Summer is drawing to a close. We’re all thinking about alternate realities, so the Sidequest crew got together to discuss alternate endings. For example, consider the alternate ending of August where we had managed to get this up on time!

Warning: Contains major tagged spoilers for Undertale, Dragon Age 2, Persona 5 and Persona 5 Royal, God of War, The Witcher 3, and Nier: Automata.

Do you find alternate/multiple endings to games compelling? Why or why not?

Naseem Jamnia: GIVE ME ALL THE GAMES WITH DECISIONS THAT IMPACT THE END! One game that absolutely must be mentioned in talking about this is Undertale. The whole point of the game is that your choices matter. You, as a player, get to decide whether to subvert RPG tropes and befriend monsters, whether you kill some of them, or whether you straight-up go genocidal. (SPOILERS) The fact that you never meet—or free—Asriel if you don’t go the pacifist route, or that you only meet Chara if you go the genocide route—let alone all the other content you miss out on, particularly if you don’t go pacifist—means your gameplay is directly impacted by the choices you, the player, makes. (END SPOILERS) Unlike others in the fandom, I don’t think this means there is a “right” or “wrong” choice; actually, I would argue that’s against Toby Fox’s point, which I think is just that there is a choice. That, for me, is deeply provocative, particularly when paired with your lack of control in Deltarune.

I’d be remiss not to talk about another of my all-time favorite games here, too. The original Persona 5’s ending choices are pretty straightforward: (SPOILERS) Do you succumb to the god of control, or do you take your fate into your own hands? But as December talked about in her piece on the endings, Persona 5 Royal asks whether choosing Maruki’s reality is really “bad.” I mean, in keeping with the game’s themes, taking away character agency and opportunities for growth is a no-no (even if it means my favorite character is presumed dead because of it). On the other hand, the fact that for once the Thieves encounter a not shitty adult who wants them to be happy, even if his methods are uhhh questionable, is meaningful. He wants to create a world where Akechi’s crimes never happened, where the protagonist was never falsely accused of assault, where none of the Thieves’ trauma ever happened, where people’s parents are still alive, and that… makes not choosing his route more complicated, which makes it more compelling. Why can’t my children be happy??? (END SPOILERS)

Wendy Browne: Simply put, a game with choices that can change my perspective of the characters and situations = replayability.

A screencap of a fully-armored soldier standing in front of a ship. Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare, Electronic Arts, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare, Electronic Arts, 2017

Melissa: The opportunity to have my choices impact a story’s direction is what first drew me to Mass Effect and other modern RPGs. Prior to that, I still played games, but Mass Effect opened my eyes to how cool it could be to have a variety of stories play out differently. While I can appreciate a solid linear narrative too, having agency over how a story develops is definitely a bonus in attracting me to a game.

Zainabb Hull: I agree with Wendy, games with multiple choices and alternate endings encourage me to replay games. It’s why I worked for a 100% completion rate on games like Heavy Rain and the Dragon Age series, although I think I’ll always consider my first playthroughs of those games as my “real” playthroughs. I can find choices and different endings stressful—I can often worry about making the “wrong” choice during my first playthrough—but, like Melissa says, it’s incredibly engaging to feel like you have agency over a narrative and I think it’s one of the unique aspects of storytelling via gaming. It’s particularly compelling in RPGs and games where you construct a sense of your own character. In these games, your choices and the ending you reach feel like you’re not only building the narrative but your player character and the kind of relationship you want them to have with the world and the characters around them.

December Cuccaro: I want to get as much replayability out of my games as possible because I am an obsessive little gremlin, and alternate endings give me the satisfaction of peeling apart multiple layers of a game. Like Zainabb, I often worry about choosing the “wrong” ending, but there’s also a particularly delicious agony in games without clear right or wrong endings, like the Dragon Age series or, as Naseem mentioned, Persona 5 Royal. Choices and alternate endings make me think more about a game than I might normally. The most recent God of War, for example, (SPOILERS) was a beautiful exploration of a parent/child relationship, but it’s always going to end with Kratos and Atreus’ relationship in the same place. Whereas The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt also explores a parent/child relationship, but the way Geralt is played affects not only his relationship with Ciri, but the fate of the empire, and what is right for Geralt as a father figure to Ciri may not be what is right for the larger game world. Is it better to let Ciri become a monster hunter free to live her own life, or should she take Emhyr’s throne? It’s like a debate between individualist and utilitarian philosophies, but with swords and a lot of magic drugs. (END SPOILERS)

Maddi Butler: I love having choices but I’m also a sucker for a happy ending. The Witcher 3 did choice particularly well on a big scale, like December said. I think it also did choice really well on a smaller scale, too. Witchers are widely regarded as cold-hearted monsters, and you can certainly play Geralt that way, but you don’t have to. Part of what hooked me in the game is that you can use certain decisions—like bargaining for more pay or working for free—to play with the boundaries of Geralt’s character. I definitely played a kinder and more generous witcher than the game wanted me to, but it also helped me connect with Geralt more.

How do you feel about endings that come down to one primary choice?

Naseem: I think some people get really unhappy about this. For example, I think about how the Black Eagles route in Fire Emblem: Three Houses diverges based on one choice—but that the game also gives a giant warning about that choice will change the game before you make it. I think for me it depends on the sorts of movement a game allows. In FE3H, you don’t get a lot of choice once you’re within a route—nothing that will definitively change the ending. (At least, as far as I know; I’m only halfway through my second route.) So as long as that choice is clear, I guess I’m okay when it comes down to only one. The problem is when that choice is NOT clear, because then I feel cheated—like I would have thought about it more seriously if I had known. Is that supposed to mimic real life? Maybe, but I don’t always want real life in my video games.

Hopefully this isn’t too much of a tangent, but this question made me think about how a lot of people were really angry about the end of Dragon Age 2, (SPOILERS) particularly that nothing they could do could ultimately influence Anders’ decisions. One of my friends who introduced me to the game argued that BioWare games are meant to be ones where you choices are meaningful. Personally—and not only because DA2 is my favorite!—I think it makes a lot of sense that there’s nothing you can do to stop Anders. But, to loop it back to this question, this does make me wonder: what would it have meant for there to be a defining moment where you could have stopped him? (Besides uhhh having to completely change Inquisition.) If the developers had decided to give players a moment to really change his mind… I don’t know. It would almost cheapen it, for me. (END SPOILERS)

Melissa: I don’t mind at all. That might be an unpopular opinion, but I think of games as a holistic entity, so, for example, the fact that the ending to Life is Strange comes down to one single choice doesn’t matter to me at all. My choices throughout the game mattered and shaped my experience, even if they didn’t actually impact the direction of the ending. I have complaints about the ending, but that has more to do with the effort put into each ending and the narrative meaning of each rather than that it all comes down to one single choice.

I also (more unpopular opinions!) felt this way about Mass Effect 3. I didn’t particularly care for the endings themselves, but I felt overall satisfied by the game because the rest of it did feel like my actions meant something. Lop off the ending and you have a solid story, so I just ignore the ending and let the majority of the game mostly drive my opinion of it. I guess I’m forgiving when it comes to endings, provided the rest of the game feels good.

I agree re: the ending to DA2, actually. (SPOILERS) Any beef I have with Anders’ decision is not that what happens happens, but rather how justified it feels. From what I understand, Anders is more honest with Hawke if you play through a rivalmance with him, meaning you’re romantically involved but you also are sometimes combative with one another. That I can go through almost the entire game without seeing his struggle is interesting from a character perspective—he’s hiding it from a Hawke who’s closer to him—but not so great from a story perspective. It makes it feel like nothing I did mattered, when in fact it’s just the opposite. (END SPOILERS) Given the rushed nature of DA2’s production, I imagine it might have developed better with more time, but what we got is what we got and it’s… you know, it’s fine, in my opinion.

A grainy computer screen at the center of the shot shows golden, glowing, skeletal figures. The text reads: He looks at his companions momentarily in confused disappointment. Then he returns his awful gaze to you. / JOSEPH flees through a tunnel to the north. / LULA flees through a tunnel to the northeast." The options presented to the player are "SHANNON: Follow Joseph." and "SHANNON: Follow Lula." The player has selected "Follow Lula." Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer, Annapurna Interactive, 2020.

Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer, Annapurna Interactive, 2020

Zainabb: I agree with both of you, I think that I’m honestly not likely to even notice very much if there’s only one choice at the end of a game as long as the rest of the game has felt like my decisions mattered and I’ve crafted a character and a set of relationships that are meaningful to me. I played Mass Effect 3 a while after it came out and heard all of the complaints, and was surprised by how fine I found the ending. Sure, it wasn’t complex or special, but I also don’t think the rest of your playthrough was pointless because of it. I often feel like the choices you make are more interesting than the endings of games with multiple choices. It’s a different sort of game, but I love how Kentucky Route Zero handles this: you’re presented with different options throughout the game, but there is only one ending and your choices are more about who you are as a person and the experience you want to craft in the game than they are about choice. I think our playthroughs of games with alternate endings are much the same, ultimately.

Naseem: Can I just add, real quick, that I will never understand (DRAGON AGE 2 SPOILERS) rivalmancing Anders because it basically means… being against mage autonomy?? Taking the side of the Templars?? Which makes no sense to me??? #TeamACAB (END SPOILERS)

Melissa: (DRAGON AGE 2 SPOILERS) I can imagine rivalmancing Anders because it’s a fun mechanic (and he can be an absolute asshole—I love him, but he’s also often an asshole) but I think exactly what Naseem says is part of the issue with how the story is constructed—there’s a moral component to Anders’ romance in particular that I don’t think is as much at play in the others, which leads into complications with how the ending reads. Can’t we just disagree on things that are not mage rights? Wild. (END SPOILERS)

Also, GREAT point about Kentucky Route Zero, Zainabb! I love that the ending is the same but your feelings about it are complicated by the things you do to get there. It’s a totally different feeling than rewarding the player with one of three distinct endings and it leaves space for introspection and thoughtfulness in a way that a stricter division does not.

December: My problem with Mass Effect 3 wasn’t the endings themselves, but the way Casey Hudson tried to justify it at the time of release. This is definitely a tangent, but it’s always interesting to me how playing games as they release or years after the fact will influence the opinions on how the game plays and what the narrative choices mean; I played both Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 at release. After that moment in Dragon Age 2, I must have reloaded three or four times trying to find a way to circumvent it because I thought that it was something I had done wrong as a player. I was upset when I realized that there wasn’t any way around it, but my opinion on the game has definitely softened over the years. Mass Effect 3 came out my first year in college sometime around finals, so I heard all the complaints before I had a chance to play and I avoided the game until the ending patch came out; when I did finally play, I thought it was a satisfying experience, but most of my friends who played at release continued to grouch about it. (DRAGON AGE 2 SPOILERS) Also, the Anders rivalmance feels just wayyy more abusive than any other rivalmance, it was so uncomfortable. It has some effect on how he talks about his decision, but it doesn’t have enough impact on the story to justify it in my opinion. (END SPOILERS)

Maddi: One thing I really liked about Nier (2010) is that the choices don’t matter, but in a way that heightens the tension in a scene. For example (SPOILERS) there’s one scene where you’re in battle and you have to choose whether one of your party members sacrifices herself. You have to let her, even though you’re her friend, or you get a game over. (END SPOILERS) It’s a really effective way to show how desperate and dire the situation is.

Like Zainabb said, this was also extremely effective in Kentucky Route Zero. It emphasized the idea that when it comes down to capitalism versus free will, the demands of capitalism (essentially, the necessity of performing labor first for someone else’s profit and second for your own needs) will always win.

What mechanics do you feel make for meaningful alternate/multiple endings? What ones make those endings feel toothless or uninteresting?

Wendy: Multiple endings need to actually be multiple endings. I want to be able to discuss a game with someone and discover that their choices resulted in feeling like we played a totally different game. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I played Alpha Protocol and discussed the final battle with a friend who fought a completely different person. It prompted us both to replay the game, which I had originally played because this friend told me that it was a game where your choices actually matter, unlike the BioWare games I kept going on about at the time. I still adore BioWare games, but I acknowledge their flaws, including the way they pretend we have a choice in anything we do. How you respond to people in Alpha Protocol shapes how they respond to and work with you, and you can’t just give people gifts or side with them in an argument to redeem yourself in their eyes.

The Witcher 2 also offered real choices with consequences. The final battles in these games might ultimately be the same, but when the option to choose a side appears, the game truly splits the path such that you are not privy to important story elements from the other perspective. It affects the decisions you make in the final battle when you do or don’t understand who it is you are fighting and why.

Melissa: Please never, ever, ever make me seek multiple endings based on arbitrary collected items and interactions. I am looking specifically and directly at Final Fantasy X-2. I hate this system so much—it makes the “True” ending feel inorganic because there is no way in hell to know that not talking to someone in a costume in the first half-hour of the game is going to determine the ending. It all feels like meaningless checked boxes.

On the other hand, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s multiple endings feel great. You can make a few story choices throughout the game, but the larger trajectory is static. However, there are four possible pre-epilogue endings determined by your honor rating throughout the game. It all comes to the same conclusion (avoiding spoilers, bear with me), but these endings play out differently and carry different emotional weight that depends upon your actions within the game. I couldn’t foresee how the story would develop and throughout the game honor mostly determines store prices and little else, but the way it ends up feels deserved, interesting, and powerful rather than, for example, how Mass Effect‘s system was mostly something I gamed to get the “good” ending.

A screenshot of 2B and 9S standing side by side. NieR: Automata, Platinum Games, Square Enix, 2017

NieR: Automata, Platinum Games, Square Enix, 2017

Zainabb: All of this! While I can find it stressful making decisions in games with multiple endings, I really appreciate when those games provide a series of choices that really impact how you experience the rest of the game. It’s a heavily flawed game but this is one of the reasons why I loved (and played) Heavy Rain so much back in the day. Ethan’s storyline presents difficult choices and you just have to play through and keep making these choices until their outcomes start to become more evident towards the end of the game. I loved the storytelling mechanics of Dragon Age: Origins and the first two Mass Effect games for similar reasons, where the decisions you make throughout the game shape the specifics of your ending and, in turn, how you engage with and feel about that ending. As with real life, sometimes you need to make hard choices based on your own values and how you want to treat the people around you, and you can’t know how these decisions will pan out until later.

December: The game either needs to end, or it needs to show me the consequences of the choices I’ve made. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve always had with Skyrim(SPOILERS) technically, it has ending choices in that you can side with the (terrible, racist) Stormcloaks or the (terrible, inefficient) Empire, but the player’s decision doesn’t mean anything. The game never puts another High King in Skyrim and you’ll continue to find civil war encampments as you explore. Why bother? (END SPOILERS) Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas, by contrast, is essentially a civil war with four factions to side, and each choice affects the story line and how the last few missions and final battle will play out. The game ends immediately after the final battle, but it has epilogue slides. If a game is going to make me choose, I want it to mean something.

Maddi: Nier: Automata is my favorite example of effective multiple endings. (SPOILERS) During the game, the player learns that everyone has failed their missions in catastrophic ways. The humans YoRHa androids are supposed to protect are all dead, and 9S and 2B are caught in a seemingly endless loop of fighting and dying. There are five main endings, and while the first four reflect this incredibly bleak cycle, the fifth “true” ending is hopeful. 2B and 9S’s companion pods rebuild the androids and acknowledge that, though the cycle may continue, a different outcome is possible: one where 2B and 9S find purpose and happiness outside of their directive. In the game, there are 26 possible endings, which the player can get for things like eating a poisoned fish, deserting battle, or wiping out the other YoRHa androids. What I love about this mechanic is that it reinforces the ending theme, which is that pressing on despite failure is the only way to reach a more desirable outcome and a better future. (END SPOILERS)