From the Archives: Let’s Go Round Again

What do you think of lengthy games such as JRPGs (or indeed Western RPGs) having multiple endings?

I remember having this discussion with a friend a while back, and he commented that he hated it when there was more than one possible outcome to the story, because he 1) hated having to repeat things and 2) hated feeling like he was “missing out” on part of the game that was “locked off” to him when he started down a particular route.

Obviously this applies more to games where your actions throughout the whole story determine which ending you get rather than a Mass Effect 3-style “which ending would you like?” decision point, but it’s a valid concern that I completely understand in this day and age. Gamers on the whole are getting older and consequently tend to have less time on their hands for lengthy games anyway – so to expect them to play through one game several times in an attempt to see different endings is perhaps unrealistic on the part of developers.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

 

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Or is it? There are plenty of people who have ploughed several hundred hours into Skyrim – a game that can potentially go on forever — to make me think it’s perhaps not quite so unreasonable after all. But there are, of course, other considerations besides simply the amount of time it takes. Repetition, for example, can be really boring.

I became particularly conscious of this question after beating Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia. For those unfamiliar with the game, it has a rather unusual structure. It’s split into three “phases,” each of which is a self-contained story arc with a beginning, middle and finale, and each of which would probably correspond to a single disc in the PS1 era.

There are two interesting things about it, though. Firstly, the second phase has two completely different narrative paths according to which of the game’s two heroines Aurica and Misha you choose to go with; and secondly, you have the option of not playing the third phase at all if you feel satisfied that the story has reached a conclusion at the end of Phase 2. If you do choose to proceed on with Phase 3 (which is about another 15-20 hours of gameplay) you then have the option of four different endings, three of which are accessible on a single playthrough, and the other of which is accessible if you go back and play the other heroine’s route in Phase 2.

Essentially, to get a complete picture of the story, the bare minimum you need to do — pay attention — is play up to Phase 2, save before the decision point, play one girl’s route, save near the end, see her “Phase 2″ ending, reload, proceed to Phase 3, save, see the bad ending (which can occur early in Phase 3), reload, play through to the end of Phase 3, save, see one ending, reload, see the other ending, reload before the decision point in Phase 2, play the other girl’s route, save near the end, see her “Phase 2″ ending and then, if you can be bothered, play through all of Phase 3 again (which is identical except for the ending in both girls’ routes) and see the ending you couldn’t get first time around. (You can skip the replay of Phase 3 if you want to, though, as the two girls’ endings at the end of Phase 3 are rather similar to each other, and the rest of Phase 3 is the same.)

217300-ar-tonelico-melody-of-elemia-playstation-2-screenshot-battle.pngWhen I first heard that I was going to have to do this to see the complete story, I was a little disheartened at the prospect of going back and replaying a significant proportion of the game again. By the time I’d finished my first playthrough, as tends to happen with JRPGs, I’d developed my characters into a nigh-unstoppable fighting team and I wasn’t that keen to drop back a good 30-40 levels and do it all again — there’s no New Game+ feature here, and no visual novelstyle “Skip” button to fast-forward through scenes I’d already seen or indeed whizz past them altogether.

As it happened, I was pleasantly surprised that playing through the other route in Phase 2 didn’t take anywhere near as long as I expected (about 6-7 hours, tops), and it was nicely rewarding to do so.

Rather than being the same story with some minor changes, it was instead a completely different narrative arc that not only focused on a different character, but it had a markedly different tone and style, too. Aurica’s route (which I played through first) feels like the “true” path, as it’s in this route you see all the evil machinations that the game’s antagonists are putting into motion and get to put a stop to them.

Misha’s route, meanwhile, focuses much more on the relationship between Misha and the protagonist Lyner, and includes a number of out-of-context “Meanwhile” scenes from Aurica’s route that make very little sense if you haven’t already seen them in context. Put the two together, however, and you have a complete picture of what is going on.

This sort of approach is actually nothing really very new in Japanese gaming — visual novels tend to follow structures along these lines, for example (though their narrative routes tend not to reconverge once they’ve split), with a complete view of the characters and overall plot only emerging after two or more playthroughs.

School Days HQ is a particularly good example of this in practice. It can be a very interesting and rewarding approach to telling a story that, when done well, strikes a good balance between providing a solid, satisfying experience for someone who only wants to play the game once, and giving a whole ton of additional information for those willing to put a few extra hours in.

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It’s a fine line, though — for this to work, it has to be pretty obvious where the “split point” is, and repetition of stuff you’ve seen before needs to be kept to a minimum — or, alternatively, be skippable.

Ar Tonelico succeeds nicely in its handling of this difficult balance. I played through to the end of Phase 3 in my first playthrough, and stopped at the end of Phase 2 with Misha’s route because the story felt “complete” there.

I was left feeling like I had a full understanding of the story and characters, and not frustrated that I had to repeat the same 15-20 hours of Phase 3 again. And after that, I was well and truly invested in this unusual game world and its fascinating lore — and more than ready to tackle the wonderful Ar Tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica!


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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3 thoughts on “From the Archives: Let’s Go Round Again”

  1. A good way of looking at how one can handle multiple game endings is the anime adaptation of Grisaia no Kajutsu where they incorporate everything into one route. It’s a logistics thing too when you have only so many episodes to work with but I think they handled the Herculean task of turning a meaty VN into an anime pretty well.

    When we talk about games, I kinda think of the endings as different universes. The piece mentions the first Ar Tonelico but if we look at Ar Nosurge (which granted wasn’t in existence when the piece was written :P) we can see how basically every permutation of the story (game overs and wrong dialogue choices included) actually does occur in a parallel dimension. The various endings thus are simply possibilities that are all equally valid and worth experiencing such that you can get the most out of the rich characters and see them fulfill their goals and realize their full narrative potential which would be wasted if there was only one true ending.
    Of course, one can simply write the story in a way where everyone can end up happy and fully realized in the true ending and there’s no conflicting situations where you pick one of the girls and the others are out in the cold, which gets us into the whole debate about VNs with a single heroine or multiple ones to pick from, but if they do go the multiple route, the varied endings are only a good thing.

    (also, wtf you on about, Shurellia is the one true route in AT1 :D)

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  2. As a note, Aurica feels like the “true path” because it is: Misha’s route is no more than an outlook on what happened while she, Jack and Krusche were out from Lyner’s party and focuses so much on her that the events on the main plotline are relegated to a second plane. Also, the extra material Gust released after the game cements that Aurica’s path is the canon one according to the four drama discs, the Flash Cosmosphere games and the dialogue seen in the conversations between Jakuri and Spica in Ar tonelico II, as they talk about things that couldn’t have happened if Lyner hadn’t taken Aurica’s path.

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