Tuesday, December 1, 2020

This Is Not The Ending (You're Looking For)


According to Steam it took me exactly twelve hours to finish Unavowed. It seemed a lot longer. 

There often seems to be a disparity between how long Steam thinks I've been playing certain games and how long I think I've been playing them. Californium, for example, is a game that, in my memory, I played for quite a number of sessions, all of them lasting several hours. Steam tells me it took me just a shade over five hours to finish. I guess conflating "five hours" and "a number of sessions" doesn't necessarily form a paradox.

The Neo Cab demo, I apparently wrapped up in sixty-nine minutes. I'd have sworn it was at least twice that, probably three times, but now I dig into my memory I seem to remember I finished it in a single session so I guess just over an hour is possible.

Then again, according to Steam my total time spent in Doki Doki Literature Club amounts to forty-nine minutes, which is clearly nonsense. As it happens I tallied up the sessions I'd played and the time they took in the one post I wrote about the game: "I played for about an hour, my first session...Next evening I played again... around the end of the second hour I hit a major decision point... it took me another two hours to reach what is apparently known as the "best" ending". That's at least four hours.

In DDLC's case, there's clearly some miscounting going on. I wondered whether it was because I had the game downloaded separately from Steam but if I ever did I can't find any evidence of it now.

In most of the examples above, though, I'm fairly sure any variation can be accounted for by the way the brain works. These kind of games involve a lot of decision-making and a lot of new experiences. The brain handles the new and the important differently from the way it deals with the routine and the familiar. It's one of the reasons time seems to speed up as you get older - you're experiencing fewer and fewer events that you haven't experienced before.


When I think about it, twelve hours to finish Unavowed actually feels like quite a long time, anyway. While it has a reasonable amount of puzzle solving and some typical adventure game toing and froing, mostly what you do is listen to people talk, often to each other and not always involving you. It's the equivalent of sitting through six two-hour movies or sixteen forty-five minute TV shows. That would feel like a marathon.

Even as I was playing I was aware of the situation. Several times I had the thought that Unavowed would make a much better movie, or better yet a TV series, than it does a video game. 

It has a good plot with some excellent twists. All the main characters and many of the supporting cast have backstories that show potential for considerably more exploration than they get. There's evidence of good chemistry between some of the actors which the format simply doesn't allow to develop the way it could if they were able to react to each other in a more natural manner.


Conversely, the puzzles, while very well done for this type of game, can't help but feel awkward and artificial. There were numerous occasions where the solution to a problem was obvious within moments of entering a scene but the game required a long and laborious chain of actions to bring it about. 

Thankfully, there were few of those infuriating adventure game impasses where everything comes to a grinding halt because the action necessary is something only a character in a video game would ever think of doing, but even so, with a story this good, puzzles just feel like an unecessary obstacle.

There are certainly games that tell stories movies or TV shows could not. Doki Doki Literature Club is a perfect example. Unavowed didn't feel like one of those to me. Instead it felt strangely like the video game spin-off of a pre-existing property, the sort of game you play because you loved the show and the characters and can't get enough of them.

One thing adventure games can do that movies and TV shows really can't, however, is multiple endings. To many people I'm sure that's evidence of the superiority of gaming as a medium. Only I don't much like alternate endings.


My suspicion is that plenty of people aren't all that comfortable with games having several possible conclusions. If that wasn't so, we wouldn't need terms like "best ending" and "perfect ending", which I see used so often in guides, walkthroughs and discussion threads.

The existence of alternate endings in other media tends to derive from commercial rather than artistic decisions. The ending of Pretty in Pink was infamously re-shot following negative screening reactions from audiences, who didn't get the concept of two "losers" who ended up winning. There's much dispute over whether the commercial ending was better or worse but the fact remains it wasn't the one that was originally written.

In video games, though, the alternates are entirely intended and that can't but mitigate against emotional involvement. If you get the "bad" ending you can just load up a save, make different choices and get the "good" one. Which is exactly what I did last night when, first time out, I got the ending where everyone dies and the Big Bad goes on to destroy the world.

The problem with that ending isn't that it's nihilistic and deeply disturbing, although it is exactly those things. It's that it isn't "real". Instead of leaving me feeling numbed or tearful I just felt pissed off, very much as though I'd blown my cooldowns on a fakeout in a PvP match and now some jerk was teabagging my corpse.


It's a strange kind of fictional narrative that leaves the reader or the viewer feeling as though they've done something wrong. I've read plenty of novels and seen plenty of movies where I hated the ending but I can't recall ever thinking it was my fault.

Doki Doki Literature Club can make you feel just that way and that's the point. It's a clever metatextual examination of the nature of narrative fiction that uses the particular processes of the media platform on which it's built to emphasize the points it wants to make.

Unavowed nods to metatextuality occasionally (mainly with the references to the fictional Trollgate) but mostly it's a genre fiction tale like countless others. Were a genre fiction story to end with the death of all the main characters and the triumph of the villain it would be a bravura move. If that was Unavowed's only ending, Unavowed would be an amazing game.

With three other possible endings, one of which is all but literally the main characters walking arm-in-arm into the sunset, Unavowed is ultimately just a fun few hours. It's not going to resonate because nothing really happened. 


But this is a problem I have with video games in general. I find it problematic when my character is allowed a second chance (or, more likely an infinite number of chances) to defeat an opponent. In my mind, if they don't succeed on the first try, they fail. Except I hate games that really do require you to succeed on the first try because obviously I'm not and never have been good enough to pull that off.

I think that's one of the reasons I get on so much better with mmorpgs than most kinds of video games, or used to, anyway. For many years mmorpgs didn't really come with much in the way of narrative or plot but they did come with some kind of premise that your character was unkillable. There's often an in-game explanation as to why you keep getting up again.

Thost two factors mitigate strongly against my lack of belief in what I'm doing. There's both an internal logic and a lack of external contradiction. The only story is my character's story and my character never dies so trying again and again until I get the result I want seems logical and consistent. Add an overreaching, external narrative and it's less so. Remove immortality from the character but replace it, functionally, in a saved game file and second chances make no emotional sense at all.


In an odd, paradoxical way, I could have expected a clean ending from Unavowed. For almost the whole of the game you feel the steady hand of the narrative guiding you down a certain path. Mostly it's extremely forgiving and there's always a way out of any puzzle but there are a few occasions where you can box yourself into a corner. 

If that happens the game just rewinds time and puts you back before you got stuck. It doesn't even tell you it's doing it. The first time it happened to me, with the Dryad in North Woods, it confused the hell out of me. I thought I was bugged at first, then after I'd tabbed out to check if it was a known issue I found it was just a device the game used to push you towards making the right choice. 

That the "right choice" happened to be something I categorically would never have had my character do broke the game for me right there. It was still good entertainment after that but it wasn't the same. It was also evident that the game was going to tell one story and one story only no matter what choices you made along the way.

Until it didn't. There are four endings. Two of them require you first to take a conversation option that quite literally looks like the pause button you'd press if you wanted to go make a cup of coffee before you carried on. The third, which I would loosely categorize as the overtly "evil" one (I haven't played through it so I can't be sure) does at least look like a logical outcome of the choices made.

And then there's the apocalyptic ending, in which you rely on everything you've learned so far, remain consistent with your previous actions, and get an entirely different result. Maybe there's a moral purpose to that. A lesson to be learned.

All I learned was that I shouldn't expect internal consistency from a video game. It's a lesson I keep being taught but it never seems to stick.


  1. It's interesting to think about some of these ideas in the context of the genre-defining Rogue. Rogue has permadeath, with no recourse of any kind: when you are killed, you start the game over. Indeed, you get a "tombstone" in the scoreboard indicating the level and manner of your death. This can be incredibly frustrating: the gameplay isn't super-challenging most of the way through, so you almost always die of some dumb mistake. Maybe that's OK, because it makes the stakes seem so much higher. If you do get the Amulet of Yendor you really feel like you've completed a saga (or so I've heard). Then, in a theatrical twist, you still have to climb all the way back out of the dungeon.

    I was thinking the other day about the video game trope of ending the story at or just after the climax. In most kinds of writing, this would be the end of the second of three acts: there would be a nice concluding story after that. I wonder if video games should try this more often? It feels to me like they should. See how things play out, contemplate what has been accomplished, end with more of a sense of closure.

    1. The picture above with the big UNAVOWED in the middle comes from an ending where you do indeed get the traditional post-credits wrap-up of all the main characters' stories. They each get a little vignette and then they all come together for a wrap-up that shows you how they go on together as a team. It's the one I described as walking into the sunset.

      If it was the only ending you'd be sure it was setting things up for a sequel. As one of four, though, that's harder to say. Maybe that's a benefit of the multiple endings I hadn't thought of.

  2. I play most of the games with multiple endings just once, trying to accept every mistake i make. This makes the story of the game sort of MY story. I like that :)

    For instance i could not prevent the suicide in the first Live is Strange, because i could not remember enough what the girl on the roof told me. When she jumped i was really upset i hadn't listened to her better. But i have never gone back and replayed it to get another outcome.

    Part of it is surely i'm just to lazy to play a game twice from the start. But mostly it's that i feel more connected to what happens if i own up to my choices.

    I might make an exception for Nier Automata if i ever manage to get through the first playthrough. But as i understand with Nier playing the game twice is part of the game design and there are considerable parts of the story you are only going to see in the second playthrough.

    1. That's definitely the way to play them. And I also rarely replay any of these games to see the alternate endings. What I do, though, is see that they exist when I'm using the walktrhoughs and that's a probelm in itself.

      Of course, if I didn't use the walkthroughs I'd never know there were alternative endings... but then I'd never see any of the endings at al because I'd almost always have gotten helplessly stuck at some point and given up altogether.

  3. It depends on the game. Most games, especially the non-indie ones, are very much stuck in a mostly linear story path - a central narrative from which side branches spin off, but mostly come back to center. Much has to do with the amount of work required to create content that not everybody might experience. Then the multiple endings (if any) tend to vary just at the last chapter, so that folks who want to experience them all just need to load one save, rather than play through a mostly identical experience.

    Other games experiment with different story structures. Some, like Nier Automata, require repeat playthroughs as a matter of course. Then there are some visual novels and games like Detroit: Become Human which display the entire story tree for players to explore.

    I feel like the most solid game examples of multiple experiences towards multiple endings come from the interactive fiction genre. Probably because it's actually possible, if very difficult, to create text chunks for different variable flags and different endings, rather than all the art assets required for more graphically intense games. So we can get larger and deeper narrative trees.

    Galatea from Emily Short has tons of varied endings, none of them a one true 'good' ending. Slouching Towards Bedlam had five solidly different endings, which really surprised me at the time I played it, way back in 2003.

    80 Days from Inkle is an example of a very varied middle full of random encounters and adventures towards a more fixed ending (either you circumnavigate the globe and win, or you don't.)

    Choice of Games games vary in how linear they are, but the better ones vary very well based on different stat flags and have multiple endings - romantic options, different factions, etc. Offhand, I think Choice of Magics, Choice of Robots, Choice of the Deathless, Choice of Rebels all chalk up different endings fairly well based on the choices one makes throughout (and the hidden stat counters that get incremented or decreased per choice.)

    Someone actually tried to sketch out various node branch narrative patterns and name/categorize them. It's not exhaustive, but it's a neat look at some more common possibilities.

    1. I think it's having multiple endings rather than multiple choices that I have trouble with. Branching possibilities that mean you can end up in any number of different final scenarios is an easily-understandable aesthetic design. Having all paths loop back to the same penultimate scene but then branching again from there just seems to invalidate all the choice-making that came before. It's as though it made no difference how you got there, all that matters is what you do in the last scene. And then that doesn't matter because if you don't like it you can go again.

      I think what it really comes down to for me is that I'm one hundred per cent on board with using multiple paths/choices/endings for artistic reasons but mostly it seems to be more just to keep everyone happy. That reduces the games to the level of a Choose Your Adventure paperback, and I never really liked those much.

    2. I quite agree on last chapter branching endings, in the sense that it feels like the choices made earlier may not have made much impact.

      I dislike meaningless-feeling choices as well - some Telltale Games games have these sections where they offer choices, but it's purely for color, and the story just goes on without even showing any different consequences between option A or B. Those mostly annoy me, unless I am really into roleplaying a particular personality for my protagonist.

      (For Unavowed, if I recall correctly, the meaningful impact of prior choices arise at the slew of obstacles before the final end scene, where the relationships you made and puzzles you solved provide a full and different suite of tools to cross all the obstacles.)

      Then again, we can encounter the argument of "it's not the ending that matters, but the journey." If a protagonist acts in two completely different ways and makes friends & enemies of different people, but reaches the same overarching story plot ending, is that meaningful?

      Or a game in which someone progresses along as a mostly silent observer, learning about the world and its different factions, but ultimately, in the last chapter, makes a choice to help out faction A, B or C or go their own way... is that a meaningful last chapter branching ending?

      Anyway, I shall shunt these thoughts to my blog at some point. Picking apart the skeins of game and narrative is a personal fascination and I can get carried away.


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