Making Interactive Fiction: Branching Choices

2018-03-13 · by Bruno Dias
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From Twine to visual novels to AAA RPGs, branching choices are the basic building block of many interactive narratives. This month, I wanted to zoom in and talk about writing choices themselves, about handling branching points.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing choice as a tool for player expression. That relates to how interactive narrative is sold: as a world of agency into which the player gets dropped and can express their desires. But as far as how interactive narrative communicates, here’s a dirty little secret: what the player chooses matters, but not as much as what choices are offered.

The core of this is the “road not taken” effect. Every choice you offer to the player suggests what the space of possibilities are—what’s imaginable, or doable, for the viewpoint character. If my choices are “I swallowed my anger / I yelled at him,” that communicates something very different from “I yelled at him / I stabbed him with my knife,” even if you pick the “yelled” option anyway. Even if the consequences are identical, a character who might have turned a confrontation violent is different, and there is a different valence to their actions, than a character who at best would have yelled.

This is especially important to consider in terms of the power dynamic between two characters. What choices someone has in interacting with someone else sends a very strong signal for whatever hierarchy exists between those two people. Peer-peer relationships, master-servant relationships, romantic relationships, platonic relationships, and abuser-victim relationships all present different options to the people on either side, and represent one of the most fraught places where the effect of unchosen choices can be felt.

This is why it’s dangerous to offer a choice like “I stabbed him with my knife” and then respond to it with something like “Or at least, I wanted to, in that moment. But…” The player who picks that choice will see that you backed away, but everyone else will not. What you implied through the initial choice text will linger and help make up the player’s image of their character, of what they’re capable of. This bears repeating: A choice can easily create misunderstandings for the players who don’t take that choice.

Choice text, too, is a major consideration. You might use a short summation of an action (Explain it to him), or a literal quoting of what the player character might do or say (“I was running down the highway, feeling bad…”). And you often want to be scrupulously consistent about this kind of style.

Being thorough and direct about saying what a choice leads into is a good starting point. From hobbyist IF pieces to AAA video games, the problem of picking a choice and feeling cheated because something with the wrong content and tone comes out of the character’s mouth is endemic. Setting up consistent signals and expectations fights against that. Do you have some special way of signalling tone? Do you cast the player character as someone with a very consistent voice, to avoid confusion? This problem is particularly manifest in sprawling Bioware RPGs where the player character could be anyone or anything, and so a sarcastic option is often seated right next to a sincere one, inviting error.

But short, poetic choice text has significant power, and makes for a more interesting read. In Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, (Which, full disclosure, I wrote for) a lot of the choice text consists of short fragments like “ASK WHY” or “HOW?”; this gives particular power to the times where that text can be imbued with particular meaning (“BEAR WITNESS”) or simply with a joke (“BE A GOOD SPORT / BE A DICK”). Part of what makes this work is that this is a game of limited agency; in the stories you encounter, you are largely a passer-by, a witness. The shorter choice text is better at expressing the tone and significance of an action; longer and more specific text is better at expressing the specifics of an action.

So: everything about a choice you present—how many options, how they’re written, and the breadth of possibilities on offer—is read by the player, and helps tell the story. How do you keep all this straight? In any interactive story of significant length, you will have hundreds of choice points; knowing how to write them right for that story, consistently, is all about setting style rules and knowing your character, your tone, and the type of agency you’re expressing. I hope this helps you make conscious choices about choice.

Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere.

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