Why Do Alternate Endings Matter in Gaming?

I thought I liked the ending of Mass Effect 3. While it wasn’t as great as it could have been, it’s not as bad as the controversy surrounding it made it seem. However, as more time passes, I find myself getting more and more upset with the game. In the time since I’ve beaten it, two pieces of DLC (the Extended Cut endings and Leviathan) have come out that significantly change the experience. There’s more plot, more mythology, more explanation about the things left hanging, and more importantly, story beats that I wasn’t made privy to initially. And that angers me. But when I really sit down and think about it, I don’t know why I’m angry. Yes, I’m missing out on content, but I was satisfied with the version of the game that I played. So, why do I still feel like I’m missing something? These pieces of DLC, regardless of how important they are to the plot and mythology of the series, are the equivalent of deleted scenes and alternate endings of a movie. I love deleted scenes and alternate endings but only as a curiosity, they don’t change my opinion of the movie itself. Yet the “deleted scenes” from Mass Effect 3 now have me questioning my original experience. So why do I care so much about deleted scenes and alternate endings in a game?

I think it stems from people valuing their role as Writer over their role as Player in video games. When we start thinking like a Writer, we end up trying to control too much of the plot (as I’ve done before), and as a result, we lose our perception as an audience member. We become more focused on what we want to happen rather than what actually happens. So when a piece of content that we feel is important is released later, it feels like an editor deleted an important chapter from our book and then published it: Our story was forced to be incomplete and that would piss off any writer.

But things get tricky when every player starts thinking like a Writer because then it becomes impossible to compare experiences. To get around this, I think of my story of Shepard as the canonical story; the stories of everyone else are just silly little “what-if” scenarios. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels this way, so if we can ignore the alternate realities of other players, why can’t we ignore the alternate realities of other endings/scenes?

When I began playing The Walking Dead, I played each episode twice so that I could make different choices and see how the story changed: I was playing as a Writer. However, I stopped doing this by the third episode because I found it hard to make different choices. My actions during the first playthrough just felt so right that I simply didn’t want to do things differently. Even when horrible things happened, even when characters I liked were killed, the resulting fallout and character development were so satisfying that I couldn’t bring myself to go back and change the story. I have absolutely no desire to see those alternate endings and deleted scenes.

So what’s the difference between Mass Effect 3 and The Walking Dead? Obviously it’s a matter of satisfaction, but I think it’s also the degree of satisfaction that each provides. I think that when faced with an unsatisfying ending, most players are happy to break the illusion of their own narrative in a search for something better. A Player would be disappointed and leave it at that, but when we’re Writers, we embrace those alternate realities because we’re trying to choose the right ending. We’ll look to those alternatives as a backup solution, and if we’re still not satisfied, we feel doubly betrayed because all the endings were unsatisfying. Thus, all the endings get wrapped up and conflated as a single huge unsatisfying entity.

It would be easy to justify the success of the branching narrative choices of The Walking Dead over those of Mass Effect 3 by simply saying that the former is better written (and it is), but I think that there’s more to it than that. The other major difference between these two games is how they treat conversation.

Conversations in Mass Effect 3 are complicated affairs with multiple interacting systems, like morality alignment and systems that determine the outcome of character romances. There are also special conversation options that we can unlock in certain situations depending on our morality alignment. Because there are so many things to consider when making a decision and we’re never rushed to make a choice, the game trains us to take our time in making choices. This feedback loop has a distancing effect that keeps us at an objective distance from the experience and prevents us from making rash, emotional decisions. We’re trained to be clinical, to think things through like a Writer would.

The Walking Dead strips away all those extra systems. There are no stats to track, and when the game does make note of your actions, it does so from the perspective of other characters: “Kenny will remember this.” Combine that lack of complexity with a short timer for almost every choice and the game quickly trains us to think very differently than Mass Effect 3 does. Essentially, we can’t think. We don’t have time to think things through. We just act. We’re thus trained to think emotionally because it results in faster decision making, and then when crazy things happen, we don’t react objectively. We react emotionally because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. This feedback loop gets us to stop thinking like a Writer and start thinking like an audience member, which makes us more accepting of the consequences forced upon us.

Which is all to say that maybe I didn’t like the ending of Mass Effect 3 as much as I thought I did. In gaming, deleted scenes and alternate endings change how we perceive our own story but only if we want that story to change in the first place.