As a whole, game makers are much better at telling stories than they used to be. Characters and plotting are well-developed these days, with most games, even if they feature a boilerplate premise, offering interesting, memorable characters and intricate, dense plots. However, there is a distinct part of storytelling that most game makers haven’t quite been able to figure out yet.
The recently-released Far Cry 3 has some interesting characters. Vass, in particular is a compelling villain that contrasts well with the protagonist, Jason Brody. In a way, Vaas is the logical conclusion of the path that Jason finds himself going down. Jason himself is compelling, too, especially in the early part of the game, where he seems genuinely ambivalent about his situation. He is horrified by what is happening around him, yet cannot help but be pulled in by the freedom the Rook Islands offer him. Here, he is free to come and go as he pleases, and the power he feels from taking another life (be it human or animal) is unlike anything he could ever feel in a “civilized” place.
Note: Highlight below for Far Cry 3 ending spoilers.
Far Cry 3 builds up to a crescendo in which Jason, having conquered his foes, meets with island goddess Citra to reclaim his friends, themselves re-kidnapped by Citra in an effort to force Jason to choose between her (and the island) and his friends (and “civilization”). The player is then given the room to make this choice, which is effectively personified by placing the player in a situation wherein they can choose whether or not to murder Liza, Jason’s erstwhile girlfriend.
This approach has a problem with it, though. One of the endings is thematically satisfying, and one isn’t.
What do I mean by thematically satisfying, you ask?
Every story should have a theme, which is what the story says about the human condition. It doesn’t have to be a moral or message, but most stories are about something deeper than the surface elements. For example, The Godfather is about the mafia, but it’s also about things like familial expectations and the idea of “sins of the the father.” A narrative work can be enjoyed without understanding the theme, but typically the theme is what is going to elevate a work from “entertainment” to “art” (I know this is a loaded and problematic statement, but work with me here).
In order for an ending to be “thematically satisfying,” it should resonate with the chosen theme in a way that informs the reader/watcher/player/etc. If the theme is the weight of familial expectations, then The Godfather has to end the way it does. Any other ending would feel unearned and would undercut the theme. Unfortunately for Far Cry 3, this is exactly what happens to whatever subsection of players chooses the “good” ending. Simply put, there’s no reason why Jason the character wouldn’t choose the “bad” ending (and the way the bad ending plays out says something else about the theme entirely), but players are conditioned to want “good” endings to their stories. Games have taken on the nasty habit of boxing morality into black and white, and the idea that a player “owns” a protagonist is harmful to storytelling. Nobody wants to be made to feel bad for their choices, especially if those choices are necessary in order to progress through the game.
There’s a term in gaming criticism that relates to the idea that gameplay and narrative often don’t match. It’s “ludonarrative dissonance.” Far Cry 3‘s “good” ending is a prime example of how a ludonarratively dissonant game ends. Jason, for all of the things he’s seen and done on the island, is still basically unchanged from the beginning of the game, and he just wants to go home.
However, the “bad” ending is actually ludonarratively consistent. Jason has become one with the island, and he has embraced the chaos of it.
Simply put, a situation in which there are two diametrically opposed endings produces a situation where one of them cannot be thematically satisfying. By gamifying endings, game makers are undercutting the themes of their own stories in the service of something that gamers shouldn’t want, or need. If the ending is the reason for a story existing, game makers need to take that decision out of the hands of the player (or, alternately, it needs to be handled in such a way as players influence it without noticing, but this approach is not without its faults, as seen in Dishonored) and trust their ability to craft a story with a proper ending. Far Cry 3 could actually have been an interesting look into the psyche of man and what happens when societal constraints are removed from a person, but instead it cops out and chooses to feed into the ego of the player by relinquishing control of its theme. If a player knew how best to end the story, the player should have been the one writing it.
Game makers don’t seem to trust their ability to tell stories, nor do they trust their audience to understand them. In some ways, the audience doesn’t help. Too many gamers get bogged down in minutia, content to ignore thematic consistency in favor of focusing on MacGuffins that only serve to propel the story while not actually servicing the theme at all. These are the types of people who would wonder what happened to all of the money Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho stole, or who would obsess over what’s in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. In a lot of cases, though, games invite this criticism by not maintaining authorship of their stories and by not giving gamers a thematically satisfying ending. There is a universe that exists in which the Mass Effect 3 ending is completely thematically satisfying without having to go into intricate detail as to the status of all of the side characters. In some ways, the original Mass Effect 3 ending offered too much information (did we really need to see the Normandy again?), a problem that was only made worse by the extended-cut. Had the team at Bioware trusted their audience (or their own capabilities) enough to make the ending about Shepard’s eventual sacrifice (that is what the series is building up to), as opposed to a a conversation boiled down to a 10-minute “final argument” infodump, something interesting and impactful could have been experienced there.
This generation of gaming has created a strange mixing of authorship between creator and audience, and that blurring of the line is hurting storytelling in gaming. The best game stories (think Shadow of the Colossus, The Walking Dead, Journey, Red Dead Redemption, and Spec Ops: The Line) don’t allow you any way out of their theme. Even Spec Ops, which did offer an ending “choice,” didn’t give players the opportunity to completely change the tenor of the story. Captain Walker is ruined at the end of Spec Ops regardless of what ending is chosen by the player. The ending simply dictates to what degree or in what circumstance he is broken.
Gaming will only progress as a narrative medium once creators and consumers realize that theme, not exposition or the illusion of choice, is the most important thing about a narrative. Some studios have figured it out. It’s time the rest of the industry caught up.