One of the most interesting parts about video games is the potential to account for player choice in the narrative. This “choose your own” style of adventure is something video games have aspired to for a long time. From the intimate decisions of the Walking Dead to the trilogy-spanning choices of Mass Effect, games have only been getting better at these types of stories. Yet is it more satisfying to see your personal actions affecting the game or to take part in a thoroughly crafted narrative?
It all hinges on execution. I’ve played great games that have a single immovable storyline and great games with a narrative I can bend mold like clay. I’ve also played bad games of both narrative styles. Currently, I enjoy games that have a fairly set in stone story, that I am able to “personalize” in smaller but noticeable ways. I love being able to customize my outfits in games. Or name certain characters or objects. Or determine the order in which I do certain tasks and have that order be acknowledged by other characters. I think narratives that are more firmly set tend to be more successful because the writers have more control over everything from tone to pacing to foreshadowing. But anything that helps sell the illusion that my agency is being recognized in the world really sells it for me. Being able to choose where I start my story in Uncharted 4, choosing different outfits Grand Theft Auto, or even determining how I explore the house in Gone Home are all examples of the stuff I like. None of those things change the narrative in the least, but they help make my experience feel like *my* experience, and it sets a video game story apart from something I could get from a book or a movie.
One of the most important aspects of modern gaming, in my opinion, is agency; that sense of your actions having an effect on the world around you. Branching narratives are one such way to give the player agency. I like being able to play different content based on my actions, or other characters treating me differently because of a decision I made. When they can make a proper impact and when branching narratives are an integral part of the game, I tend to prefer those over games where I’m just drifting from event to event without having the power to affect anything. Even if it’s only the illusion of choice, that illusion is powerful. My experience with a game is my own, and when I can have multiple, varying experiences, I feel somehow more fulfilled. That’s not to say I don’t like games with linear stories; The Last of Us is one of my all-time favorites. But in those little moments in Mass Effect or Horizon: Zero Dawn where I can make a dialogue option or complete a quest a certain way, that’s where I feel myself really becoming a part of the game.
I respect the difficulty and craftsmanship inherent in writing stories that include branching narratives, but I tend to prefer stories with a definite narrative through line. I find that games with a defined series of events tend to have a more powerful message and more significant themes. This is because they have been constructed to carry out a specific purpose rather than account for a range of possibilities. The Last of Us, Bioshock, and The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time are some of my favorite video game stories. All three of these games contain themes and ideas that could be undermined if the player could alter plot outcomes.
I think games with branching narratives put too much pressure on the player and usually not for any good reason. Your choices in most games like this don’t often have an impact on the finale of the story, meaning your choices up until that point were essentially meaningless. This illusion of choice isn’t worth the constant dread of wondering how your actions will impact the outcomes. “So-and-so will remember that” is more terrifying to me than most horror games I’ve played.
**What do you think? Is it more satisfying for a story to bend around your choices? Or do you prefer taking part in a definitive narrative? Let us know in the comments!**