Picture this: You've just spent the last nine or ten hours playing Heavy Rain for the first time. You've invested a great deal of your emotions and feelings into the final outcome. All your characters have survived up until this point. You've made the smart and sensible choices: Ethan completed his trials and found the location of his son, as have Madison and Jayden. If they're all fast enough, maybe, just maybe, the boy will live. However, when you arrive, a harrowing image is presented. The boy has drowned in his watery grave.
Upset at such a bleak ending, you replay again, making different choices, taking a different approach that may perhaps let the boy live, and when you feel that this time you've done the right thing, again his life is snatched away from you without reason. In fact, it doesn't matter what you did, or could have done. He would always die without fail.
Imagine that in Heavy Rain there is absolutely no way of saving the child. Perhaps the director and writer of the game wanted it to be this way, to create a sense of hopelessness for the player in that whatever he or she did, they couldn't do anything to save the child. But how would that create a satisfying experience for the player?
When we have a game that gives us the perception of choice, is it not cheap to deny us positive or negative outcomes depending on our decisions? Similarly, would it be fair if, in Mass Effect 2 for example, we made all the correct tactical decisions, yet we were still punished in the end by losing our most cherished characters for no reason other than the designer's spite?
That's not to say bleak endings aren't desirable – that depends on the tone and aim of the piece. George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four has perhaps the most despairingly depressing end to a book I've ever read. And say what you will about The Mist, the end for that film was pretty bleak too. Similarly in games, writers aren't shy of a sad ending either; Metal Gear Solid 3, whilst revelling in its ridiculous melodrama, was still pretty miserable.
The thing all these three stories have in common, however, is their linearity. Even Metal Gear Solid 3 is a straightforward affair, with little wiggle room in regards to choices. The ending is always the same and Snake isn't really given a choice about completing his mission or not, even if the character (irrespective of the player) has misgivings about it. But that's beside the point, all three endings to those stories, more or less, have their intended impact. The emotional punch at the end puts the protagonist's trials throughout the story into perspective; it was probably all for nothing.
With that in mind, what happens when we take the linearity out of a story, and instead give the player more and more freedom to carve their own path through the narrative? Would Metal Gear Solid 3 be a better game if we could avoid completing Snake's mission and have another solution to the problem? Would any hypothetical Nineteen-Eighty Four game totally miss the point if we could highlight Winston Smith's mistakes and errors, and avoid the eye of Big Brother? Something tells me it would be a travesty.
Or to return to the original question, if we do consider the framework of a multi-branched narrative, can we get away with having a bleak ending, and only a bleak ending? When designers and critics call this lack of linearity "the future of videogame storytelling", are they really suggesting that we can achieve the same type of punch at the end of a narrative?
I imagine precisely one branched narrative game would get away with having a solely bleak ending like that, before the whole mechanism became clichéd, hackneyed and boring. The first time it's done, gamers may applaud it if it ties well into a theme of hopelessness and determination, even if the player choices don't translate into the ending they had hoped for. But after that, are we doomed to constantly have a happy or good ending to compliment our sad and dark ones? Will gamers demand narrative rewards for their positive actions? Will the positive ending become a staple of videogame narrative – a reward for making the best choices?
This generation, and 2010 in particular, has been an interesting timeframe to highlight such issues with narrative. In this year alone we've seen single player games on both ends of the linearity spectrum. Heavy Rain employs branching narratives, choices and actions in order to reward or punish the player throughout, leading to well over twenty different endings. If the game had ditched most of these and instead focussed on one set ending, it would have lost its essence and have been universally panned for not only being tired and predictable, but also full of clichéd characters, poor voice acting and a shoddy script.
On the other hand, Final Fantasy XIII bins the false sense of freedom that was travelling between towns in previous entries, and instead takes players on an incredibly straightforward path, all in servitude of its story. Whilst the presentation of these straight paths is an endemic flaw, as is the irony that one of the game's themes is free will, I'm not sure the narrative or gameplay would be any better if we had a non-linear story with branching paths and differing outcomes, as Motomu Toriyama suggests is what Western gamers and reviewers believe.
It's for this reason that I appreciate linearity in storytelling as much as I appreciate having a choice, and sometimes gamers have to accept that linearity can be a useful tool to make a stronger narrative. The key to telling a successful story, whether linear like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear or more open and free flowing like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect, is not necessarily key to player choice, but how gameplay is fused with narrative.
As gamers we should be encouraging the industry to merge these two more and more. Heavy Rain was a success not simply because it had a branching narrative, but also because its investigative gameplay, inventive use of QTEs and presentation facilitated good storytelling. Similarly, Metal Gear Solid, despite being polar opposite to what Heavy Rain is, is also a success because the gameplay felt just as cinematic as the long cutscenes did.
If we keep harping on about branching narratives and saying some of our finest games are just too linear, we'll end up with games that have good and bad endings that lack any real emotional punch. If we enjoy stories in games, we should be asking for writers and designers to have the creative freedom to tell the stories they want to tell, whether that has one ending or twenty, rather than fulfilling checklist design obligations that may not be in the best interests of the final product.