The Last Minute Decision

Transient

I finished Mark of the Ninja last week and I think it might be the best stealth game ever made. It’s wonderful. But this isn’t going to be a review of that game, check metacritic for that—you don’t need another person to tell you how fluidly it controls, how good it looks and how fun it is to play.

Instead, I’m going to talk about the one thing I didn’t love: the end. The story in Mark of Ninja takes a backseat to the excellent gameplay. It’s a thin plot that really just serves as a way to get you from one level to the next. But it’s still mildly interesting, and comes together in the last level with some neat visual tricks.

And then there’s a choice.

The last screen of the game forces you to make a choice that could profoundly affect the world they created for the game, not to mention any potential Mark of the Ninja sequel. I remember getting to the screen and thinking, “Ugh…this again.”

Mark of the Ninja isn’t the first directed narrative game (a term I’m using to define a game story that was set by the developers and does not change based on player choice) to end with a player-controlled decision. That doesn’t make it any less dumb though.

What’s the point of having a fully directed narrative for 99 percent of a game? It doesn’t make any sense to drop it at the one-yard line. Go all the way, as in Portal 2, or make it all based on player-choice, as in The Walking Dead. Don’t try both, that’s some having and eating stuff if you ask me. I get it, player choice suits the medium, but if it hasn’t been present in the narrative for the majority of the game, why introduce it in the end?

Bastion did it too. That was another downloadable game with near perfect gameplay and stunning visuals. Unlike Mark of the Ninja, the story in Bastion was front and center, unraveling its secrets as you played, through the use of fantastic voiceover narration. The very last mission in Bastion asks you to make two choices that impact the end, despite the fact that until that point, you don’t make a single story-affecting decision.

I know endings are hard to write (right Mass Effect 3 team?). You’ve built characters and a world and asked the player (or in my case, the reader) to invest hours of their lives with them. To wrap all that up in a single conclusion that will satisfy everyone is a daunting task. But it’s still your task as the storyteller.

When I play a game that pops up with a single choice at the end of the story, it doesn’t make me feel like an empowered player in the world. It makes me feel like the developers were too scared to pull the trigger on one ending, so they decided to offer two, or maybe more. It robs the story of its impact and closure. Mark of the Ninja alludes to a possible ending the moment it starts. They build tension about the inevitable with some clever visuals and neat story twists…and then they toss that tension out the window and let you choose.

Transient

Games are great because they can have directed narratives and player choice. Bastion and Mark of the Ninja are all about choice in gameplay. How you spec your character, tackle each combat scenario and navigate a level are up to you—Uncharted 3 they are not. We don’t need to choose how the story ends all the time. We made small choices every second of the game. How do I defeat this guy? Should I go up or down? Should I upgrade this item or the other one? You gave us the keys to the gameplay mechanics—awesome, choice is fun! Now tell us a story, and stand by it.

This is a nitpicky thing, I know, and it doesn’t really affect my feelings on Mark of the Ninja. This was just a jumping off point for a conversation about that late game narrative decision. I think it undermines the tension and hurts the story, not just in this game, but in just about any game that does it. Either ending of Mark of the Ninja would be better without the presence of the choice of the other.

Mark of the Ninja really is the best stealth game I’ve ever played—the gameplay loop is the equivalent of a page turner, you just can’t put it down. Only, unlike a page turner, you’ll walk away with one of two endings. Then you’ll reload it and see the other one. Which is another issue with the late game choice. Most gamers aren’t going to just leave it at the ending they chose, they’re going to see them both if there’s only two—I saw all four in Deus Ex: HR and got an achievement for doing so. I’m not suggesting developers fork the story, they did that in The Witcher 2 and I can’t imagine how much work that took (or what it’s like working on art and story assets for months knowing some people will never see them). I’m suggesting they finish it, one way, and let it be.