Anybody with a passing familiarity with video games or those who play them knows that games are more than technology. But classifying games as simply some pop culture ephemera that typifies trends and norms also doesn’t perfectly describe them. To really get to the essence of games and the narratives they create, you need to find folks like me—or, more precisely, me sitting at a computer at age eight. That kid, to poach unnecessarily from Deep Space Nine, is both “the dreamer and the dream.”
To be less abstract, academic Walter Ong once wrote an essay titled “Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought,” in which he argued that literacy was not a measure of intelligence, savvy, or know-how. Rather, Ong saw technology as something that restructures the brains of those who think with it, feel with it, and use it.
Gaming and, more specifically, the choice narratives within games are technologies that structure our thoughts when we play them. In this way, they are like many other entertainment mediums. But one of the coolest things that’s unique to gaming is that, as the art form evolves, games are beginning to play us. Games confront us with consequences in a way that other technologies of this sort have only poked at. And while gaming is not even yet at the level of interactive sophistication many imagine down the line, it’s easy to see games today that would make some current eight-year-old’s head explode with intellectual revelations via buttons or keys.
Choose Your Own Adventure
“Can a practical guy from Earth do what all the builders of this place failed to do? Can I go into Spacetime Six and still find my way back to reality? Only one way to find out!”
—Boston Low, The Dig
The first game I played that had multiple endings was a mid-‘90s LucasArts adventure called The Dig. At the time, it had the highest production values I’d ever seen, highlighted by excellent voice acting (which, as an adult, I discovered was partly performed by Robert Patrick).
The story was about some spacefolks (Low, Brink, and Robbins) trying to divert an asteroid from destroying Earth only to discover a portal to an alien civilization inside said asteroid. They spend the rest of the game exploring the ruins of the extraterrestrial world in the hope of getting home. Along the way, our protagonists discover these aliens invented crystals that allow people to be brought back from the dead, but this led their civilization to become obsessed with eternal life. The resurrection crystals create conflict between our protagonists, and, at the end of the game, as Low, you must choose between reviving Robbins (with whom Low is in love) against her wishes or letting her remain dead.
Really, there isn’t much of a choice between the two endings—only one of them is a “good” choice. The moral is solid: respect the wishes of the dead out of respect for who they were while they were alive. If you take the good option, Robbins comes back to life anyway with different, better technology, and everything is great and happy. If you choose otherwise, the player and Low get a slap on the wrist from the game. While the morality play at work here isn’t Tolstoy or anything, it’s good, and it gets the job done. As an early PC title from a beloved designer, it introduced many players to the idea of a game that clicks back.
So while The Dig is certainly not the first game with multiple endings—depending on how you define “multiple endings,” you might be able to go all the way back to early examples like Metroidin 1986 or Maniac Mansion in 1987—it stands out to me alongside a few others from this time. Adventure games like I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream offered seven different endings, expanding the tale that science fiction writer Harlan Ellison created in 1967 (most of its endings are not optimistic). Myst offered multiple endings that attempted to mess with the player, at times making them uncertain about which was the right choice to make (though ultimately, there was a “good” ending). And one of my personal favorites was The Neverhood, a point-and-click adventure about a fictional creation myth where the protagonist (the player) must choose between power and friendship at the end.Like all these titles, The Dig reinforced that much of the best storytelling was to be found in these point-and-click adventure games. There was something about simplifying gameplay that allowed stronger intellectual ideas to exist.
Not to denigrate other gaming genres, but many of those stories seemed limited by a mindset driven by what each game’s tech and code were built for. Games like the original Doom have spawned countless creative modifications to the game, for instance, but the original design was clearly built for movin’ and shootin’ (for an interesting narrative exploration similar to the original Doom, check out the exemplary Imscared). In the mid-‘90s, it simply seemed difficult to fold complex narratives and choices into games that were hampered by technological choices and constraints. (Consider the early days of film as an analogue—many filmmakers were constrained by the technology, but you still got the occasional Georges Méliès).
But overall, “Good v. Bad” was a common theme in games then, and this dichotomy continues to be an ever-present force. A player is presented with multiple choices and, through either a heavy-handed commentary on morality or the player having collected enough of the game’s currency, the right ending becomes obvious and available. Of course, as technology evolved, games did, too, and they went beyond this binary.