The dilemma of multiple endings and routes

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I suppose this could be discussed in the context of just endings in general as they are in a variety of media, but since many visual novels tend to have several endings/routes, I suppose I might as well just focus on that one medium. Besides, this is primarily a VN blog, so there’s that, too.

In the past I’ve already talked about certain aspects of the visual novel and why I find multiple routes fascinating, but let’s take that idea one step further. Some of the ideas presented below are based on my experiences with specific VNs, while others are simply stuff I read regarding VNs I have yet to try but want to eventually, and also others I just thought on my own (which, of course doesn’t mean they can’t have appeared in games). This whole post was also partly inspired by this particular topic. I do warn you though, for this whole discussion you kinda need to be in a VN-ish mindset because we’re going to be talking about silly little things regarding fictional heroines and routes and happiness and whatnot. But if you’re reading this blog you can probably do that. Anyway, in order to avoid spoiling stuff for you, I will not mention any titles or names, and even if I do bring up something, I’ll aim to be sufficiently vague (which is why there are no images between paragraphs this time, please bear with it for now :p). Another thing to keep in mind is that I don’t really want to arrive at a specific conclusion here. I merely wish to examine the topic a bit, chew it around then leave it out in the open, unsolved and up for further discussion. There are so many VN readers out there with different viewpoints and priorities that my opinion really is just a single drop in the ocean.

Okay, so let’s play around with this idea of having different routes. I once said that I find it very cool to see multiple outcomes to the same story, and that’s still true. If done right, it can unlock the true potential of a story without constraining it to one specific ending or turn of events, and if you’re into “what if” scenarios as much as I am, this is pretty exciting stuff all around. Especially since this is something we don’t have in real life. You can’t redo things: if a boat sailed, it sailed. The more interesting way to look at it is to consider what happens to certain characters if their particular route *isn’t* pursued. Let’s say something bad happens to them, and it’s up to the protagonist, or the events caused by his choices during that route to sort things out. Now consider that you choose to follow another route — what happens then? Do certain events of that other route still play out, but without the main character there to save the day? What if a character in question manages to overcome his/her crippling issues by intervention from the protagonist, but only in one particular route? “There exists no dream-like paradise where everyone is equally blessed with fortune.”, a peculiar shade of a man once said, and I can’t help but think of that line here. On the flip side, what if a character’s life ends up going in a more positive direction without a protagonist’s influence? There’s that possibility, too, and usually ends up eliciting “what if they had never met” (or possibly “never got close”) sort of reactions from people.

Another way to look at it is from the perspective of romance. Imagine a game with several heroines, and a fairly happy ending for each of them. There was one VN in particular that played around with the idea of a heroine only being able to find true happiness at the side of the protagonist, and as such, not choosing her route dooms her to a life with a certain something lacking, even if she’s otherwise successful. There are several ways to go about examining this. You may possibly feel sad about all this, in a “gosh darn but they made such a good pair” sort of way. I have even seen people consider the idea that starting a new route with another heroine could be a weird way of “cheating”, or that a route is effective if it makes you *not* want to read the others. Granted, as you may know based on my track record I don’t usually play “traditional” VNs where the focus is just on slice of life/romance, but I guess I can sort of imagine the situation. On the other hand, is such thinking (regarding the MC being the only “best” option for a heroine) not rooted in a bit of eroge logic? After all, in real life, people are often seen to be able to move on with their lives. Or not. You never know. Needless to say, if there’s a VN out there (I’m sure there must be) in which a given main heroine ends up with another character when her route is not pursued, I can only applaud that. If you were to look at it from a strictly feminist point of view you could even say that it’s silly to think that a heroine *needs* the protagonist to be complete. This also connects to what I said earlier about a character’s life being potentially better without the protagonist. I’m not gonna take any sides here, but these are some aspects to consider. In any case. it all depends on whether or not you believe in the whole “one true (canon) pair” idea, and besides, at the end of the day we’re only dealing with fictional characters. But the idea is still kinda interesting in itself. Of course, in certain VNs (you know which one), all routes are canon and happen at the same time, so yeah.

Now for something slightly different. Endings. Here the major point I wanted to bring up was regarding the difference between an ending that’s *fitting*, and an ending that is, for lack of a better word, *safe*. So what’s a safe ending? You may even call this a cop-out ending that aims to please and wishes not to offend. Things are a touch *too* convenient and consequently might feel out of place in the context of the story, even if they please a number of people. I’ve read one particular VN in which many of the endings were extremely positive — a fact that only made the canon (bittersweet) ending all the more painful, since you already knew things could’ve ended in vastly different ways with a lot more concerned parties satisfied. At the same time, I didn’t feel those “happy” endings were truly fitting, even though I did enjoy them. A fitting ending for me is where you potentially say “I don’t necessarily like everything about this, but goddammit I respect that this is how this story was meant to end. This is how it should be.” This, as I mentioned above, is often a bittersweet ending (although not necessarily; you can make characters go through hell but reward them with a satisfying happy end), where sacrifices were made, things were achieved, but at a price. Characters learn something, reach the end of their development and potentially reflect on what they have gained and lost upon arriving at that point. Sometimes I feel like an ending has to be earned, and sometimes that path is one laden with despair, but also growth. Another VN I’ve read in the past gives you a final choice that determines whether or not you see the true end: in order to get that “canon” ending, the choice to be made is 「選んだ道を進む」, which, in English, is something along the lines of “I will continue on my chosen path”, symbolizing acceptance, a refusal to falter, and a willingness to go through with things despite everything that had happened, even if the path in question is not all fun and games.

So I guess that’s it. I hope that was a decent amount of food for thought at least. I’m not entirely sure if all that made sense but hey, we all need a healthy ramble sometimes.

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17 thoughts on “The dilemma of multiple endings and routes

  1. I’ve played a VN where one of the heroines end up with the male friend if you don’t choose her route (and frankly, she makes a better pair with the other guy than with the protagonist). Unfortunately, it was a VN that was extremely lazy with the multiple routes concept and the story progresses the same way regardless of heroine, so the amount of different scenes between each route amounted to 10% at most, and those were mainly the ending + hscene + one or two generic “who will you have lunch with” choice splits.

    In fact, that is probably why the heroine in question made a better pair with the male friend character. Their events together happen regardless, but are split into friendship and lover variations depending on whether you’re on her route or not.

    • Now that you mention it, I vaguely recall you tweeting about it so I think I know which game that would be. Well, even if the execution leaves much to be desired at least it’s there, so I guess kudos to that VN for trying.

  2. [On the other hand, is such thinking (regarding the MC being the only “best” option for a heroine) not rooted in a bit of eroge logic? After all, in real life, people are often seen to be able to move on with their lives. Or not. You never know.]

    People will always “move on” in one way or another, but many will always remember certain choices that they have regrets or strong feelings of and sometimes there’s only so many chances that are presented to you in life to have the impetus you need to make certain changes. Having a specific person becoming your significant other at a specific time frame of your life should be a factor as natural as any other.

    It’s certainly ‘eroge logic’ in the same way that the world/country/etc. doesn’t save itself without the MC is ‘RPG logic’ though. The idea of a main character in a story is often a person who ends up having a large effect to his surroundings after all.

    • True enough, and a good comparison with RPGs. :p Yeah, I definitely was thinking of the whole idea of having regrets in one’s life while writing parts of the post. In fact I was somewhat reminded of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel “The Remains of the Day”, which has an ending that kinda deals with this theme, as far as I remember.

  3. What I have been finding increasingly lazy is when you have all the heroine routes, everyone mostly harmless, and then a true route which explains everything and solves everything for everyone ever. August is particularly bad at this, where it seems like a cheap way to have plot in a moe chara-ge; you could say that Key also does this, but in Little Busters there’s an in-universe reason, and in Rewrite besides an in-universe reason is arguable that it’s the best ending for everyone involved (besides you have lot of exposition in the routes, so they don’t feel useless, which may be my biggest problem with this).

    • Out of August’s games I only ever played Eustia but its non-canon routes do feel like a mere afterthought. Then again it helps if you consider them premature endings and not proper routes, because that’s really what they are.

      • Actually Eustia case is different from the usual August games, being basically linear instead of multiroute. In a way, this minimizes the impact of the “routes”, since they’re very short and you can skip them if you like

  4. I find most VNs are terrible about communicating a heroine/hero’s story if they aren’t the route that’s being played. You typically never find out there was a problem at all until you hit their route! And then you get to feel guilty because the heroine’s the only one that can give him the strength to live…. or something similar. I don’t want to feel guilty for exploring alternative possibilities, and I think that’s part of the reason why VNs don’t communicate that better. On the other hand, the one route where I played where a girl was absolutely better off without the guy was off-putting in a different way. It just made the route not ‘fit’ with the rest.

    I would have to wonder if eroge girls need the main character in the same way that he needs them. A symbiotic relationship, if you will. Because there aren’t a lot of times where the MC doesn’t end up with someone and it’s normally a bad end. Yes, he has the chance to pick any one he wants, but in the end he has to pick one. Or he dies. Or becomes gay (or becomes straight in BL, not that I’ve ever seen an ending like that). Or is left to be forever alone. Or something like that.

    • “Because there aren’t a lot of times where the MC doesn’t end up with someone and it’s normally a bad end. ”

      In a way that’s the best end in Saya no Uta, though! But I get what you mean. :p Probably a good example of a symbiotic relationship is Kageaki and Muramasa, they even make a point of it with that whole “becoming one” deal in Tyrant. But at the same time, the guy probably would’ve led a far better life without having ever met any Tsurugi.

  5. “I don’t necessarily like everything about this, but goddammit I respect that this is how this story was meant to end. This is how it should be.”

    I’ve only really had that feeling once, and then the visual novel went on to have a happy ending anyway 😄 I agree 100% with that being what a fitting ending should make you think. That doesn’t mean that happy endings don’t fit…it’s just that when you get that feeling you know an ending has been done well.

    The idea of what happens to other characters when you pick another route is an interesting one. For instance, I know one particular visual novel that has routes branching off of the main route periodically, and each of those other routes assumes that what you’ve been told so far is true, whereas the main route disproves that and continues on.
    So I guess the questions becomes whether each route plays by its own set of rules, or whether they all take place in a world that stays mostly the same in each route, or, as you’ve mentioned, whether each route takes place at the same time.

    I remember playing a (not particularly good) visual novel with two main heroines and, after reaching a good ending with one heroine, it proceeded to show me just how miserable that had made the other heroine – it felt absolutely horrible. You don’t see what happens behind the scenes after the protagonist chooses who he wants to be with, and some of those other characters’ feelings are horrendously strong which would make for soul-crushing pain when they lose the chance to be with the protagonist. I think I would really enjoy a visual novel that showed me the consequences of my actions; something really dark where there is no right answer whatsoever and every choice I make affects someone negatively. Maybe i’m just a glutton for punishment but I feel like that would be a really worthwhile experience.

    • Yeah, I would assume some games use a different reality for their different routes. In one game for instance, a cataclysmic event never actually happens in certain routes even though you would expect it to happen based on what you learn in the true route. Oh well.

      “I think I would really enjoy a visual novel that showed me the consequences of my actions”

      There is one such novel that I’ve read but it’s in Japanese. I won’t spoil it, of course. But it takes the whole “make a choice dammit” thing to its absolute extreme, in a way.

      • I’m experimenting with reading Japanese visual novels at the moment, so if you could share the VNDB link of that VN i’d appreciate it.

      • http://vndb.org/v7738

        It doesn’t necessarily fit all your criteria in the way you think, but it gets pretty dark and your choices do have some very serious consequences in a “fuck this is my fault isn’t it” sort of way.

  6. In reality, “there’s only one person for me, and s/he is you” is an illusion. If you want, you can nearly always find more than one person romantically compatible for you.

    Still, I’m not really a fan of VNs without individual routes or choices because I’m someone who likes to see how things might have turned out differently. Each romantic route should, ideally, show a new side to the player character (most specifically how the chosen heroine and he are compatible).

  7. I do remember playing a few of those “traditional” VNs you mentioned, and as I didn’t pick one of the heroines, she ended being together with another male character, that male character was actually originally fixated on another heroine (I will just say “heroine B” to avoid confusion, and the former “heroine A”). I can’t really remember now since it was so long ago, but I think I was actually getting into “heroine B”‘s route, and since that male character loves her, the protagonist and him ended getting into a lot of fight, but “heroine A” loves him, and those two also argued a lot throughout the route, but they got together in the end after mountains of quarrels. Although now that when I think about it, it was more about accepting each other, than got together as lovers, but it was a good start, and optimistically speaking, I would love to think that they ended up as couples somewhere down the unseen future.

    Multiple endings and routes is one of the element I personally think why VNs are such a unique medium when compared to another anime-related related, where it’s mostly just “one-off”. They may be some which plays with “alternative retelling”, and from the top of my head, the one I can think of is “Angel Beats! Another Epilogue”, but of cause, VNs are still the superior medium in regards to multiple routes and endings.

    • Yeah, I agree with that last sentiment. Although there were anime series that played around with alternate routes/endings, such as Amagami SS. I haven’t watched it myself but based on what I read about it, each heroine has her own story arc / route of a couple of episodes, so it’s basically a big collection of “what if” scenarios.

      • Ah, right. I forgot about that. Amagami SS uses the typical VN format, going into a heroine’s route, then resetting and going to another. That and Yosuga no Sora, I do feel that the latter and Angel Beats has a more stronger effect on the surroundings based on what scenarios the viewer picks(?).

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