This blog post contains whoppingly enormous spoilers. It’s mainly written for people who’ve played The Whispered World. If you haven’t played it but have an interest in doing so – and I can cautiously recommend it – you might want to, like, totally not read this at all.
I’m writing this blog post mainly to shout at Raze, who liked the ending of The Whispered World, but also because I intended to rant about this after letting the game settle for a bit, so that spoilers would become a little more acceptable. The game’s months old now, so I finally feel comfortable explaining exactly why its ending made me really, really angry.
What it boils down to is this: it’s Alice in Wonderland.
In case people are reading this who haven’t played it and who have no interest in playing it, I’ll sum up what happens. Just to warn you again, THESE ARE SPOILERS. They SPOIL THE ENTIRE STORY, including A BIG TWIST. Gosh, you really are stubborn.
You’ve just played through an entire game as Sadwick. At the start he was a depressed young boy working for his nasty family in a travelling circus. But then he met an oracle who told him the world was going to end, and it would be his fault. So Sadwick goes on a quest to prevent the world from ending, travelling to a whole bunch of magical lands in the process. He begins the game with no confidence, but over the course of it, it grows, and he learns about himself as a person.
Ultimately his goal has been to meet the king. But when he gets there, instead of the king, he finds simply a mirror. And he steps through it.
Beyond the mirror is a small, dark room, and there’s another “mirror” on the other side. Through that mirror, he can see… himself. In a hospital bed. He’s not dressed in a clown costume, but rather a hospital gown, and he’s in a coma. His dad sits beside him, reading a story. And it’s revealed that the story he’s been reading is the one you’ve just played through.
In other words, you’re in a coma, this has all been a dream, and your father’s story has seeped through into your imagination.
The game offers Sadwick a choice. I very specifically use “Sadwick” there instead of “you”. Either Sadwick can pass through the mirror in front of him, thus destroying the world you’ve just spend the entire game within and returning to the real world; or he can pass back through the mirror behind him, thus destroying the real world and remaining in the imaginary world forever.
The game gives you no input into this decision. Sadwick chooses the real world. He destroys the dream world, just as the oracle predicted.
Which turns what could have been an absolutely heartbreaking decision to make into something that… oh, the game’s just made it for you, and there’s nothing you could have done.
There are a great deal of things wrong with this, but they all centre around it being a pure Alice in Wonderland moment, when it could have been so very poignant.
I have no problem, technically, with the fact that it turned out to be all a dream. However, roleplaying the character of Sadwick, I am not certain I would have made the choice that was eventually picked for me. It would have been an extremely difficult decision to make – and as such a spectacular ending – for a couple of reasons. You can literally look at your father, almost in tears, begging for you to wake up. Yet on the other hand, you’ve finally found your place in this world: you’ve become attached to its characters and you’ve made a difference. I feel I’m understating how much The Whispered World manages to draw you into its imaginary universe. So let me spell it out. It is enough that it would be a difficult choice between that, and the real world where Sadwick’s family awaits.
This is also partially because we have absolutely no reason to be invested in Sadwick’s family. We’ve never met them. Only now do we recognise that there even is a “real world”, and that the one we’ve been in is in fact false. At the sight of his father, memories come flooding back to Sadwick, I’m sure. But they don’t come flooding back to me. And as such, I don’t feel compelled that passing through the mirror in front of me is the right thing to do.
And furthermore, it’s suggested that even though these people and places are elements of Sadwick’s subconscious, they’re as “real” as anything in the real world itself. And in passing through the mirror in front of me in order to save my own life and be with my family, I would be destroying all of that. I can’t be sure which choice I would have made, ultimately. But I do know that being forced to make that choice would have been horrible, and painful, and an absolutely wonderful thing for a game to dare to do.
But it doesn’t. It chickens out. It gives Sadwick a completely jarring change of character, and has him make “the right choice”. It’s contrived, it’s false, and it rips away all emotional investment from the player. It becomes a story that tells you “and then he woke up and it had all been a dream.” It becomes Alice in Wonderland.
It could have avoided that fate so easily. I can think of at least three ways around it. Either give the player that choice. Force me to make it. Give me the option of defying the oracle, and dealing with the consequences.
Or alternatively, pull the revelation slightly earlier in the game – and the big twist literally comes in a final cut-scene, that’s how late it’s left – and then have me arrive at the decision with Sadwick. Convince me, by way of additional narrative elements somehow, that the right choice absolutely is to return to the real world. That way, I would have felt it was my decision, even though it was predetermined by the game.
Alternatively, just don’t make it a matter of choice. Don’t offer Sadwick this choice at all. The Longest Journey springs to mind here. I’ll try to avoid proper spoilers, but a warning is in place nevertheless. The Longest Journey frames that you will have the opportunity to make a spectacular, world-changing decision at the end. But when that finale comes, you don’t. Your character was mistaken. And it’s tragic and terrible, because you’ve prepared yourself, but then… no. You don’t have that opportunity. You’re not who you thought you were.
If you really wanted Sadwick to return to the real world, don’t give him the choice: just send him back there. That in itself could be a beautifully haunting moment, as he awakes, and tries to come to terms with the fact that the world he’s become so attached to wasn’t real.
By giving Sadwick the choice, but not allowing the player to make that choice with him, it robs it of everything that was so almost wonderful. The game has many problems, but significantly, I cared enough about the world and characters it presented that the ending really made me see red. It could have been a miraculous example of videogame narrative. Instead, it falls absolutely, totally flat.