We all remember the big choices in a game. Do you save this person, or that one? Do you feed the orphan, or stuff it in a bin?
A good, chewy binary decision can make a game, and it takes a great deal of work to make the decision convincing. You can usually only pull it off once or twice in a game.
But choices don’t always have to be big. You can build a game from smaller choices, that are just as decisive but that don’t feel as huge: instead of delivering one big moment you can try to arrange a series of them, one after another, in a branching tree that expands out and out as the player makes more and more decisions. Not every choice changes the game, but each one can make the player sweat.
If you ever read Choose Your Own Adventure books, you’re familiar with this model. The first decision can lead to a whole different set of endings, and if you’re like me, you probably kept flipping through the book to get every single ending.
Watch the throne
Last year, I came across a visual novel that pretty much defeated me. Long Live the Queen from Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar casts you as Elodie, a 14-year old princess whose mother, the queen, has just died; now she has to come home from boarding school and figure out how to reign – and how to live long enough to take the throne.
While it’s cute on the surface, Long Live the Queen quickly reveals itself to be the Dark Souls of teenage princess sims. Your princess has to choose the lessons she takes to build the skills she’ll need, but there are 42 to choose from. You can only pick two a week, and you don’t get a single clue which ones are important or when you’ll need them. Will you need history or accounting? Divination or sword training? Should you learn to ride a horse?
Oh yeah, you should probably brush up on court manners and local intrigue, but you have to be in the right state of mind: the Princess also has four mood sliders that change as the story goes along, and if you’re, say, too Willful, you can’t sit still in class.
It’s a crazy setup, and on your first playthroughs, you’ll die, a lot. But if you stick with it, you’ll notice that your decisions can open up different scenes. You’ll find out which skill tests you’re failing, and you can rearrange your class plan to prepare for them. The shape of the game starts to become clear and you start to get farther and farther. As in Groundhog Day, the cycle of resurrection helps you learn how you should live your life. The frustrating gameplay makes sense for the story: if you really were a fourteen year old who had to come home and become a queen, your life probably would be pretty overwhelming. But in this game, you have the benefit of many lives’ worth of wisdom, and eventually, it will see you through to the end.
What makes Long Live the Queen kind of manageable is that it tells you when you’ve made a mistake. Other games are more insidious. When I grew up, I read a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books and their clones: books that added puzzles, books that were scary, and books that really worked like solo game books, with character sheets, fighting and puzzles.
The Fighting Fantasy Gamebook titles were my favorites, and that series culminated in the epic saga Sorcery! by Steve Jackson, with exotic, eerie illustrations by John Blanche. Sorcery! told a single story across four bonus-sized books, and the decisions you made in one book could affect the next ones.
With several hundred entries a book, they branched so much and hid their secrets so well that it took a ridiculous amount of work to get to the best ending. Every junction could hide a clue or a trap. Should you check out that village off the road, or will it just give you grief? Is that bum on the side of the road a threat, or is he hiding the clue you’re looking for? That room over there – if you go in and check it out, will you find a treasure, or will the door slam shut behind you, trapping you until you starve? The books were a maze of dead ends, but if you ran into one, you would just try again.
Last year, Inkle Studios started to bring the books to iOS and Android. Instead of just jamming it onto your phone as an eBook, they restructured the content and added a bit of gameplay: the combat is a little bit active, the spells are more fun to activate, and you can see your steps across a map, letting you trace back the path you chose. Best of all, if you hit a dead end or you’re just not happy with your progress, you can rewind to an earlier decision point. Unlike the Groundhog Day model, this is more like Braid or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. You’re fixing your life scene by scene. I wish I could take back the last ten minutes, or the last thing I said – and now I can.
There’s one more game that really inspired me last year, an American visual novel called Monster Loves You. In the game, you live a full life as a monster: you start as a little chunk of nothing that’s floating in a hostile tank, you survive your youth and find your way in the world, and as an adult, you can even go out and interact with those weird humans in the next town over.
The game gives you a set of events to explore at every age – more than you’ll have time to try in a single playthrough – and each one comes with its own choices, which are affected by the skills you’ve built along the way.
Like the other games we talked about, Monster Loves You doesn’t always telegraph the "right" answer. You may want to confront a giant monster that’s been acting like a bully. You may think this is the right thing to do, and that acting like a hero is a great idea. And in the end, you just get clobbered … but at least you learned from it.
Monster Loves You doesn’t let you "rewind" the game, and the playthroughs aren’t cut short as often as they are in Long Live the Queen. You’re supposed to see each one through to the end, or at least through adulthood. But when it’s time for your monster to take its final rest, you don’t just crawl into the woods and die; you go back to that giant vat of monster goo that spawned you in the first place.
I wish I could take back the last ten minutes, or the last thing I said – and now I can
Maybe this generation didn’t get it right – but the next one will, or the one after that. It’s a beautiful vision of resurrection, where every life is a little bit different, and the knowledge you’ve acquired all settles into a beautiful, sticky goo.
If the story can take so many shapes, then we’re always going to look for the "best" one. We’re gamers. It’s how we think. But the appeal of these branching games is that every story should be interesting, and even the bad ones should show you something new. When you have enough choices, you’re not really making choices: you’re scanning possibilities, and you want to see them all. You get to live every single life that the game can hold.
Chris Dahlen wanted to mention that he’s nuts about Dangan Ronpa but he couldn’t find a way to shoehorn it in. He is formerly of Edge, The Onion AV Club, Paste and Kill Screen Magazine, where he was co-founder and editor. He was also the writer on Klei's Mark of the Ninja. Look for him on Twitter @savetherobot.