How The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Improves Ending Choices
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.
I’m starting to wonder: Has there ever been a game that did “pick one of three endings” well?
At least in the last few years, no game has really done a good job with this seemingly undying trope. You know the one — when you finally arrive at the end of a game (usually one with some moral agonizing along the way) and are presented with three choices about what to do with all the power you’ve accrued; it’s best known in games such as Mass Effect and Deus Ex.
Despite being awesome in many other ways, Deus Ex: Human Revolution delivered three endings in an 11th-hour choice that felt functionally identical. Mass Effect 3 famously botched its endings even worse — they were identical, and it took much player protest for BioWare to add a few extra cutscenes and voice overs to make the choice have any real meaning at all.
But if there’s a game in recent memory that has at least taken a step in the right direction when it comes to dolling out three endings based on a final choice, it’s The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. That’s not because the game’s endings are especially amazing or even very diverse (they aren’t). But the choice of how you wind up with any one ending, at least, is a novel one in 2K Marin’s criminally underappreciated title.
Hold on, we’re about to get into Spoiler Territory.
For those unfamiliar, Mass Effect 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution — our two go-to examples — come down to a final moment in which a seemingly benevolent AI basically lays out three switches in front of the player. Each of these switches aligns with a different moral attitude. Mass Effect 3’s endings let you: wipe out the apocalyptic Reaper threat, but the consequence is genocide; take control the Reapers, at the cost of Commander Shepard’s humanity; or take a third, more harmonious option, which is clearly intended to be the best choice (it requires using up Shepard still, though).
DXHR goes a similar route. In its final moments, you can choose what story the public at large learns about the events of the game. One story will cause humanity to reject the game’s rampant transhumanism; one story causes them to embrace it. The final option lets you leave humanity to its own devices by choosing not to interfere.
In both cases (and with many other games that use this brand of “choice” for how a game’s events play out in the end), the final decision as to which ending the player lays onto his or her story comes at the culmination of the game, down to a single choice. Often, these kinds of choices ring a bit false. In the case of Mass Effect, for example, being pigeon-holed into picking one of three booby trapped Reaper off-switches seemed extremely limiting. In DXHR, the choices all sort of suck in the short-term as well. After all you’ve done, what really happens, in both games, depends on which button you slap in the last seconds. It all feels rather thin.
The Bureau is a slightly different case, however. Yes, all three of its endings align with similar moralities: a “kill ‘em all” attitude taken toward the invading aliens, an attitude that leans toward enslavement of the enemies for the benefit of humanity, and a much cheerier diplomatic solution.
The difference is, you don’t really know you’re choosing the ending when you choose it.