Over the course of Grand Theft Auto V’s single player Story Mode, you play as three criminal partners, Michael, Franklin and Trevor. After roughly 40 hours of carjackings, diamond heists and murderous rampages, you’re given a choice how to end the game. As Franklin, you must either kill one of the others, or try to take on multiple other gangs and federal agencies to get away scot free. Taking out either Michael or Trevor sounds much easier, and the third option is literally referred to as “deathwish.”
GTA V’s multiple ways of wrapping up its story bring up a question unique to video games: what’s the “right” way to make an ending? If you’re getting to choose, why not pick all three?
Spoilers follow for GTA IV and V, The Last of Us, Chrono Trigger, Catherine, and Metal Gear Solid.
Video games are media built around the choices of the person consuming it. The player receives an objective (rescue the princess, save the world, etc), then gets to choose how they achieve it. Typically what happens when a protagonist reaches their goal is static; a lesson is learned, all conflicts are resolved, the arc is complete. How a story arrives at its conclusion and how it concludes also define what kind of story it is.
If the protagonist is able to grow and overcome their flaws, it could be anything from drama to comedy. If our lead character isn’t able to overcome the challenges they face, then it’s a tragedy.
For example, in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, protagonist Joel is a survivor of 20-years in a zombie apocalypse. He just wants to keep surviving and will kill anyone he needs to achieve that. At the conclusion, he’s espousing to his newly adopted daughter Ellie that to survive, you need to “keep finding something to fight for.” She has become that reason for him. Between the beginning and ending is Joel’s character arc. It’s a simplification, but that journey from “want” to “need” is what makes a character arc. Part of the key to a proper ending is wants and needs. What does each character want, do they get it, and what do they really need?
If we’re going to analyze how GTAV can properly end, we should look at how it starts for our three protagonists. What are each character’s “wants and needs” when we meet them?
Do all three possible endings satisfy those character arcs, or does one wrap it all up better than the other two? That’s tricky.
If we analyze every protagonist’s arc, Michael’s is already resolved by the final mission. He wins back his family in an earlier mission (“Reuniting the Family”); He scoops them all up to therapy, showing they’re willing to work on their relationships. What happens to Michael afterward is more resolution (wrapping things up) than climax (the peak of the arc).
Trevor either ends up dead at Franklin and Michael’s hands in one choice, or kills Michael, who he considers his best friend, in the other. He is either rejected, or he rejects the person he cares most about. He isn’t able to resolve his “need,” but by being rejected, his arc resolves tragically.
Franklin plays a hand in both “someone dies” endings, being the person doing the dirty work. While he survives both, it’s by putting himself over friends and mentors. It’s another tragedy, because he can’t include the people who rely on him.
But choosing “Option C,” as antagonist Devon Weston puts it, is different. Trevor and Michael make amends (in their own best interests), and Franklin calls Lamar for help. The three take out all their enemies, and retire from crime with their friends and families intact. So is this ending the right one?
“Deathwish” is the closest a story like this gets to a happy ending, even if someone gets pushed off a cliff in the back of a car. But there doesn’t necessarily have to be a “right” ending. It’s certainly the most satisfying, but the other two still work.
In traditional storytelling, the ending has to be a logical outcome, otherwise, the audience feels unsatisfied. As Robert McKee says in his book ‘Story,’ “Incident occurs, everything and anything seems possible, but at Climax, as the audience looks back through the telling, it should seem that the path the telling took was the only path.”
But there are examples of great stories with multiple outcomes. After all, if a story couldn’t have more than one valid, conceivable ending, we’d never have mysteries, because it’d be obvious who murdered the victim from the start.
Outside of video games, we have movies with multiple paths like Run Lola Run, Clue, Sliding Doors or even Wayne’s World. In the realm of TV, there’s examples like the “Sliding Doors” episode of Comedy Central’s Broad City (see what they did there) or NBC’s Community spawning the “darkest timeline” meme. Back in video games, we have Square’s Chrono Trigger, Atlus’ Catherine or the original Metal Gear Solid from Konami. Nearly all the outcomes in these examples are the logical result of prior events (Wayne’s World breaks the mold with a complete non sequitur ending, but the example is valid).
In Chrono Trigger the ending varies depending on if your time machine is still intact, if you spared a villain or fought him, etc. These can result in endings where protagonist Chrono gets married, where he chases after his mother who runs through a mysterious portal, or even permanently dies. In Catherine, the hero Vincent can end up with a love interest or go it solo, depending on how you played the game. In both examples, the narrative and its ending are informed by the plot you helped shape.
Technically, every game has “multiple” endings. If you stopped playing Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 after Leon’s head was cut off with a chainsaw, then that’s as valid as if you played to the end and rescued the president’s daughter. But most people won’t stop there, because we’ve been trained to see the protagonist dying as a “fail state” (the exception being the rogue-like genre, titles like Spelunky or Dead Rising). Also, video games are an interactive media where players are actively engaged in the story, and a “Game Over” fail state is usually something happening to you. It’s a passive, unsatisfying ending.
Video games are about “player agency,” or being an active participant in a story. More than that, audiences prefer stories in which the lead(s) are actively taking part in it, not having choices made for them (see Lessons from the Screenplay’s “The Fault in Our Star Wars” on YouTube). We need to have a clear idea of what we’re choosing, if not necessarily what the result will be. The choices presented also typically should be fairly equal, none of them noticeably worse or better than the others.
Compare the previous entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV. That game’s main story also featured multiple endings; the story splits based on whether protagonist Niko Belic chooses “money” or “revenge.” Depending on which you pick, either Niko’s cousin Roman (whom he’s known his entire life and has been with Niko since the game’s start) or Rose (a woman Niko has been dating for the back half of the roughly 30-hour long main story) is shot dead at Roman’s wedding. Death is inescapable; you only have the two choices.
Both GTAs IV and V require the player to make a choice of who dies, but GTA V lets you pick a third option where everyone close to the protagonist making the choice lives. Why is that?
I believe developer Rockstar saw the reaction to GTAIV’s ending choice and decided to make a change. If you do a Google Search, you can see players on forums and Reddit where most players decided having Rose die and sparing Roman is the “better” option. Which makes sense after all, since Roman has more pathos; you’re at his wedding when the shooting goes down! The two options aren’t equitable, nor are you informed what you’re really choosing. It’s less like a choice, and more like a trap designed to look like a morality test.
In the GDC 2016 talk “The Illusion of Choice,” Epic Games’ Jim Brown talked about (and I’m summarized quite a bit here) how fewer choices in game design can be better than a multitude. This is due to the overwhelmed feeling people have when confronted with a ton of possibilities. Ultimately, Brown says, the more important thing is to give players autonomy through “informed choices.” Give them information about what they’re choosing and why, and they’ll feel more in control, and satisfied in their decision. And you definitely want to feel satisfied when a game ends.
Now, we don’t have any stats from Rockstar on what ending most players chose in GTAV. There is an achievement for finishing the mission, which you get no matter what you pick. But again, you can play all three if you want. That’s what I did. We tend to remember video games in the aggregate, not remembering every minute detail about each playthrough, but recalling specific times that stand out. We rerun missions and objectives until we find the way that personally works, and that’s how we recall that section of a game. With multiple endings, we consult FAQs and walkthroughs, and share stories and tips with our friends, and then we play a game until we have seen everything or get the conclusion we want. We can recall all the different outcomes in our head, and we pick the one we like best.
So does Grand Theft Auto V have a “correct” ending? Yes, the one you chose. Because each of the three choices are properly foreshadowed along the way, clearly explained and easily available, whichever one you went with is the right one. It’s pretty satisfying to have Franklin, Michael and Trevor standing over the jerk who didn’t pay them before pushing him off a cliff too.