Sunday, August 8, 2021

Design ruminations: Subverting the ending

I played two games recently whose endings don't go like you might expect. They make an interesting contrast, though: Omno (Studio Inkyfox) and Minute of Islands (Studio Fizbin).
It is not my habit to spoil narrative in my reviews, but this isn't a review. I have to get into the details. So: complete and total SPOILERS for the stories of these two games! Play them before reading this, if you plan to. And you should: they're both enjoyable games which you can finish in a few evenings.

Okay. What do these two games have in common? (Besides coming from two German studios, which is a coincidence.)
Omno introduces a wordless, pilgrim-like figure who carries a staff and takes an obvious interest in wildlife. (The game leads this right off with a pokedex-style journal of creatures you've met.) It's a 3D action-platformer with a cartoony, low-poly style. (I wasn't kidding about the pokedex.) You jump around, you collect glowing crystals by interacting with critters -- always harmlessly -- and then you either step through a portal or ride charismatic megafauna to the next level.
Minute of Islands begins with a story about four giants, brothers who underpin the world. Then it introduces a girl named Mo: a technical wizard who carries a staff -- the "Omni Switch", but it's a magic staff -- and helps repair the machinery of the giants. It's a 2D puzzle platformer with gorgeous hand-drawn animation. No jumping, but lots of climbing and activating machines with your widget. Right off, you find the unconscious form of the first giant, and begin repairing the machines that keep it healthy and working.
In both cases, after a bit of tutorial, the game sets up a clear structure. Each level of Omno contains five major puzzles set about the landscape. You have to complete any three (it's generous) in order to unlock a "boss" puzzle which lets you leave for the next level. There are also journals which provide some backstory about forerunner pilgrims.
In Minute of Islands, every island requires you to climb around and fix some air filters -- while also interacting with your relatives and other inhabitants. Then you hop underground, push some power relays into place, and awaken the sleeping giant to its work. Since you know there are four giants, the structure of the game is clear.
Straightforward, right? But in both cases, the background story starts to push back.
Omno's journals describe a civilization focused on finding "the light" and opening a portal to a greater world. This is exactly what you are doing: collecting glowing crystals and moving through portals. But as you progress, the journals start to express regret. By moving on, the pigrims are leaving behind a beautiful, living world.
Minute of Islands has sharper claws. Mo is focused on her quest to save the four giants and protect the world from a toxic fungus plague. But it soon becomes clear that Mo's dedication has divided her from her sister Miri and the rest of her family. They survive because of her efforts, but they refuse to play the grateful village NPC. They question her efforts; they ask whether it would be better to flee the plague, as most of their people have done. On top of that, when you awaken the giants, they seem a lot more like slaves than demigods.
(I see that I'm writing about "your" actions in Omno, but "Mo's" actions in Minute of Islands. I think this is just because MoI is way more character-focused. Mo is engaged with every other character; she can't be separated from the story. Whereas Omno's protagonist is essentially a null except for liking to pet cute foxes. This doesn't detract from the game; it's just a different mode. Not terribly relevant here, so let's move on.)
As you can guess from the title of this post, both games yank the "obvious" ending out from under you. In Omno's case, you finish all the levels; you climb the great puzzle-tower; you approach the glowing portal. But, you know what, no thanks -- you turn around, skritch your fox buddy, and go back to (presumably) continue the life of an itinerant biologist.
This isn't in the domain of player choice. It plays out in a cut scene. Narratively it works fine. It resolves the tension of the journal entries, it does its cute moment (capping a wholeheartedly cute game), and then the credits roll. I'm not criticizing the design.
However, it leaves no doubt that you've won the game. You've solved all the puzzles. You got your 100% trophies (if you were persistent about that). You got your soaring flight through the clouds with birds gliding in your wake. You reached the mountain summit. You approached the glowing vertical portal. You have, in short, gotten every satisfaction-reward the game has implicitly promised -- except for walking through the portal -- and you know perfectly well that if you did that, it would fade to white and roll credits anyhow.
Minute of Islands doesn't let you off so easy.
After reviving three of the four giants, Mo runs into an obstacle. The person she's talking to won't give her the map she needs. She's already walked away from her sister, her grandmother, and others; this time she's stymied. So she pulls out her Omni Switch and clocks him over the head. (Again, this is a cut scene, not a player choice.)
This is entirely out of character with the kind of game you think you're playing. Worse, or maybe therefore, the magic staff cracks! Mo travels on anyway -- she could hardly do anything else. But when she reaches the fourth island, there's nothing. The machines are ruined. The Omni Switch is unfixable. The fourth giant is dead.
Mo's family sails up and says, look, Mo, it's time to go. And they go.
See the difference? MoI doesn't just pull out the narrative rug; it pulls out the structure. There's no "boss puzzle"; it doesn't even let you play the "whole game"! There is no fourth underground chamber full of puzzles. You have to abandon the quest. It was a bad quest to begin with. You, Mo, have been poisoning yourself and destroying your family by clinging to it.
In a sense this is just another cut scene. Nobody designed or implemented those missing puzzles. You have 100%'ed the game. But the game set up a structure using all the formalisms you're familiar with. It opens with "Four brothers..." and an oft-repeated four-fold diagram. It makes promises! So when the quest falls apart and the next step isn't there, you're off-balance. Something has been taken from you. It's not just a narrative event. It's part of the play experience.

So I finally have an answer to the question I asked a couple of years ago:
What games have built on this idea? [...]
I'm talking about a game where you can see a good ending (to the story), but the real ending (to the game) isn't that. The game says you walk on by and do something else.
-- Prince of Persia (2008) -- legacy? (blog post, Jan 2019)
The 2008 PoP reboot famously ended with a tragic reversal. You've bound the demons of corruption, yay; but it cost your girlfriend's life, boo; life sucks; roll credits. And then you're still playing. What's left to do? The only thing you can do: throw away everything you've gained. You selfishly unleash corruption to save the girl. Or quit the game without doing that -- but come on.
This is sort of the reverse of MoI. The narrative gets pulled out from under you, not the structure. PoP's structural message is "You have to do this because you're still playing and there's an unsolved puzzle in front of you." And you do that; you satisfy game convention by enacting the protagonist's tragic error. Whereas MoI satisfies its narrative tension -- Mo's prickly, lonely existence -- by knocking over its structural blocks.
Perhaps these are both unrepeatable gimmicks. If so, I'm quite curious what the next step might be.


  1. I would contend that the interesting narrative gimmick of Omno comes in the opening moments of the game rather than at the end, since it starts with the implication that you/the pilgrim did actually go through the portal at the end of the game the last time you played, and that the session you are now playing is merely yet another iteration of an endless loop.
    But because Omno is short and sweet, the idea that you've played through the loop n times is clearly ridiculous; you obviously didn't do anything differently "this time" because there's nothing more to find* so it ends with, as you say, the satisfaction reward. But it also coherently explains what would have happened if you had gone through the portal - and it wouldn't have been the end credits. It's just that this explanation was given to you right back at the beginning of the game when you weren't in a position to question it because it didn't have any context.

    *because, as you note, even though the game allows one to progress easily, it is tight and cute enough that I would be surprised if most folk 100% it just by default.

    To reference Prince of Persia, it's kind of like Sands of Time in the sense of saying "this is a video game so the narrative trick we're going to use is a video game one, riffing off the idea that you can (and do!) go back and 'do it right' this time." In Omno, the idea is that it was 'this run' that taught you the lesson after all those previous failures - but it does it without actually requiring you to replay the game!

    (Indeed, when the project was on Kickstarter, a "secret ending" was one of the promised stretch goals and the designer admitted that when he got there, he couldn't figure out how to make one work because it would have undermined the game. I think he was right.)

    1. In fact, I had forgotten how Omno presents itself initially! Whoops. It's not a strong implication, but starting with the view of the portal does leave that interpretation open.

      I'm sure I've run into other stories with the basic idea of "Oh, *this* time the protagonist will get the loop *right*" -- usually making that an ending reveal which explains some mysterious elements from the beginning. ...But I'm not coming up with any titles, because it's late.

      I definitely agree that the game wouldn't benefit from secret or alternate endings. It's fine the way it is.

  2. Myst could be considered in this mold albeit less explicitly. You take an action in the beginning that transports you into an alien world, thus establishing the expectation that returning home will be either one of your goals or your reward for winning. But in the end, your only reward is the "good guy"'s thanks and being told that perhaps you'll be useful to him again in the future...and being allowed to continue exploring the same worlds you're probably tired of by now (the only way for the game to end of its own accord is in the two worst endings). This also subverts his status as the good guy as in the end he just views you as a means to achieve his ends, just like his sons.

    I say less explicitly because other than the subtle opening scene you're not given any reason to believe you will or can get a better ending, but if the game had started with you at the dock it would be more reasonable for you to be content to be left to wander in the end.

    This makes me think about your recent post about how the limits of the actions the player can take are so easily accepted by the player. It would be nice to be able to ask Atrus if you can go home or if not why not, but most players seem to accept that of course you can't ask questions or protest--you only exist to be a tool for Atrus.

  3. The game OneShot has elements of both of the gimmicks your post mentions. It's all done in a way I found really effective. Vague spoilers below.

    At first, OneShot "pulls out the structure" (as you described with MoI): The game *insists* to you that it has ended prematurely, you simply can't complete the quest you were trying to achieve, oh well, you're done already, so it's time to stop playing and move on to something else.

    Then... it turns out there's a way to keep playing after all.

    Finally, if you do complete that and want to play the game again, it turns out you can't just replay it as it was (unless you uninstall and reinstall). Instead, you're secretly(?) forced into a New Game Plus, in which it turns out that the characters vaguely remember that you've already played it once before (a bit like Scurra's comment above about Omno), causing small changes that snowball into a very different story.

    Besides subverting the ending(s), OneShot has a couple of other creative/subversive gameplay features I've never seen before. On top of all that, I found it to be a sweet and touching story, and fun to play.

  4. Thank you for this. I obviously wasn't paying close enough attention to the journals and I really appreciate the nuances I missed wrapping this game up in a neat little bow. It really was a pleasure to play so ensuring I had a full grasp of the story ended up being pretty important to me. Important enough to track this page down, anyway.