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One Playthrough, Two Playthrough, Head Canon, True Canon

As a player of a ton of visual novels, RPGs, and other narrative-driven games, I find myself continuously faced with a multitude of endings from which to choose. Sometimes it’s obvious, as is the recent case with Conception II, and other times it can be more obscure.

Whatever the game, the gaming community almost always erupts into a feverish hotbed of discussion as to what the canonical ending is, which one makes the most sense, and every theory in between. Regardless of anything one reads, more often than not one’s own head canon siezes the day – so does the “truth” ever really matter?


If your protagonist ends up with Fuuko, then that's how the story was supposed to go... right?

If your protagonist ends up with Fuuko, then that’s how the story was supposed to go… right?

This might be a moot point to discuss, but musing about the validity of one’s path through a game does have merit. If you play through a game, choose the “wrong” ending, and never play it again, was your experience invalid and incomplete?

Of course not. Not if you, the consumer, player, and author of your own unique experience, were satisfied. Even looking at games that aren’t heavily dependent on emergent narrative experiences, the player’s own experience is what defines their story. If it doesn’t match up with anyone else’s, that isn’t a problem at all.

An example of this would be the Dragon Age series, and with the finale of the trilogy finally having a confirmed release date the tension is mounting. Amidst complaints that players’ decisions were essentially rendered pointless over the course of the second game, will the third game actually honor a player’s unique take on how events leading up to it occurred?

If you killed this old bat in Dragon Age: Origins, did her return feel like a deus ex machina?

If you killed this old bat in Dragon Age: Origins, did her return feel like a deus ex machina?

This was one of the major development points of Dragon Age III, if Bioware’s announcements are 100% true. Their effectiveness with Mass Effect and impactful decisions is widely debated, but it can’t be denied that they tried. Perhaps, in the end, Dragon Age will prove that each player’s journey has its place, no less important or “true” than the rest.

There are disagreements to this school of thought, naturally, and the points are fair. The example here would be 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors in which a multitude of endings are obtainable. Arguably, there is one “true” ending out of them all. It leads directly into the sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, and any other path has no future (because the main character is dead).

Did you play through all the endings til the end?

Did you play through all the endings til the end?

999 isn’t alone in this regard and is joined by a ton of other visual novels and RPG’s. If a player doesn’t go through them all to reach the “true” end and is still satisfied, that’s probably okay for them. But aren’t those players missing out on a huge portion of the experience the game has to offer?

Maybe, maybe not; those who make these sort of games aren’t exactly in agreement either. David Cage, director of Indigo Prophecy’s visceral successor Heavy Rain, thinks it should only be played once. In essence, he thought that since life has no reloads neither should the player. This is the player’s story, unique to them, and “playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it.”

Choice after choice after choice. Which ones matter, which don't?

Choice after choice after choice. Which ones matter, which don’t?

Odd, coming from the director of a game with so much content that could only be experienced via multiple playthroughs. It’s a strange stance to take, but understandable given his perspective. Rather than just being a game with multiple endings Cage wanted to give players a chance to get the ending that their actions resulted in, not funnel them into two or three presets.

Games that do this, like Bioshock, don’t really offer the same dilemma. There are neither grey areas nor a “true end.” Games such as Heavy Rain, on the other hand, are dependent on the myriad of choices and the combinations of such that a player might make.

Don't choose 'harvest' by accident without a backup save, because there is no redemption in Bioshock.

Don’t choose ‘harvest’ by accident without a backup save, because there is no redemption in Bioshock.

In the end, the player holds the power. If they are dissatisfied with what the game gives them as “truth,” they’ll substitute it with their own – whether a game has a “true” end or not. If you liked your Dragon Age playthrough where certain individuals perish, then that’s true for you and no on can say otherwise.

And that, for me, is a large part of what gaming is about. Setting aside true endings and open-ended stories, it’s the authorship of the experience – the ability to say, “Look what I did!” – that makes gaming awesome.

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