replicant get Ending E when you start a new game. 

Now, this approach may be something that you just kind of accept at first but over time it has the risk of losing your interest. When I noticed that I got more insights into the backstory of other characters and parties in the game, it got me invested but I ended up backing up my save file and instead of playing through Part 2 for the fourth time in a row, I ended up just reloading that save file and going for Ending D instead of C. Sure, you keep your weapons and you can fully upgrade the Fool’s Lament which is arguably the strongest weapon in the game, especially at Level 4 where it has 999 attack damage… Sure, you just breeze through the game and one-shot most stronger enemies that gave you trouble before but it gets stale fast if you do it too many times. Having different endings is amazing in a way because you get to see different parts of the game and tying new content to your choices is great but I would have loved it more in NieR Replicant if you could select chapters and reload more than three save files. I would have loved it if there were other options.

Undertale, another example of a game with different routes, basically has two routes that you unlock after your first playthrough: The pacifist route where you don’t harm enemies and find other ways of dealing with them… and the genocide route where you kill everything. Now, I haven’t played that game yet really apart from like an hour or something… but I like that concept and because of something that happens in NieR Replicant, I would have liked to see that as an option: Being a pacifist or not killing whoever in the game… It would have been great.

Having the option of choosing your playstyle and being able to choose the ending through the choices you make is great. Fable, at last, had stuff like that and despite it being an old game I feel like it ultimately did a great job at letting the player choose their own adventure and it shaped the way they were treated and looked at in the game as well by making people fear or hate them if they did bad stuff or praise and love them if they did great deeds. It’s not perfect but I feel like Fable was quite nice and NieR is quite nice and I’m looking forward to the full release of Beacon Pines and I’m looking forward to playing Undertale someday.

Essentially, I don’t think that there is one solution that I could think of but there are many ways of creating meaningful player choices and multiple endings that actually add to the game instead of taking something away. Having replayability with new content mixed into old content makes it interesting and intriguing, like in NieR Replicant, however, allowing players to skip to certain sections or chapters like in Beacon Pines and allowing players to try out different options in those scenarios also makes the game more engaging and makes “multiple endings” seem like less of an empty promise. Allowing alternate playstyles like in Undertale, Fable, and even The Binding of Isaac: Repentance (where you can decide to not kill a certain boss and you get rewarded for it) to create the choice of killing or not killing someone or something is great. Allowing players to create their own story is amazing but it doesn’t mean anything if your choices lead to one end and one end only, rendering every choice meaningless like in the TellTale games… so uh, those are just my thoughts from this post all summed up and I don’t have a degree in game-design so take all of that as just an opinion. I’m just someone who likes to play games and everyone knows that players don’t know what they want. So uh, there’s that.

I’d love it if people could have a discussion on this matter as well in the comments and I’d love it if you could add a comment with your opinions or good examples or anything you wanna say on the matter and I’d love it if we could engage in a discussion. You, me, other people. Could be very cool! Just keep it civil, we’re all friends here. 🙂

Also: At last, (I didn’t know where to insert this) I love NieR: Replicant and made that header image there by editing together a press image with my character and Emil’s face, so uh, overall edited by me and credits go to me and all of that stuff. I figured it’d be the best header image for this sort of post since Replicant inspired me to make this post. Also, this post features screenshots from Beacon Pines, NieR Replicant and Catherine Classic. I didn’t have any screenshots from Fable, Undertale or The Walking Dead, so I wasn’t able to link any of those/embed any of those into the post, so bear with me.

Hope you enjoyed this post! Stay safe, healthy, kind and hydrated!

Cheers!

This post was first published on Indiecator by Dan Indiecator aka MagiWasTaken. If you like what you see here and want to see more, you can check me out on Twitch and YouTube as well.

4 thoughts on “How do you execute multiple game endings well?

  1. How do you execute multiple endings in games well? Easy! Ya’ don’t. Especially not with the the standard moral choices that lead you down different paths for 5 minutes. Moral choices that contribute towards endings are not moral choices. You don’t make them because they feel right to you or your character, you make them because you want to see the “real” ending.

    Sometimes you have games that have you choose your ending right at the end. I might be the minority here, but I prefer them to the moral choices because you still can play the game how you like it and then choose the ending (most of the time based on the faction you choose) based on your personal opinion. That, and you have two options for viewing them all: 1) Just reload the last save-file and watch them all or 2) If the game allows multiple playstyles (Stealth, Aggressive, Diplomatic, whatever) you can choose to replay it and have a somewhat different experience.

    In case of No (2), I think it’s not about the different endings at all, but about the different experience throughout the game. The secondary endings are just there to reinforce that feeling. However it may be, multiple ending always have drawbacks. If the games gets a sequel, pretty much all but one endings have to be retconned, retroactively nullifying any decision the player has made. Even without a sequel, all of the endings have to keep in mind all the different decisions players could have made during the game, so 80 % of the time, all endings end up feeling a bit underwhelming and passive. Especially so in big games like Fallout, where the “different endings” are just a narrative to summarize your decisions. Even smaller, more streamlined games are not safe here. Disco Elysium does the same thing.

    In my opinion, the best way to do multiple endings is not to do them. Still, I don’t mean that every game should be a strictly linear journey, but that different endings should only happen in the players mind. Games should play off of different playstyles or interpretations of the game’s events. For example, in What Remains Of Edith Finch, there is one ending. But depending on if you decide that there is a supernatural curse or if you are just experiencing overblown stories, the ending (and the whole game) gets a whole different meaning.

    Even with moral choices in the game, don’t tie them to endings. That way, you can make the choices you (or your character) would make naturally. The ending will feel different each time. “Maybe the real ending were the choices we made along the way…” (Okay, should I ever write a post on that topic, this is going to be my title!). If you saved the kingdom as a knight in shining armour, the pillar of smoke in the distance on the end screen is probably a bonfire that people are dancing around. If you slaughtered everybody in your way, it may very well be a burning city. The players themselves will give the ending their meaning, if devs would just let them.

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    1. Yeah, the standard moral choices “good vs evil” or “God vs Satan” are flawed because it’s not black and white. When I say multiple endings, I don’t mean moral endings thought but multiple endings. 😛 Different thing. 😀

      Regarding your fourth paragraph, wouldn’t you say that it’s better to see the possible other ending in action instead of having just a headcanon. If you love a game, you like seeing more of it. But there are games that do it not well and there are things that other games do really well, so uh, that’s what the post is about.

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      1. I’d still see “moral endings” as part of the multiple endings discussion, because they, well they are multiple endings that you get based on your choices. Although to be fair, my criticism mostly was towards the choice system, not the endings themselves, so…Themenverfehlung (meinerseits). Sechs. Setzen. xD

        Is seeing the ending better than head canon? Yes and no, I’d say. Sometimes, the whole point of the ending is that there is only one ending, and only its meaning changes with your perception. However, most games fail to do that elegantly (LIMBO comes to my mind) because it’s kind of hard to do. And if this is done badly, it’s immensely unsatisfactory. In these cases, simple multiple endings would have been the better choice.

        “If you love a game you like seeing more of it”: That is true, but I believe that the main motivation for seeing more of the game should come from exploration and gameplay. Multiple endings should be “rewards”, not the goal itself, I’d say.

        For example, I’m currently leveling all characters in Borderlands 2, and have played the main story 9.5 times back to back already, with no end in sight. I can only do that because the core experience is so satisfying. If I had personalised endings for each character (and maybe for each of the the NG+ versions), it would have been really cool. On the other hand, if the gameplay would be annoying, I couldn’t bear playing the game over and over again, just to see the endings.

        It’s the same with different playstyles. For example, I have played each Splinter Cell game in about every possible way. Again, different endings to reflect my choice of playstyle would have been cool, but the driving factor was the gameplay itself.

        Which leads to games without extremely good or bad gameplay. What if a game was just solid? Would it be worth playing through again (and maybe in a different way) just to see a different ending? That’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves. I’d probably do it, but more because I’m a completionist rather than being overly interested in the possible outcomes (because let’s be honest: we all know what the different endings are going to be like, it’s just a matter of fancy graphics at that point).

        Oh, and since I’m ranting again, one more point: In my previous comment I complained about endings that merely act as a summary of your choices (like Fallout or Disco Elysium). I want to point out that this can be done in a good way. The secret to this is to turn down the scale. A summary of how I saved the world twice and decided the fate of 7 civilisations is a bit cheesy to me. But seeing how different characters’ relationships have (slightly) changed because of my decisions is a lot more impactful, in my opinion.

        An example that comes to mind would be Firewatch. There is only one main ending, but a lot of details change based on how you played the game. Firewatch is also a great example how player choice should be done, if you are interested in that, Frosti has a post about that.

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