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Multiple Endings for Multiple Themes (GTA4 spoilers)

Posted by Nick Dinicola on February 27, 2009

It’s nothing new for a game to have multiple endings. The endings can be determined by our moral choices throughout the game, by how we act during important events, or by how effectively we play the game. The ability to attach multiple endings to a game’s story gives that game a chance to say more than a book or movie ever could because those other mediums are strictly linear. With a game’s branching narrative and multiple endings, a single game can explore and resolve several themes. Just because a game has multiple endings doesn’t mean one has to be the “right” ending and the others the “wrong” endings. I think Grand Theft Auto 4 is one game in which the multiple endings actually have thematic relevance. Lot of spoilers ahead.

At it’s core GTA4 is a revenge tale, but it’s also a critique of American capitalism, and it’s also a personal story of a man trying to leave his violent ways behind. No matter what we do the revenge tale is brought to a conclusion: We eventually find Darko Brevich and we can decide whether or not to kill him; either way the revenge story and all of its related themes are brought to a close. After that, we’re given another choice: Work with Dimitri Rascolav, a man who betrayed us and tried to kill us multiple times, or get revenge for all that he’s done to us. This is where the story of GTA4 stands out from other games. Depending on the choice we make here, only one of the two remaining central themes is concluded, while the other is left unresolved.

If we choose to get revenge and kill Dimitri, we’re embracing the violent mob life Niko claims to despise. Throughout the game we’re given the opportunity to build up a relationship with Kate McReary, and by the end Niko sees in her the chance to live a normal life, but by choosing revenge on Dimitri, Niko proves that he doesn’t know any other way to live. This is how he solves his problems. This is all he knows how to do. Even though he wants to live a life outside the mob, his tendency towards violence will always pull him back. So it’s only appropriate that later on, after taking revenge, Kate is gunned down during Roman’s wedding by another mobster, Pegorino. Niko chose to embrace the vengeful mob life, so his symbolic chance at normalcy is killed.

If we chose to do business with Dimitri, we’re embracing the same capitalist greed that drives Roman to constantly gamble. Like Roman, Niko proves that he’s willing to do anything for money, that the accumulation of personal wealth is more important than any potential risks. And unfortunately for him, the risks prove to be real. Dimitri betrays Niko again during the planned drug deal, but Niko gets away, so a hitman from Dimitri shows up at Roman’s wedding and opens fire, killing Roman. The loss is devastating for Niko, but only solidifies what Roman’s constant gambling debt had been saying all along: Bind greed never ends well.

What makes the multiple endings in GTA4 unique is that they’re not just in the game to encourage multiple playthroughs. They’re not tacked on or interchangeable, and neither can be said to be the “good” or “bad” ending. Both endings are thematically relevant to the rest of the game; put another way, each ending has something to say. This kind of storytelling, with multiple valid endings, is something unique to video games. A book or movie will always end the same way every time you watch it, and even if there are alternate endings on the DVD these are not considered valid endings to the story. GTA4 is the only game I can think of that has really embraced, and more importantly succeeded in pulling off, this aspect of storytelling in games, but I hope it’s a sign of things to come. Specifically, I’m very excited for Heavy Rain, which, if it lives up to the hype, will set a new standard in gaming narratives.

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