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The Branches of a story – How to give players options in a narrative?

Creating a game that is controlled by the player should be second nature. But giving them control of the story can be an entirely more complex matter to deal with. Here are the intricate ways in which branching story-telling is developed.

With the rising popularity of choice-based games and their expansive lists of endings, outcomes and consequences, it’s time we investigate the inner workings of this evolving mechanic. How we, as players, are now given the ability to choose our own stories and create our own journey through many different worlds. Some of them grounded in harsh reality, surfacing anxieties and mixing them into our pressured decision-making skills. Others can take our decisions and shape them into magical opportunities. No matter what, it all boils down to giving the player options on where they go from the prologue of their adventure.

Josiah Lebowitz, writer of “Interactive Story-telling for Video Games” and a professor of Game Writing at George Mason University, gives his expertise on how we create branching storytelling in games. Different developers can have different methods. Josiah explain the first easiest step to take. “I recommend starting by creating a more linear story line from start to finish (an outline at least, not necessarily a full script) and then going back over it and looking for places where the story could potentially branch. Uusually based on factors such as choices the protagonist could make, success or failure of certain tasks, etc”. Having a clear story made first is the most important part. Giving them choices comes after this, as we need to first evaluate what the story is about. What are its themes? What are the character’s motivations? What is the relationship between them and the character the player controls? Once the story makes sense, the branches can then follow.

The branches themselves can be almost infinite with enough imagination. According to Josiah, prioritising them into categories can help paint a clearer picture. “I'd say maybe 2 - 3 major branches, maybe 5 - 10 moderate branches per major branch, and as many minor branches as makes sense”. For a major branch this can be something that changes the story entirely. Moderate branches can be changes that happen within major branches. Minor branches are those that make small changes here and there. Here is an example that sets the scene. A character has the choice to become a hero or villain. This is major. The character then has different people who come to help them, depending on the path they choose. This would be moderate. As they continue their journey, they can choose to help or damage different aspects of the world. This may or may not have unforeseen consequences later down the line, ergo minor differences. Its like a chain reaction. Having one big chain with smaller chains connected to it. And then even smaller chains connected to those. Some may even reconnect to the big chain. Looping the story to a specified direction. However, this can be the cause of one of the most criticized aspects of branching storytelling.

“Illusion of choice” is a term that comes up often.  It is a term used to describe a choice in a game that from first glance may look like it differs the narrative, when it ultimately leads the player to the same conclusion. Mass Effect is among the heaviest examples of this. Many choices in the game can make changes to the story, but at the end of its third instalment it only had three available endings that the player could choose. This made every choice that was made in the game almost feel invalid. It can be heart-breaking to find out that none your choices really matter in the end. However, sometimes there can be a reason for this. Like the loops in a chain, this loops back to the main focus. The theme of the story.

Bella Satomayor, from Comicsverse, brought up this convincing point. The purpose of an illusion of choice is to immerse you in the game and the journey you go on. Life is Strange, created by DontNod Entertainment, is another choice-based game that, like Mass Effect, only has two limited endings. Save your best friend Chloe or save an entire town. The branches in Life is Strange comes from your interactions with the townsfolk and Chloe. Choices affect how you see their stories and your relationship with them. You get to know them on a more personal level if you choose to spend more time with them. So, when it comes to the final choice, the decision is almost heart-breaking as your choices shape your feelings for the characters. Even if the different paths don’t change the ending, it does change who YOU are at the destination. While this makes a convincing defence, other issues are unfortunately much more physical.

Josiah continues explaining further obstacles we must that must be faced when developing branches. Not only does the story and its theme need to be set but the production itself.  Project timelines can affect how long the developers have in order to make as many options as they can. Budget is another heavy factor. Every new scenario in a story needs to be animated, voice-acted and may even need entirely new assets from scratch. Lack of money can lead to lack of quality which was the case for one unfortunate company. This was the sad story for TellTale Games. Once one of the leading companies in choice-based gaming but has now met its unfortunate end back in September 2018. According to sources collected by The Verge, regular crunches and increasing deadlines left no room for improvement or innovation in terms of new ideas. Sometimes a company simply does not have the time or money to make the choices they want. Especially the choices they want to give to their players.

Josiah made his final and most important point when it comes to the purpose of branches. It needs to serve a purpose.  “Does a certain character have to die for the story to work?  Don't give the player any way to save him.  Some players may be annoyed that they can't change certain events, but that's better than having boring or nonsensical story breaking branches”. Everything needs to fit into place and stay coherent. If there are not many options in a story it may be because the options are not needed in the first place. When it comes done to the latter, even the creators themselves are left with a choice. Do we create another scenario and risk breaking the narrative? Or do we keep the options we do have, let the story stay consistent and risk the player not liking the options? Not all scenarios and options will make every player happy. There are millions of players in the world and almost all of us are unique. There won’t be an option suited for every specific player. Josiah himself states, “There will always be someone out there who wants a choice you didn't provide, no matter how many branches and how much freedom your story has.  It's best to focus on creating a strong, coherent, and enjoyable story above all else.  That will please far more players than anything else”.

And so there you have it. The time and effort it can take to make a branching story can be difficult, strenuous and requires constant reassurance. If anything, this will paint a real picture of how the thought process happens, what borders must be crossed and how to avoid making a tangled mess. As long as each of them are given the same level of care as the main body, any branch can find its rightful place in a player’s heart.

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