Spoilers for Half-Life and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The current generation should be known as the generation of multiple endings. Games such as: BioShock, BioShock 2, Dishonored, Far Cry 3, Mass Effect 3, and Catherine are a few games that have separate endings based on choices made or the morality of the player during the game. Of course, there are more examples, but for the time being you should get my point.

Many games which feature multiple endings have a large enough fan base to warrant sequels. So, the question becomes how do you decide what will frame the foundation of the narrative moving forward. Deciding how best to deal with these story decisions can have far reaching consequences for the consumer. Continuing the story in a world that was not chosen can cheapen the experience for some gamers. Having a narrative that combines elements from multiple endings without fully embracing any of them as canon can be confusing.  What can be done to combat these issues? There are three ways to resolve this problem that I would like to discuss.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Multiple Endings Equal Separate Dimensions/Storylines

LoZ: Ocarina of Time is an outlier on this list. The ending of OoT is not a choice by the player. In fact, the true nature of the timeline split was not revealed until the release of Hyrule Historia. The ending of OoT has three endings that are implied. (1) The Hero is defeated and leads to the events of A Link to the Past. (2) The Hero is victorious, and his childhood is restored by Zelda after his victory and leads to the events of Twilight Princess. (3) The Hero is victorious, and he remains an adult and leads to the events of The Wind Waker. Each timeline has separate ramifications for the world of Hyrule.

While this has the greatest potential for narrative continuity and creative freedom for the developers, it also can be quite confusing. Support of multiple dimensions/storylines also requires multiple games. With the financial commitment required to execute this solution, it is not viable for many developers. Zelda is the poster child for this approach, but it found success in a very different time in the industry. The release of Ocarina of Time did not spell out the narrative approach immediately. It was much more ambiguous. However, in the modern gaming space keeping a secret of this magnitude would be nearly impossible. Making the split obvious could lead to consumers choosing their preferred timeline and lead to sales that would cripple the franchise.

Half-Life - Recognize or Imply One Choice/Option/Ending as Canon

The conclusion of Half-Life proposes a simple yes or no choice to Freeman. One option will end in the story continuing the other will end in Freeman's death (probably). To avoid specific spoilers, I will not speak to the ending beyond this. At the beginning of Half-Life 2, you find yourself on a train bound for City 17. The opening sequence makes it obvious that only one ending is considered canon because the player must take the offer that will continue the narrative or there is no Half-Life 2.

Randy Pitchford referred to providing this type choice to gamers in Borderlands during a recent keynote speech at D.I.C.E. Two guns are provided; a choice is given, but the stats cancel each other providing no true choice. With this approach, the importance is giving a choice and allowing the player to feel a sense of ownership over the narrative when no such ownership actually exists. This approach makes it easiest to create a cohesive narrative, but it ignores the desire of the player. In the generation where player feedback is readily available, it appears highly arrogant to completely disregard the tendencies of those who play your game. While the power to create and direct content should remain a function of the developer, assimilating player tendencies and feedback into the experience moving forward is integral to growing the industry as a whole.

Infamous: Second Son executes on this previous statement by taking player feedback from which PSN trophy was unlocked first in relation to the final choice. Thus, the desire of the player in relation to the ongoing plot of Infamous was clear. They gave a choice and recognized one choice as canon based on player feedback. Proper use of fan feedback employed by Sucker Punch Productions will lead to the satisfaction of consumers and greater profit from Second Son (theoretically). Second Son is an example of the stronger potential relationship between those who create and consume an interactive form of entertainment over those who create and consume a more detached form of entertainment.

BioShock - Ignore the Conclusion by Creating a Narrative Unaffected by the Previous Endings

In the first two entries of the BioShock franchise, the endings are based on choices made regarding the Little Sisters. (In BioShock) While black and white morality is not the most original way to create multiple endings, each ending felt distinct and a fitting end. However, for the narrative of BioShock 2, the entire narrative conclusion of Jack, Ryan, and Fontaine has no bearing on the story of Sofia Lamb and Subject Delta and little involvement in the city of Rapture. (In BioShock 2) The narrative was separate and created a different story that was unencumbered by multiple endings.

This approach does have problems as well. Creating a sequel that is truly a separate narrative will leave those who desire more of the original story disappointed. Also, it can lead to a sense of frivolity to the narrative. When you can end it in a way that has no bearing on the narrative moving forward, the creators can ignore the foundation set by other games in a series and disregard their own ending because it does not matter, narratively, moving forward.

Other Approaches

Only a few solutions to the narrative issues are fully discussed here. Shadow the Hedgehog had a canonical ending that was unlocked by viewing the first ten endings to the game. The Resident Evil series integrates parts of various endings that would seem to imply that no one ending is complete or canon by itself. Other solutions are also viable options for many current franchises.

What Does This Mean for the Next Generation of Games You Love?

Mass Effect 3, Dishonored, and Catherine have multiple endings with separate implications for the world, for the character (protagonist), and for the player. I could see Mass Effect 4 taking the multiple universes approach. Dishonored could easily interpret one ending as canon (High Chaos/Low Chaos) while disregarding the other. Catherine could focus on an entirely separate individual's questions regarding relationships. Any of these games could move forward in a variety of ways, and no one direction can be proclaimed right or wrong. Each situation is different and must be handled in the way that the developer or publisher feels best. Hopefully, developers will gather player feedback and tendencies within the industry to create memorable sequels to beloved franchises that will satisfy the desire of consumers and the goals of the publishers.

What approach do you prefer?

Are there any approaches that I have not discussed that you prefer for your favorite franchises moving forward?

Are there any next generation titles that you are looking forward to that will have to overcome this narrative dilemma?