Storytime: Other Games Could Learn From Black Ops 2′s Endings
Storytime is a recurring series in which we analyze the storytelling found in video games by looking at the elements that form those stories, the messages they deliver, and the people who create them.
Warning! This post contains spoilers for the campaign and story of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and its multiple endings. Turn away if you wish to remain unspoiled.
Call of Duty campaigns catch a lot of flack from critics and players for being altogether too linear. For the most part throughout the life of the franchise, players find walking along very specific paths and follow very specific orders. Stray off the path too far and you’ll die, or miss an objective, or be otherwise chided and find yourself restarting at the nearest checkpoint.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 attempts a different approach from its predecessors, one that has the player’s actions reflected to a much greater degree in the game’s variable story. If you fail to get all the information you need from interrogating an important prisoner, for example, you may find events playing out differently later in the story; there are many of these moments, and they’re not always very obvious.
Treyarch’s attempt at making an adaptive storyline sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. It’s hamstrung by its inclusion in the Call of Duty framework, for a start, which is already notoriously bad at telling stories and often leaves players with confusing gaps from mission to mission. What’s more, it has the crushing weight of years and years of the same Call of Duty formula on top of it, so when Treyarch asks players not to necessarily take their orders or their paths at face value, it can be hard for players to know that they’re supposed to be making a choice without having gone through the situation once before.
But if there’s something on which Treyarch should be commended, it’s the degree to which the story reflects what players do — even if those players don’t necessarily know they’re doing it. If an antagonist character escapes you and manages to live, you’ll feel the effects later on, and they could be dire. There are many little moments throughout the Black Ops 2 experience that change things in small or subtle ways. But when you get to the end, that’s where the big changes come in.
Black Ops 2 has some seriously varying endings, and they affect many of the characters (although not all) in important ways. What’s more, Treyarch manages to hodge-podge a number of different elements that come up at different points in the story to form the ending. The result is an adaptive ending system that really does feel like the ending you earned — especially if you’ve seen some of the variations. While the game includes a final choice, like many other titles with multiple endings, it avoids putting all the pressure on that final choice. Indeed, there are other story driven games out there that should take a page from Treyarch’s example.
One of the big complaints with Mass Effect 3 earlier this year was that its three available endings were not variable enough. Despite players making many important, sometimes civilization-altering choices through the course of the game, the three original endings were fairly bland; their principle differences were intrinsic and for the player to extrapolate and interpret, and their primary difference was in the color palette.
There’s a similar situation in other famous choice-based games and their endings. Deus Ex: Human Revolution ended with a three-way choice that pretty much determined how the story shaped up despite everything that had come before, and the same was true of the original Deus Ex — the story drove you toward a moment in which you got to stop and determine the fate of the world with one sweeping choice.
To its credit, Black Ops 2 isn’t like that. Sure, you get your final choice at the end, and that has a very big impact on what happens next. But it’s your actions earlier, and your successes or failures, that determine the significance of that choice. Warning: We’re about to go into deep ending spoiler territory.
Specifically, your final choice in Black Ops 2 is whether you kill or capture the game’s big bad, Raul Menendez. This is an extremely significant choice in terms of the finale, and is especially dependent on what you’d done earlier in the game.
If you were generally unsuccessful at some key moments in the past, either choice in how you deal with Menendez has negative consequences. Capture him without the right people alive to counter his cyber attacks, and Menendez escapes; he then proceeds to visit Sgt. Frank Woods, one of the series’ major characters, and murders him. Menendez follows that act up by taking his own life.