One common aspect of modern Japanese narrative-centric games and visual novels that we tend not to see quite so much in contemporary Western titles is the matter of multiple endings.
In some cases — visual novels being the prime example — seeing another ending is a relatively straightforward matter of picking different choices throughout the course of the story. In some cases, there will be a simple branching point towards the end that determines which ending you get; in other, more complex offerings, there will be completely divergent narrative paths down which to proceed.
In other cases — primarily more complex games such as role-playing games — seeing different endings is often dependent on a variety of other factors, some of which may not necessarily be entirely obvious at first glance, and some of which may be all but impossible to figure out yourself without the help of a guide.
Multiple endings provide replayability, sure, but are they a good thing?
Your answer to that question will depend entirely on your attitude to playing games through more than once. I used to be a “once and done” gamer, playing titles once before moving on to the next thing in my collection, never returning once I had moved on except in exceptional cases. I never went back and tried Dragon Age with other origin stories, for example; likewise, in RPGs with morality systems, I never went back and tried playing “evil” rather than the “good” approach I usually adopt.
By not going back to explore alternative narrative paths, I was missing out on a significant part of the experience.
My interest in modern Japanese and Japanese-inspired games has changed that attitude somewhat, however. Although fairly recent in relative terms, I believe it was Katawa Shoujo that made me realise that if I didn’t go back to explore alternate narrative paths, I was actually missing out on a significant part of the experience. And, in the case of games that are pretty much all narrative — visual novels, say — you really can’t say that you’ve had a full understanding of everything that goes on until you’ve seen everything, because in a well-written title, it’s only by seeing all the possible narrative paths that you have a truly full understanding of the characters and overarching plotlines.
The main stumbling block for a lot of people when it comes to replaying is repeating things they’ve already done. This, for sure, can be a pain, particularly in games that are upwards of 20 hours in length. Fortunately, many modern Japanese games have taken heavy cues from visual novels and provided the means to skip events or fast-forward text, making subsequent playthroughs significantly shorter. (As an example, Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 took me about 30 hours to beat first time around; every other time after that, I could play through the whole game in a single afternoon by fast-forwarding through events I had already seen and was familiar with.) In other words, in many cases — there are exceptions, of course — this perceived barrier is actually more of a mental block than an obstacle the game itself is putting in the player’s way.
Different games approach the question of multiple endings in different ways, too. Atlus’ Persona 4, for example, adds a “true ending” chapter after the game’s regular ending that you can follow if you meet specific conditions. The aforementioned Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 ties its endings to several things: specific events seen, and the “share” values each of the main characters have in the game world at the end of the game; all things that can be manipulated in a single playthrough if you so desire. Atelier Rorona — and indeed the Atelier series as a whole — ties endings to the results of the way you have played throughout the entire game, making it more difficult (or impossible in some cases) to simply save at strategic moments and see different endings in a single playthrough; this encourages players to start again and try playing differently. Corpse Party has a varying number of bad endings for each chapter, and a single, canonical ending that allows you to proceed to the next. Each approach has its pros and cons, but each provides a wealth of extra narrative material for those willing to put in the time to explore.
The perceived barrier to replaying games is actually more of a mental block than an obstacle the game itself is putting in the player’s way.
I’m currently just starting my second playthrough of Atelier Rorona Plus. The Plus incarnation largely works like the original game in that whether you get a “normal”, “good” or “true” ending is dependent on how well you’ve played the overall game, while character-specific endings can be bolted on to that depending on specific events you’ve completed over the course of the story. But it also has an extra game year-long chapter after the end credits roll, which in turn has its own “good” and “bad” endings, both of which are worth seeing. Taking aim for each specific ending in Atelier Rorona Plus is ultimately going to require me to play the game in specific ways which, rather than being an inconvenience forcing me to play the game again, is going to be a test of my own understanding of the game and its systems so I can play most efficiently.
One interesting aspect of the whole matter of multiple endings is the apparent assumption that a “bad” ending is somehow not worthwhile. In Western games, a “game over” is usually just that — a sign that you’ve messed up and must now reload your save or go back to your most recent checkpoint. But in many Japanese games, a “bad ending” can be just as narratively valid and interesting as a “good” one, despite ultimately having the same conclusion as a simple “game over” — the implication that you’ve somehow failed the characters.
Take the aforementioned Corpse Party, for example. For those unfamiliar, Corpse Party is a ghost story that sees a number of high school kids trapped inside a spectre-filled projection of an old school. Several of the characters meet unavoidable sticky ends along the way — indeed, many players were surprised at the “good” ending of the first chapter, which kills off one of the characters in no uncertain terms — but there are also a number of fatal situations throughout the game which can be avoided. In most cases, these aren’t a simple matter of running out of HP or falling down a pit, though; they’re lengthy narrative sequences that just happen to conclude in failure. In one particularly memorable example, the impact of one thing you can potentially do doesn’t become clear until well over an hour of gameplay later — potentially frustrating from a gameplay perspective, but also narratively fascinating, demonstrating that actions you take (or fail to take) don’t necessarily have to have an immediate impact.
In many Japanese games, a “bad ending” can be just as narratively valid and interesting as a “good” one.
In many visual novels, too, a well-written “bad” ending can, in fact, feel like a more appropriate conclusion to the story than an overly cheerful “good” one. The “good” ending of Kana Little Sister, for example, is considerably less narratively satisfying than the five “bad” endings you can potentially get. And I put “good” and “bad” in inverted commas because they’re relative terms; Kana itself doesn’t make this distinction, instead simply presenting them as six possible different conclusions to the narrative. Whether they’re “good” or “bad” is largely up to the player’s perception.
The most powerful thing about multiple endings is that they provide something that other storytelling mediums simply cannot do — with the possible exception of “choose your own adventure” books. A film, a TV series or a radio drama are all inherently linear forms of storytelling; the interactive nature of video games and visual novels, meanwhile, allows for multiple possible conclusions, and the exploration of multiple, divergent narrative threads, ultimately leading to a deeper understanding of the characters involved. Even in games where what we traditionally refer to as “gameplay” is somewhat limited — visual novels being the prime example, of course — this, in itself, provides a compelling answer to a question often asked of narrative-centric games: “why is this a game and not a movie?”
So as much of a pain as it can sometimes be — and as long as it can take in the case of especially lengthy visual novels and RPGs — I’m well and truly into the mindset now where I need to see all the possible conclusions to a game I’ve particularly enjoyed. How about you? Are you a “once and done” gamer, or do you like to explore everything a game has to offer before moving on?