This post contains spoilers for multiple games.
Red Dead Redemption feels like it has multiple endings, three to be exact, but only after the third one do the credits finally roll. That’s when you’ve reached the end of John Marston’s story, but your story can continue for as long as you want it to. Games have always been fickle with their endings like this, offering multiple endings, secret endings, joke endings, and more, and through all of them there’s a constant disconnect between the developer’s desired ending and the player’s desired ending.
Fallout 3 is a now classic example of this disconnect. The game was released with a fixed ending that forced people to stop playing. There was a backlash against this sudden conclusion to the player’s story, and eventually the ending was changed through DLC to let us keep playing beyond the developer’s intended end. A recent patch for Portal shows this same conflict from a different angle. The original ending was satisfying and critically well regarded, but the patch changed it to set up the sequel. In both instances, the original ending was changed, one at the request of gamers and the other by the developer themselves, but in both cases, it’s worth noting how the change was met with praise. No one seemed bothered by the fact that the original vision for the story was altered, but this makes sense considering that original vision is still just one version of the story. My version of the story is bound to be different, and it’s just as relevant as the developer’s version.
It’s always interesting to hear about players outright rejecting the developer’s ending. My first reaction upon seeing John Marston’s death in Red Dead Redemption was to reload the game and simply ignore that final mission. I could hunt, collect bounties, play cards, and go home to my family. That would be my ending. But as I continued to play, something felt wrong. I knew that I was simply delaying the inevitable, so I eventually relented and let John Marston die.
Michael Abbot of The Brainy Gamer was more resolved in his reaction to the ending of the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia. The heroine Elika sacrifices herself to seal the evil Arihman that we’ve been fighting the whole game, but then the Prince does something unexpected. He revives Elika by once again releasing Arihman. At least, that’s how the developer’s story goes. Michael’s ending was different, “After helplessly exploring other options, I realized I had no other choice. I never liked the Prince anyway, so I felt no devotion to him. I chose what I believed Elika would have chosen. I walked away” (“Prince of Quitting”, The Brainy Gamer, 05 January 2009). By turning off the game when he did, he forced the story to end on his terms. We’ve accepted that game stories are not set in stone, that we players are just as much the authors of our own adventures as the developers, and that if a story isn’t proceeding how we think it should be, then we have the right to change it. But it’s a right we often forget in the face of constant sequels and DLC.
Alan Wake ends on a gloomy note with the titular hero trapped in the dark world. However, future DLC promises to continue his story, so should I have hope that he’ll escape? I think I should have hope but then I know I’ll buy the DLC, so where does that leave those gamers not willing to spend the extra money to continue the story? Well, it doesn’t leave them with half a story.
I don’t believe that any DLC is canon, nor is any sequel, nor is any game on its own, not unless I say so as co-author of my experience. For me, Isaac Clarke died at the end of Dead Space, but I’m willing to retcon that ending to make room for a sequel, like Bethesda and Valve did. On the other hand, my time in the Capital Wasteland ended the moment that I stepped into that nuclear reactor, not because I’m against buying DLC, but because there are other games that I want to play, and I can’t see myself going back to Fallout 3 anytime soon. So my character will never get to defend Alaska, he’ll never see The Pitt, he’ll never see the swamps of Point Lookout, he’ll never be abducted, and he’ll never live past the credits. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.