This seems to be the approach they took with the story in STALKER. If you follow the main quest without digging around, you’ll hit the fool’s ending. It’s obvious and a bit dumb. There are actually several fool’s endings, depending on your behavior in the game, and the befuddled player can hardly be blamed for walking away from the thing thinking they had beaten the game and gotten an odd and unsatisfying ending for their trouble.
You can have any number of open quests at one time. There are lots of little sidequests to help accumulate wealth and bolster your reputation with one of the many factions in the game. The in-game map always has a big fat arrow pointing you in the direction of your next goal, and once you complete a sidequest the arrow defaults back to the main quest, which seems to be “get to the Chernobyl reactor and get the big treasure”. If you blindly follow this arrow, it will lead you right to the fool’s ending and you won’t even realize you missed the meatiest parts of the story.
The game is set in the near future. The area around Chernobyl has had another, unexplained disaster (a result of the first disaster, we assume) and the surrounding area is now a place filled with dangerous anomalies, mutants, and strange artifacts. The place is called The Zone, and is mostly inhabited by men (and only men, no women in the game whatsoever) who inhabit the strange zone around Chernobyl looking for fortune.
The game starts off with your character on a truck which is struck by lightning. The truck is otherwise loaded with corpses. You are rescued and awakened to find out that – wait for it – you’ve lost all of your memories. Sigh. I guess we’ll never escape this plot device. I’m currently playing two games, both of which feature an amnesiac protagonist. It’s not a bad hook for a game, but it’s been done, and each subsequent game to tread this path has to work harder than the previous one to bring something interesting to the premise.
|A ferris wheel in Prypiat, Ukrane. The city is large and wonderfully detailed. This is near the end of the game. The answers you’re looking for are here, but you’ll likely miss it if you don’t do the earlier sidequests.|
So far this is not the most sophisticated plot in the world, although it’s practically Shakespeare compared to your average first-person shooter. Looking for the mystery man Strelok is certainly more compelling than just “kill the bad guys”, which is what I’m used to in this genre. Even after I had it figured out, I was still curious about how it all fit together and how I ended up in a blown-up truck on the edge of The Zone.
But the Strelok plot isn’t really the main plot as far as the game is concerned. No, the main plot starts off with you going out into the Zone to rescue a guy who might know about Strelok. Once you save him you find he doesn’t know anything, but he can point you in the direction of the next guy to be rescued who also doesn’t know anything but who can point you in the direction of the next guy to be rescued who…
You get the idea. Fast-forwarding a bit, you stop chasing Strelok and someone sends you into a hidden lab to recover some “secret documents”. Once you get them and bring them back, you are told that these documents talk about another set of documents in another lab which will reveal the location of another lab which has some documents which…
Again, you get the idea.
At some point a small sidequest appears in your quest log. It just says “Talk to the Guide.” The location for the quest is on the edge of The Zone, where you began the game. I thought this was just another broken quest that I’d already completed but was popping up again due to some broken trigger. It certainly didn’t sound related to anything I was currently doing. My first time through the game (and my second, actually) I ignored this quest thinking it was another similar-sounding quest I’d done way back at the start of the game. From this point the game led me directly to Chernobyl and one of the four fool’s endings. I saw the oddball ending and shrugged, “What the hell was that?”
I finally read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia and realized that while I’d done most of the quests, I had missed most of the plot. The overlooked “Talk to the Guide” quest actually takes you to the real secrets and sets you on the path to one of the two Real Endings. (Although I noticed that the “quest arrow” still had a penchant for leaving this path and pointing me to the path to the fool’s ending. I had to keep re-setting this quest as my main quest.)
Once I saw the real ending the fool’s ending actually made sense.
Warning, spoilers beyond…
The fools ending:
At the center of the Chernobyl reactor is an anomaly which… grants wishes? When you reach the “wish granter” you get a cutscene where your character makes one of four wishes. Which one he chooses depends on your actions in the game, but none of them end well for you. They all end in a “deal with the devil” kind of shaftage.
The real ending:
|The C-Consciousness greets you and promises to answer your questions. This part was pretty satisfying, although I would have liked to have more dialog options, or at least a less linear conversation. Still, I was pretty happy with the answers I got here.|
As far as I can make out, this already happened to your character once. Whether he made it to the wish granter or not is unclear, but he made it deep into the zone and was caught by the C-Consciousness. They caught him and did what they usually did: They reprogrammed him with a task. In this case, they programmed him to take out a man named “Strelok”, who they recognized as a threat. Somehow they missed the fact that the guy they captured actually was Strelok. So, you eventually wound up on the edge of The Zone with no memory and orders to kill yourself, although you don’t know that until later.
(Someone on Gamefaqs pointed out that this means that every time you die in the game you’ve fulfilled your quest and have won. When viewed this way, this was the easiest game I’ve ever played. I won every five minutes or so!)
The real ending of the game leads you to the C-Consciousness, where you can have your questions answered. Afterwards, you can choose to join the collective or destroy the collective forever. This is a first-person shooter with an RPG style plot. The main plot – the fool’s plot – is obvious and stupid. The real plot is compelling and has some depth to it.
I don’t really fault the game for making the path to the “wish granter” the most obvious one. That’s the point of the thing, after all. But I do wish that the quest arrow would have stopped resetting once I determined to take the side-path to the good ending. The way this goal was added to the end of the list, and the way the list was already populated with broken and orphaned quests made this new goal easy to to overlook. Obscuring the right path within the story was fine, but leading me astray with the interface was kind of cheap.
Joining the C-Con is fairly easy, but I don’t know that I would call that the “ideal” ending. Destroying the C-Con means taking a long trek through bad guys and teleports to the C-Con inner sanctum. I didn’t enjoy this sequence very much, although I can’t really suggest anything more interesting for the player to do. It wasn’t very satisfying and it seemed like a bit of a let-down to just have another dose of “more of the same” for the final challenge. But what do I know? I’m an RPG player at heart. If they had taken away that last 20 minute firefight and given me a 20-minute conversation instead I’d have been happy.