How The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Improves Ending Choices
A major plot point of The Bureau centers around certain alien being in the game, called an Ethereal. The big twist at the start of Act 3 is that you, the player, are really an Ethereal, and you’ve been acting as puppet master to the protagonist character, William Carter, by controlling his mind. When Carter figures this out, he rebels against your control, and eventually, you have to pick a new host from three other major characters in the game.
The choice feels like an incredibly important one at the time, and it’s ultimately the choice that determines which ending you get. When you finish The Bureau’s endgame with your chosen character, that character determines how the aftermath plays out. The endings are only slightly different, with only some details in the voice-over summary changing (whether humans infected with some alien goo die or live, whether the surviving invaders are treated as prisoners or slaves, etc.). Ultimately, Earth winds up in pretty much the same place regardless of who you pick. But the aftermath can be more brutal, or more compassionate, depending on who you choose to take to the end.
It’s actually a pretty brilliant way for The Bureau to introduce a moral choice into determining the game’s ending, without tipping its hand. By this time, you’ve spent a pretty large amount of time with all three characters, and they’re drawn deeply enough to give you insights into who they are as people. You know that hotshot agent Angela wants some serious revenge on the aliens because of what they did to her brother; you know that Director Faulk is highly paranoid, as well as interested in exploiting alien technology. And you know that bookish Dr. Weir is adamantly for diplomacy and against nuking folks (even alien folks) unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Choosing your character at the end of the game is a moral choice, sure, but it’s not one that makes you go, “This is clearly the correct, most heroic answer,” or “This is clearly the evil, most badass answer.” It’s more about which characters you’ve related to and identified with throughout the journey. As mentioned, you don’t know you’re making a moral choice — you’re just making a character decision, for a number of reasons (not the least of which being which soldier you want to take to the final battle). And that decision winds up being much more effective than both Mass Effect’s and DXHR’s.
The Bureau definitely doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to the ubiquitous “choose your ending” phenomenon in games. Really, that trope needs to die a horrible death, unless developers are going to be willing to invest the time and effort necessary in making the three endings distinguished enough from one another to be truly meaningful choices.
But The Bureau does at least provide a novel, and really subtly brilliant, approach to how that choice is made. The endings themselves might be a little too similar to be truly powerful, but The Bureau at least gives its choice quite a bit of significance — and that significance helps to make players’ choices, stories, and endings in The Bureau mean more to each of them.