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January 4, 2012 / jwaxo

Cover Ops: Nuclear Dawn (Bad End)

That map in the corner? Didn’t change very much for the entire game.

There’s this illusion of choice and path that lots of story-heavy video games try to give you. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. There are lots of games that do this poorly that I could list right now, mostly games that implement some sort of “morality meter” that tracks if you’re an evil or good person and doles out a specific ending based off of your past actions. The most recent game that I can think of that does this in any good way at all is Heavy Rain, a particularly complex and interesting game that came out for the Playstation 3 a couple of years ago. Those readers entrenched in the video game culture should instantly recognize it for being derided as more of a movie than a game, but having read through walkthroughs of the game and having played it myself, it is truly one that achieves a goal of a fluid and interesting story that truly changes based off of the actions of the player.

I’m talking about the idea of multiple endings, of course. More specifically, I’m talking about the endings that aren’t the “correct” or “good” endings, but the ones that end with failure: the bad ends.

See, when I played Heavy Rain, I messed up. More than a few times. It resulted in a somewhat anticlimactic death for one main character, but then the ultimately climactic death of the other; some goals were accomplished, the ones that I truly cared about, but I still didn’t get the best ending. And I didn’t really care, because it made the most sense, to me. It was satisfying and logical and, even though the “good guys” didn’t necessarily win, the story resolved.

It’s hard to get more specific without being spoilery, but you get the idea.

What I’ve learned through the years is that this type of ending is not necessarily what everyone wants. Example: my brother and I loved the movie The Skulls when it first came out. Conspiracy theories, secret societies, not-very-subtle accusations of real-world politicians? Yes, please. We ate that stuff up. Then a few years later I saw that it was on TV, excitedly suggested we watch it, and my dad turned it down. “I didn’t really like it,” he explained. “The bad guys win.” The concept hadn’t even occurred to me. Yes, the bad guys win, but it’s still a good and entertaining movie.

More relevant example: Nuclear Dawn: Covert Ops. Cheap, imported game with bad voice acting and an incomprehensible, kudzu plot. As a secret agent, you must travel around a train that’s on it’s way to Paris, save the ambassador, and defuse a nuclear bomb. The graphics were poor, the action was aggravating, the inventory management was very slow, and, overall, it was a pretty dumb game.

My brother and me being ourselves, we ate it up, despite these problems.

Again: yes, please.

Overall, I would describe the game’s style being similar to Resident Evil, complete with shining objects and save points, if you’re familiar with that kind of thing. It really ground my brother’s gears, but he put up with it for the interesting, complex-seeming story. We wanted to know how it would end.

You see, from the beginning, we knew that the game had multiple endings. After all, most companies that bother putting in such effort for those kinds of twists will announce it on the box as a selling point. We knew that certain actions taken during the game, certain clues we might find, how quickly we defused certain bombs, would change how the game ended. It seemed like the possibilities were endless.

And so inventories were organized and managed. Blood types were written down or memorized, matched to corresponding dog tags. Data discs were retrieved, journals were read, every bit of information was scrounged through the game to try to get the good end. Finally, our moment of glory came as the ending approached.

And we got the C ending. Or maybe the B ending, but I don’t think so. The train didn’t make it to Paris, whatever the ending we got–it stopped somewhere short, the bad guy got away, and there was a heart-wrenching scene were a character we liked died. But the nuke was stopped, and the rest of the characters we liked survived in a rather climactic escape scene.

My brother was not pleased. It wasn’t the best ending. It wasn’t even a very great ending.

What I liked about it was that it didn’t pull any punches. I recognize now that I appreciate stories like that because they reflect real life: good things happen, bad things happen, and movies and video games and TV shows and books try to sort them out into a logical narrative. Maybe that’s not why I liked it back then, but it definitely opened me up to the concept of it.

I pondered all of this last weekend, while I lay on the couch devouring a full seasons of The Wire. Fitting, really.

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