If you've played enough video-games, you've undoubtedly run across games that feature "true" endings. These are usually the endings that eclipse all other endings in the game and are generally the canon ending. After having played through a few video-games and visual novels lately that featured true endings, I got to thinking about some of the problems these kind of games often run into.
Although this isn't always the case, some games and a good number of visual novels have failed in pulling off true endings, particularly in how they often require outside help to unlock them. To illustrate a few of these issues, let's take a look at 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors.
999 is set up somewhat strangely compared to your average game with multiple endings. It can take you as few as two playthroughs to complete the game, or as many as six. There are three bad endings, the good ending, the true ending, and a heavily shortened version of the true ending that plays if you haven't seen the good ending yet. What ending you receive is determined by what combination of locked doors you choose to go through and a few of the choices you make along the way.
The true ending requires you to see the good ending first (which has its own set of requirements to unlock), to make a series of somewhat straightforward dialogue choices, and to go through a specific door combination. Naturally, this could take a while to figure out if you don't know about the workings of the good and true endings beforehand. You could potentially get the true ending without any outside help, but this is made difficult by the fact that the good and true endings are the only endings that require specific routes throughout the entire game. Like many others, I looked up the solution online in order to avoid frustration.
It takes me out of the game when I have to pause the game and skim through a walkthrough or look up a flowchart just so I can see the story the way the developers intended. This is especially true of games like 999 that draw much of their enjoyment from the suspense created by giving the player different choices and routes to explore on their own. What's the point of creating a true ending for players to use their brains and search for when the steps to unlock it are obtuse enough that it will make a significant chunk of the player base look for a walkthrough without even trying to unlock it first?
A more obnoxious example of this method is Persona 4. Unlike 999, which at least made it clear to the player that the true ending was out there somewhere, Persona 4 hides its true ending behind a rather bizarre last-minute decision. At the end of the game, you're treated to a fairly traditional epilogue where you walk around the town saying goodbye to the people you've gotten to know over the course of the game. Once you've done all that, the game asks you if you want to leave town. If you do so, the credits will roll and it'll look for all intents and purposes like the game is over.
In order to experience the true ending, you have to decline the game's invitation to leave town and go back to a location that was previously blocked off for the sake of the epilogue and that you have no reason to visit. Unless you're following a walkthrough or were tipped off to it (as I was), you'll likely miss out on one of the best sections of the game. It takes no skill or intelligence to unlock this ending, so I struggle to see any point to the decision to hide it beyond it being an attempt to make the game look cleverer than it actually is.
I didn't initially give much thought to this, but what 999 and Persona 4 both have in common is that they both take hefty inspiration from the visual novel genre. Visual novels are more reliant on walkthroughs than just about any other game genre I can think of off the top of my head due to the way they often handle players' choices within the story. On that note, I've never particularly agreed with the way they handle player choices and how they relate to the endings you receive, true endings or otherwise.
To give an example of this, there is one scene in the rather obscure visual novel Never 7 (which was coincidentally also written by the writer of 999) where you are asked to decide among three characters which one you want to hang out with that day. In order to unlock one of the girl's routes and her ending, you have to turn her down and spend the day with a different character altogether—a decision that makes no sense at that point in the story.Otherwise, you'll automatically be railroaded onto a different route a couple hours later in the game, so you'd better hope you had a saved game before you made that decision. Amusingly, this was one of the few scenes in the entire game where I decided to be brave and not consult my walkthrough because of how obvious I thought the choice was.
Unfortunately, Never 7 doesn't even have a particularly complicated route structure by visual novel standards. I've had a good many laughs before reading about some of the amusingly obtuse machinations of other more complex visual novels. Seriously, skim through that list that TV Tropes has; some of it is just mind-boggling.
This is a topic that could warrant an entire blog post of its own, but many times what creates so many of these issues is how unintuitive the choices you are presented with are. For example, anyone who has played enough visual novels will remember scenes where the player is given several different locations to go to next, with only one of them containing the character that the player needs to spend time with. There is usually no indication of where each character is, so the natural expectation is that the player will either consult a walkthrough or make a save and start making random guesses and reloading their save until they hit the right decision. Either way breaks the flow of the story, but a mystifying number of visual novels do things like this regardless.
If there's only one right way or path to unlock a certain ending or route, and enough of the choices involved are vague enough to turn a game or visual novel into a guessing game where you have to keep extra saved games and you are always worried about hitting a bad ending or getting screwed out of the true ending, people are going to throw their hands up and use walkthroughs. This is a real shame, because some of the best fun you can have with these kind of games is to go in blind and make the choices you want to make, not the choices you think you're supposed to make.
If players are just going to use a walkthrough to make all the right choices for a certain ending or route, a game or visual novel might as well just be a linear story with a couple different endings and the illusion of choice at certain points. I've been introduced to more than one visual novel where I was patted on the back by long-time fans and warmly advised to use a walkthrough and follow a certain route order if I wanted to get the best experience. I already know that when Persona 5 releases, I'll be consulting online friends who have already beaten the game about whether there's any trickery involved in getting the game's actual ending.
My best experiences with games like these are the ones where I can go in blind and explore the game for myself and make the choices I want to make. I enjoy games like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Mass Effect where there aren't nearly as many right and wrong choices and you rarely have to worry about whether a single seemingly irrelevant choice will dick you out of the ending you want another six hours down the road or whether you have to do X or Y to unlock the game's real ending. Visual novels or games that take inspiration from them don't necessarily have to follow those games' exact models, but breaking away from vague choices and pointlessly hidden endings would be a change for the better if you ask me.
What do you guys think? Do you like games or visual novels that strongly encourage or require walkthroughs through the way their stories and endings are setup, or not?