Are games getting a little too clever?

Steve Dinneen
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Gamers hate the debate about whether games are on a level with film and literature. People tend to use annoying phrases like “transcend the genre,” implying that games are somehow intrinsically worse. You don’t hear theatre critics saying “why, that play was so good it could almost have been a novel”.

Anyone who regularly plays games knows that they already hold their own – they are innovative and immersive and – crucially – they can adapt to the player, changing the experience depending on the way you play.

But while this can be liberating, it also has its drawbacks. Every other title you pick up seems to have half a dozen endings, and the conclusion you get is often decided by a series of clunky multiple-choice scenarios (“The woman is hanging from the cliff edge, press A to help her up or press B to cut her fingers off with a trowel”).

Giving you the outcome you deserve sounds like a great idea. Did you go round laughing at old people and punching children? Then you get the bad ending. Go and sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done. Saved all the puppies? Great but you really need to play some more exciting games.

The Silent Hill franchise is the benchmark of multiple endings. Its second installment, released in 2001, was groundbreaking. It saw your character slowly awaken to the horrible realisation that he murdered his wife, and the eponymous ghost-town was some kind of Freudian Purgatory. It was a classic twist – simple but powerful. There were six different endings but they were variations on that theme. In the latest Silent Hill, Downpour, your actions make the game turn out in wildly different ways – there is no single twist, just a collection of opposing, mutually exclusive ideas. Rather than make the game more personal, it felt sloppy. Something similar can be said of (otherwise brilliant) titles like Bioshock or Fallout 3.

The games industry has always suffered from not really knowing what to do with endings – they usually take the form of a cut-scene rather than playable action and are more often than not a bit of an anti-climax (with a few notable exceptions). Making more endings isn’t necessarily the solution – one good one would be better.

The idea isn’t distinct to gaming – the inclusion of alternate endings on DVDs (I Am Legend and Paranormal Activity spring to mind) is a sure-fire way to boost movie sales. But they are an optional bonus rather than a necessary part of the experience.

The crux is, multiple endings can get in the way of a good story. Even the most free-wheeling, immersive sand-box game (usually) needs some over-arching narrative to keep your attention. Classic games, ones that people will be talking about in 20 years, tend to be those with a clear vision – and a great finale. Like the moment at the end of 1989’s Future Wars when you discover you were responsible for sending back the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, indirectly bringing about your own existence (thereby blowing the mind of seven-year-old me), or when you realise Link’s Awakening (1993) was all part of someone else’s dream. They wouldn’t have been the same if they way you played changed the way things turned out. Multiple endings have their place but sometimes it’s best to keep it old-school.

Steve Dinneen is Deputy Lifestyle Editor of City A.M.