Branching Story Paths Usually Don’t Matter in Games


If there’s one thing I’ve noticed nowadays, its that people LOVE IT when games give you a choice. I mean, who wouldn’t? Media narratives such as movies and TV traditionally are told to you; you have no real say in the matter. But then games come along and suddenly you can change the entire ending just by doing a few things differently than you did last time! It’s why they can be so addictive and so beloved by many, because it feels like you have control over an outcome. You feel as though you are participating in the narrative.

branching story paths

Here’s a question I posed to a few people: In context of a video game (as in a simulated experience, not real life) there’s a police officer hanging off a cliff. You are a prisoner she’s been chasing. You are given the option of saving her or leaving her. Which would you choose?

Now, answer this question again, but this time, no matter what you choose she will fall to her presumed death. It’s a weird question right? Why even ask it if your choice had no influence? Most people I asked said they would have tried to save her regardless, but a few changed there answer to letting her fall. They felt there was no point. I didn’t make this question up; this is a real scenario from the game Silent Hill Downpour, and I see this kind of scene play out in many other games too.

A big culprit of lying about your choices is Beyond: Two Souls. The game contains entire optional sections that do nothing for the story despite how important they may seem. There is an entire attempted assault scene that can be completely avoided and the game will go on as usual. Say you go through with that scene? It barely gets mentioned once in future chapters. A trauma as serious as attempted assault seems like it would effect a character more than a throwaway bit of dialogue that’s negated later on anyway. There’s also a section that requires you to do things stealthily, and should you mess it up you have to go through with a long chase scene full of button press prompts. Guess what? It ends exactly the same as if you’d perfectly snuck through. All the things you do in that scene make no difference in the eyes of the game, do not add to the story, and were a waste of time.

branching story paths

So, I ask again, why even give the player the option to choose if the outcome is the same?  I’ve concluded that it has something to do with,well, not necessarily “tricking” the player into thinking they have choice, but a design flaw on behalf of the devs. Instead of giving the player a choice, they are given the illusion of choice. Even in the Downpour scenario you may just write it off initially. I made my choice; she fell. It only comes to light that your choice didn’t really matter when you do a second playthrough or reload a save to see what would happen. I’m very guilty of this mentality. I love getting multiple endings and seeing the alternatives, so its disappointing to see no new content when there appeared to be the promise of some.

I can think of way more bad examples, but a good example of your choices mattering throughout the course of the game is Until Dawn, which practically runs on your decisions. Things as small as taking the left path or trying to jump a gap could possibly kill a character later in the story, or make it harder to survive unscathed. Every alternate way something could go will echo back sometime later, and promise for additional content next playthrough is upheld in full. The ending in this case is pretty much the same no matter how you play, but who gets out alive is up to you.

Though not altering much in the actual game, at the very least, Downpour records your choices and uses them to decide which ending you get. Unlike another trend I see oh, so often, and the one I hate the most; The “choose your ending right now” scenario.

Beyond: Two Souls commits yet another sin here. In a game so apparently “decision” based, you end up choosing what ending you get right at the end, instead of the cumulative record of all you’ve done. This pretty much negates all of the player’s past choices (those that actually did anything anyway) and condenses the fate of the ending to a single question.

branching story paths

A very famous occurrence of this is also probably one of the most unfortunate: Mass Effect 3. ME3 is one of the worst because it wasn’t just a single contained story; Mass Effect spans 3 games and 5 real years of waiting for the outcome of all the hard choices we had to make. All the people you saved or didn’t, who’s personal quests you completed; paragon or renegade, and the ending was…literally multiple choice. 5 years. 3 games. Dozens of decisions rendered virtually pointless by “pick ending A, B, or C”. The only time I can consider this scenario forgivable is when the game has offered no other choices anywhere else; in that case its more like choosing an alternate ending.

Now if you want to talk about influencing the ending, you need look no farther than Downpour’s predecessor Silent Hill 2. What’s neat is the game doesn’t even tell you it records your decisions; little things you wouldn’t expect influence what outcome you’ll get. Did you keep the character healthy? Did you protect your partner? Did you kill every enemy in sight? All these things subtly change the ending to reflect what kind of person you made your character out to be.

I think people maybe catching on to this trend of “fake” choice options lately, so I’m hoping devs take notice and understand that for players to care about the outcome, there should be consequences for their actions.

Tell us what you think about the matter of branching story paths in games? Is it a hoax? Which games do it correctly? Sound off below!

  • Story Branches seem to branch off then swerve back in. In a lot of games they simply an excuse for it to be a game or it’s like a chose your own adventure book. Most paths that aren’t you dying lead you to the same ending. I think Mass Effect three for sure was the worst sinner on this stuff and no matter what people who defend that say I haven’t changed my mind.

    I think a brilliant example of a game doing what these games intend to do is Undertale. The game actually adapts to your real in game choices remembering everything in a meta sense and in game. That does effect the ending and way you play leading up into it. It’s the first game that I really felt like my choices really mattered. Even if my end goal was the same no matter what I did it never pretends it’s not the last place i’m going to go it just shows me where I need to go and how the game treats me on that path depends on how I play it.

  • InkAgain

    Regardless of how your choices affect the ultimate ending of a game, or even individual scenes, presenting choices allows players to participate in the game’s narrative the way they want to. Many games set out with a story to tell, and the branching paths available to a player serve as a way for that player to form a connection with the character they’re playing. The goal isn’t to offer players a chance to change the story, only to play out the story in a way that fits their personality or playstyle.

    When you look at the journey rather than the end result, a branching choice system gives players the ability to experience a sense of honor in choosing to be a noble hero, or a sense of dark satisfaction in giving in to some temptation. The feeling at the moment of the choice is what’s important, and focusing on the distant result of the choice ignores the emotions a player gets to experience at the moment of choosing.