Recently, I replayed Metro: 2033 with little doubt I’d get the good ending. I knew all about the hidden morality system and had confidence that I’d be able to work it to my advantage. I got the bad ending. Since, I’ve been wondering why—and what my ending says about me.
In the case of 2033, I didn’t accrue enough moral points to unlock the choice at the end. The bad ending comes without a choice; the good ending comes with a choice to take a chance or let the bad ending happen. I think it must have been close. Throughout my playthrough, I stunned where I could—rather than kill—and when given the option to do a good deed, I generally did it. I listened to conversations and tried to interact with NPCs. I found hidden items. But I didn’t do enough, and the question of why has a pretty easy answer.
Sometimes, it was easier to kill everyone in the room rather than reload the last checkpoint for the 33rd time and try, once again, to sneak past. Sometimes it’s a missed opportunity. I didn’t see that cache or those NPCs. I passed that tunnel without turning down.
Also, by the final hours, I had stopped looking for extra loot. I stopped chatting with NPCs. I had become laser-focused on the ending (good or bad) and wanted to get there as quickly as possible. I was experiencing something that often crops up endgame: fatigue.
I got the bad ending in Metro: Last Light, too, and it was one of those gaming moments I’ll never forget: How I felt watching events scripted on my actions unfold. I was a horrible person, and I took that on board when I started to play Metro: Exodus. I got the good ending in Exodus, thank all the gaming gods because if I hadn’t, I might have sunk into a deep funk. That game was sad enough without thinking I’d killed the light at the end.
When I think back, though, the good ending in Exodus seemed more easily achieved, whether or not you knew about the by then not-so-secret moral system underpinning the Metro games. There were broad hints; a lot of them. But also—the story was so compelling that I wanted to talk with every NPC. I wanted to touch every corner of the map. Discover every hidden cache. I didn’t quite get all the postcards, and I failed a couple of crucial side quests, but somehow, I managed to do enough otherwise.
The stories in 2033 and Last Light are very, very good. They’re among my favourite games. The story in Exodus is just better in some way. Maybe it’s because I’ve come to know Artyom better. Or maybe because in Exodus, he has significantly more to lose. Either way, despite the usual fatigue that creeps up on me toward the end of every game, I found myself drawing out the last hours of Exodus. I took comfort from the NPCs who’d become Artyom’s traveling companions. I didn’t want to leave them—they were an awesome crew.
Does getting the good ending in Exodus mean I’ve unlocked some key to a better me? Uh, no. I still went back and got the bad ending in 2033. It’s a difference of story mechanics, for sure. But the question of how I might act in similar circumstances in real life is tantalizing. The answer is disturbing.
Before we go there, though, let’s talk about Mass Effect 3. There will be spoilers ahead.
I have been heard to say (many, many times) that if you were not prepared for your Shepard to die at the end of ME3, you were playing a different trilogy. From the very beginning of the story, Shepard’s quest is to save the galaxy by any means possible, and the decisions your Shepard makes throughout, involve putting the fate of others before yourself. It’s how you get the best game. It’s how you become a hero.
For the record, my canon ending is Control (blue). On my second playthrough, I opted for Synthesis (green), which I did for the sake of achievement, but hated it. Although I got to save the Geth, I imposed a condition on the rest of the galaxy that felt wrong.
I never once considered the Destroy (red) ending. A part of my decision not to go there was that it meant the end of the Geth. As with the synthesis ending, the decision to end an entire species felt wrong. But, also, the Geth were no longer the threat they’d once been, and I felt certain the Reapers could be turned to, if not a good, then some other purpose. In the meantime, they could be used for good.
The possibility that Shepard (or what remained of him—his ghost?) would go mad lurked in the back of my mind, though. I even started an ambitious fan fiction project to explore the ending further. But at the time, Control felt like the best possible choice for the galaxy.
Had I been playing a game with a secret moral system, would my ending have been Destroy? Real-life ™ doesn’t have a secret moral system. It has a broken one. Being good, doing good, doesn’t always guarantee the good ending. But if I did survive past the first chapter of any of these games—as actual, live events—would I make it to the good ending?
Honestly, I don’t think I’d live that long. I die a lot when I’m gaming. Like, a lot. But let’s say I did. Would I sacrifice myself to save humanity? I’d like to think I would. I had no problem doing it in Dragon Age and Mass Effect. I expected to and tailored my entire gameplay experiences to that end. It was why I played those games. I wanted to be a hero.
But I’m not sure I’d save everyone along the way.
Some story points are put in these games to tug on your heartstrings. They’re not practical. So, while I’m prepared to do what it takes—up to and including laying down my life for the lives of everyone else—I’m not going to take unnecessary detours.
I recently finished reading The Long Winter trilogy by A.G. Riddle, and I had thoughts. I very much enjoyed the story—from the premise to the science to the outcome. More than once, though, I asked myself (while reading) whether or not all the rescues would happen in real life. There are a lot of them.
As a reader, I liked them because I’m a sucker for a happy ever after. I don’t hate bad endings. Sometimes they’re necessary, and they can be powerful. I prefer good endings. But on three occasions in the first book (Winter World), I questioned whether the allocation of resources (not to mention the expense) justified the rescue of this person or these particular people.
It was the nice thing to do, and those responsible became heroes. It all worked out well in the end. But the folks they rescued? They knew their ticket might be one way. Again, I asked myself, if this were me, if these events were happening in the real world and I was somehow a part of the story, would I approve the expense of a mission to rescue one person from space? Or divert another mission to pick up stragglers along the way?
The answer is: I don’t know.
It’s easy to take risks when you’re gaming. If you die, you can reload and start the mission again. It’s even easier to throw your characters into peril when you’re writing. You already know how it’s all going to turn out—and my track record for actually killing characters who are supposed to die is pretty poor. One of them even ended up with a book of their own because I couldn’t do it. Another ended up a hero.
There was the one character who, um, accidentally fell off a cliff, though.
My point is, in fiction, it’s easy. I appreciate it when it’s not, when the choice is tough. When emotions are engaged. My favourite games and books are the ones that make me feel. We’re currently watching the final season of Game of Thrones and I’m exhausted by the end of every episode. The feels are real. We’re not going to go into who stupidly risked their life for whom, though, because I have a point to get to.
We’re living through a pandemic right now, and all I can say is thank your loved ones that I’m not in charge of anything but two cats. If it were up to me, we’d all die. But if I had the skills to save everyone? I’d like to think I would. Even here in my comfortable nest, I want to. I wish I had more to give.
If the zombies do start walking, I honestly don’t know if I’d fight them off anyone but a family member. Not when I could end up an unwilling recruit of the army of the dead. Then again, maybe I would?
I like to think I would. I like to think I’d be the one to climb to the top of a high tower over the ruins of our civilization and have the sense not to destroy what’s left. I like to think I’d be the one to mount the final offense, to slay the dragon, to exile myself to eternal nothingness to save the rest of the world. I like to think I could be a hero and that I’d fight with all I have for the good ending.
How about you?
Featured Image Credit: The Art of Metro 2033: Last Light