How do you make a nonlinear story have resonance and meaningful impact, especially when the audience can do whatever they want. Yes, let’s talk about video games. Specifically, Ghost Recon Wildlands. Ubisoft made a rich, entertaining world. Their story though? Not great. The sacrifice made at the altar of player agency was compelling narrative and story resolution.
You play the entire game at the center of the action. You are the one kidnapping cartel members in Bolivia. You are taking on the drug war. You are risking your life to fight this crime and avenge a fallen comrade. But then it turns out in the end [spoiler alert] that the story was all about this girl, CIA agent Karen Bowman.
You’ve spent the entire game, dozens of hours, traversing a huge countryside, in search of the cartel leader El Sueño. And in the end, you don’t even get to face him. You make a desperate, grueling slog across a temple ruin, cutting your way through bloodthirsty cartel mercenaries. Then… you get a cut scene, where Bowman (not the player) shoots down your final boss in a completely anti-climactic surprise execution.
As the player, you were the one running errands and putting your own skin on the line to accomplish missions, but your end goal is snatched away from you and given to a particularly annoying character. She isn’t the protagonist of the game, but in an epilogue cut scene, she is made a martyr of the whole fiasco, and you are little more than a footnote in a conflict you bore the brunt of the work carrying out.
Now, the game told me that since I didn’t 100% complete all side missions (of which I had ONE unfinished) that there would be a slightly different ending if I were to go back and complete that last one, but that’s not how you end games. You don’t hide a satisfying conclusion behind side missions, and you certainly don’t repay the player for their hours of investment with a shoddy ending in which you aren’t even engaged. That’s not great storytelling. That’s not satisfying gaming. If I’ve been given agency to conduct this war on the cartel, I should, in the end, be the one to pull the trigger and end the terror this guy was orchestrating.
Maybe some would say that’s the point of the story; that in these gray area conflicts, that you can’t be given satisfying closure. But I think that is just an excuse for a complete lack of a resolution and a missing final boss battle. It tarnished all the fun the last several hours of gameplay had been, and left me (and my co-op partner) scratching our heads and logging out.