JPgamer: On True Endings

JPgamer: On True Endings

Do you start lots of games and never finish them? Or do you see everything they have to offer before you move on? Guess which camp narrative junkie Pete falls into.

A question for you, dear readers: how often do you beat, finish, complete -- whatever you want to call it -- the games you start? And, as a bonus question, how often do you truly beat the games you start, seeing all of their possible endings?

These days, I try and see pretty much all the games I start through to their conclusion, as I've seen so many interesting things happen in the latter half of games that I always feel it would be a shame to miss out on them. Given the length of a lot of the games I play these days -- coupled with my Final Fantasy XIV addiction -- reaching the end often takes quite some time, but there are very few instances where I feel that additional effort isn't worth it.

I didn't always feel this way, however. Back in the 8- and 16-bit eras, finishing a game felt like something unusual; a real novelty. The first time I beat Super Mario World -- the first game I ever played through to total, 100% completion -- was a magical experience because it was something I hadn't done before. But at the same time, it didn't necessarily make me want to go out and beat absolutely everything I played -- and certainly not to play something through several times to see different endings.

This scene, it turned out, would go on to be a defining moment in how I would play games in future.

No, the desire to do that came a few years later as I grew to love story-based games above all other types of interactive entertainment. I beat LucasArts' adventure Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis multiple times to see all the different paths and the randomized elements each time I played. I played Final Fantasy VII from start to finish an embarrassing number of times in one summer -- including, every time, subjecting myself to the long and tedious process of acquiring a Gold Chocobo, even though I hated myself a little bit every time I did it. The first game I bought for my brand new PlayStation 2 was Shadow of Memories (aka Shadow of Destiny), and I didn't stop playing it until I'd seen all of the different conclusions to the mindbending, time-travelling narrative.

It's with the particular love for Japanese games that I've developed over the last few years that I've become truly dedicated to seeking out everything a game has to offer, however, and I attribute my desire to do so largely to visual novels.

Many -- though not all -- visual novels tend to have a number of different narrative paths that lead to very different conclusions, with each usually centering around a particular character. In the case of particularly well-written visual novels, the only true way to get a full understanding of the story and the characters involved is to play through all of their unique routes and see all the possible endings. Only then have you had every possible perspective on the story, and this provides one of the key ways that the interactive nature of games distinguishes itself from more linear media such as books and movies. Even in pieces of interactive fiction where the notion of "gameplay" is rudimentary at best, the simple opportunity to make a binary choice that has a huge impact on how the story unfolds can be immensely satisfying -- and often leave you wondering what lies down the other path. It's that desire, that hunger to see every narrative possibility in games that has driven me onwards to seek out all the possible endings in titles that offer multiple conclusions.

Neptunia mk2's "Conquest" ending is dark, bleak and requires a significant amount of effort to get. But I went there; I had to know.

And there are often surprising results waiting at the end of these paths. Compile Heart's PS3 RPG Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2, for example, while light-hearted, silly and satirical throughout, has a number of different conclusions, one of which, known as the "Conquest" ending, takes a very surprising but effective tonal shift into seriously dark territory. Nippon Ichi's The Witch and the Hundred Knight has three endings, all of which are tragic in one form or another, but it's actually the conclusion that the game positions as the "Bad Ending" that gives you the most information and the most satisfying sense of closure -- a subversion of the usual expectation that the "True" ending is the "right" one. Kadokawa Games' Demon Gaze continues after its ending into a whole other dungeon and sequence of tough battles. And Cavia's Nier requires you to play through its second half at least twice and preferably four times in order to get the full, horrifying context of what is really going on in the game.

Square Enix's excellent Final Fantasy XIV is an interesting example, too. Unusually for an MMO, FFXIV is narrative-heavy, plus it actually has a "final" boss and "ending" complete with lengthy cutscene and credit roll, at which point it would be perfectly acceptable and understandable for players to hang up their adventuring gear for good. But for those willing to put in some extra effort, the game's narrative then branches off in several different directions, each of which are set to continue over the course of the next few patches.

You can continue the main scenario as your character and the Scions battle new Primals rising up around Eorzea, with each new episode culminating in a spectacular 8-player fight. You can pursue the "Zodiac Braves" saga, in which you acquire a legendary weapon and gradually improve its capabilities over time. You can explore the comedic Hildibrand questline, which provides some much-needed light relief from the relative seriousness of the main scenario -- plus includes a wonderful fight against Final Fantasy V's Gilgamesh. You can challenge the Crystal Tower, Final Fantasy XIV's take on Final Fantasy III's endgame dungeon. And the bravest adventurers of all can delve into the Binding Coil of Bahamut, a sequence of the most challenging dungeons and encounters in the game, in an effort to discover the real truth about what is going on in Eorzea. There's no obligation to do any of this stuff, but I find myself drawn to all of it, such is the allure of FFXIV's worldbuilding and narrative. I want to know everything.

For some people, this is the end of FFXIV. For others, it's just a landmark on their continuing journey.

For me, then -- and I know not everyone feels this way, but still -- story is its own reward. I don't need unlockables or new game modes to make me want to play something through again (or make tactical saves and take different narrative paths); I just need the promise of some new story content. Whether this is simply a different conclusion to the story, some additional insight into particular characters or an entirely different sequence of scenes that I haven't seen before, it doesn't matter; if playing through something again or making different choices at key points provides the opportunity for more story, I'm going to take that opportunity.

This, in my experience anyway, is something that Japanese games excel at, and a big reason why I continue to find great enjoyment from Japanese role-playing games, visual novels and adventures both new and old; they scratch that narrative itch thoroughly, and reward my own personal desire to explore every possible angle of a story until there's nothing left to discover.

If you're the sort of person who starts lots of games and doesn't finish them, why not try making a concerted effort to beat one conclusively? You might just find yourself surprised at what you discover on your journey.

JPgamer is USgamer's regular round-up of topics regarding Japanese games, published every Wednesday. You can read previous installments here.

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