The Denouement of “Dead Man’s Switch”

[28 January 2014]

By Eric Swain

I finished Shadowrun Returns the other day, or at least the story campaign “Dead Man’s Switch”. It was a thoroughly enjoyable story, whose ending revealed its true purpose. When the final dungeon is tackled and the final boss defeated, you are brought to the surface. You are on the street surrounded by most of the supporting cast of your adventure. It’s in this short last scene that the campaign reveals itself for what it is.

It is a big advertisement for the game’s creation tools and the creator content community that Harebrained Schemes seeks to foster. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised and it’s not like the game outright tells you to check out the content tab on the main menu. In fact, instead of saying something along the lines of “if you liked that, you can find more here,” it instead hints at a larger world and greater adventures. The ending is a capstone on what was effectively a tour through the basics of the Shadowrun universe.

After you get your reward from James Telestrain III, whatever that may be, you have the chance to talk to a number of supporting characters from your adventure. Nearly all of which hint at the possibilities in the larger world of Shadowrun. Talk to Coyote, a waitress/shadowrunner from them Seamstress Union, and she will mention her ongoing mission to take out the BTL pushers. They destroyed her brother and now she will make sure it wont happen again. Officer McKlusky is around for a final wrap up/revenge to close out his arc. Decking him was oh so satisfying.

Where the understanding and peddling of the larger universe begins is with Harlequin. He will slyly inform you of what is really going on in the aftermath of saving the world from a spirit bug invasion. The Universal Brotherhood is already running damage control with the press, the UCAS FBI and Tir Tairngire have no love loss between them, and a mysterious figure representing a giant megacorp in the crowd is looking to take advantage of the situation. There’s not a single conspiracy to cover up the truth, but a seven car pile-up of them. Harlequin sums up the strain that such conspiracies put on the world best: “If there was a Dark Lord controlling everything and we could drive a magic sword through his heart to free the world that would be grand. Such clarity! Such focus! Alas!” The functional reality of the world will never change, can never change as it is set up. The shadowrunners are only those willing to stand up and take advantage of the tiny chinks in the armor. They can’t change the infrastructure, but something like getting rid of McKlusky or resolving Coyote’s personal mission make things a tiny bit better for everyone else. The set up will always be there, so new adventures will always be right around the corner.

Speaking of which, there’s Jake Armitage behind the police barricade. Armitage is probably the most obvious communicator of this, the main point of the wider world. In his opening remarks, he even says, “I guess that concludes the story of ‘[character name] and the Dead Man’s Switch, huh?... There’s plenty of ways folks like us can get into trouble here—you’ve only skimmed the surface.” He says that he would like working with your character again and even lists a number of possibilities: jobs, shadowruns, and even a visit to the Ork Underground. Jake’s statement couldn’t be more obvious at what the game is hinting at to the player. It makes sense in-universe, but he name checks the campaign. The adventure for your character is over no matter what you say. Instead it points out to the player that there are more adventures to be had. Harebrained Schemes is getting the player in the mood to try out the player made content and any future modules that they themselves might add.

Finally there is Dresden, the local morgue attendant. A friendly dwarf who has always been rooting for you behind the scenes. A wink, wink and nudge, nudge later he offers you the chance to use the police telephone next to him as a secure line to contact Sam Watts’s lawyer (Sam being the man who got you into this mess to begin with). Here is where the campaign’s other little ending moment of brilliance comes in. Throughout the campaign, the player has spoken through dialogue choices and has been able to shape their character’s personality through them. Maybe not within the world itself, but for the player themselves. Most of these dialogue options offer no meaningful difference outside of how the player views themselves. But it is after hearing the Sam Watts’s final video message that you find out that there was no money, no prize that you had been working towards after all.

This leads to what is literally the last interaction of the entire campaign. The player knows that it will have no effect on anything whatsoever. Instead of the campaign offering a pat ending and tying everything up in a neat little bow, it instead hands that honor off to the player. This final scene is the denouement, wrapping up all the loose ends for this adventure, while leaving things open for further tales. However, because Dresden asks what the message said,.the final word is given to the player.

It is often said a character arc is about what a particular character learned or how they changed over the course of a story’s events. Surely, the player’s character has gotten stronger and more skilled, as is the nature of RPGs, but what they learned as a person is left to be summed up in this final dialogue option.

Said options are: “Thank you. He just said thank you.”, “Nothing, Dresden. Not one damn thing.”, and “He told me to never trust a dead man.”

Each of those options are similar enough that they all leave the player with the same feeling about the Shadowrun world. This is a world about economically screwing over the other person. But there is still enough nuance between the three that your character is clearly defined by his or her response. The first can be read as one’s character being taken aback, but playing a street samurai more concerned with honor and duty than money, I took it as a great final reward. It was a truthful answer and one filled with enough appreciation for me. The second response could be read with disdain. Alternatively, it could suggest a desire for privacy, wanting to keep Sam’s final words to oneself. And the final option is a rather darkly humorous take on the whole affair, but what is missing is the tone in which it is uttered. One character, one who may have focused on the final prize more than anything else, may have leaned on the dark nature of this response more than anything else, while another may have expressed more levity by choosing this response.

The game doesn’t dictate in any way how these statements should be read. That is completely up to the player and what they got from the whole experience. So whether you felt your character was burned by the whole affair, are quietly contemplative, appreciate the joke, or like me filled with pride and sorrow for a job well done is all dependent on how you roleplayed throughout. You did get screwed—that fact will never change. It’s how Shadowrun is. It’s how you take it that matters most and ultimately defines your character and their arc.

Such is the final say of both campaign, adventure, and player. There is more in this game’s future for me. I’m excited by both the expansion pack and the fan remake mod of the original Shadowrun video game for the SNES coming in the near future.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/178615-denouement-of-dead-mans-switch/