This is another one of those rambly blog entries about game development that doesn’t involve any actual updates to my games or the site. If you’re not interested in that, feel free to safely ignore it.
Recently, I’ve been replaying the Mass Effect series, surprising absolutely no one who knows me personally. It’s my favourite game series ever, and based on how many times I’ve played through it, I really should have explored every possible avenue by now, but I tend to make more-or-less the same decisions each time. Granted, that’s partially due to the truly horrible nature of many Renegade choices, but even with tiny choices like how to solve a certain ME1 sidequest, I repeat my decisions over and over. I thought about why that is, and I think I may have come to an answer.
I love Mass Effect because the sheer amount of choices allows me to shape the story exactly the way I want it to go, creating an experience that includes all of my favourite tropes. I can construct Shepard as a former gang member who rose above her circumstances and became a war hero, because I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. I can choose to be wary of Garrus at the start of ME1 before eventually romancing him, because enemies-to-friends-to-lovers is my kryptonite. I can make the story of the game as suitable to my personal tastes as possible within the confines of what the developers have allowed me to do.
And yet few of the choices to which I’m so attached have any bearing on the ending of Mass Effect 3 – no one mentions my deeds in the Skyllian Blitz, or that I once told Garrus I didn’t trust him. In fact, there aren’t many choices that do change the epilogue, save for the major ones that determine the fates of entire races. As you may or may not know, this drew a lot of ire from fans. They felt that ME3 was a letdown because, more often than not, the choices that they made along the way didn’t lead to variations in the ending.
This brings me to the problem that I have with the way that many people think about choices and endings in video games. It seems that most others view choice as merely a means to an end rather than an enjoyable feature in and of itself. This hyper-focus on endings has unfortunately led to far too many visual novels that bored me half to death before the climax. It’s as if devs view choices as no more than a tool to lead the player onto their chosen love interest’s path and, ultimately, their ending. The worst is when the choices are completely boring, arbitrary things that inexplicably lead to a certain ending – choose the peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and four hours later, your childhood friend will love you! The devs of these sorts of VNs aren’t thinking about whether that particular choice is fun to make. All they care about is dispensing invisible points so that eventually, the ending will change.
Why is the end of the story treated like the only important part? When I replay Mass Effect, I don’t do it just so I can take those final steps up to the Catalyst and choose red, blue, or green. Christ, those games are 40-50 hours each. If all I cared about were seeing a different ending, I’d just look up all the outcomes on YouTube and call it a day. I replay it because I love recreating that story that I myself get to shape, from beginning to middle to, yes, end.
Jubilee Royale is going to be a linear game with a single ending. It will also contain some choices that lead to minor plot variations because, god damnit, I think they’re fun. Stories are about the journey for me moreso than the destination, and part of what I love so much about games as a storytelling medium is the potential for me to shape that journey my way. Getting to design your own ending is fun, of course, but it deeply frustrates me when choices are treated as “pointless” because they don’t ultimately change the outcome of the story. I think there’s value in getting to alter the rising action of a story to suit your preferences, too, even if it has little bearing on the denouement.
Obviously, I’m not trying to knock the idea of multiple endings – they’re fun! But I think it’s equally important to consider the experience that the player will have while getting to that ending. I’d like to see developers stop treating choices solely as a means of dispensing points toward a certain character’s route, and more as a way for the player to shape their entire experience with the story to their liking.
Then again, given the fan reaction to Mass Effect 3, I could very well be in the minority here. Maybe we’ll see choices shift even farther away from what I want them to be. If that should happen, at least I’ll always be able to hop back onto the Normandy and do it all again.