Last week I wrote about two problems for branching stories. One of them, the 100% itch, asked what you do about players inclined to see every possible route through your game. Do you accommodate them, structuring your story so that each route feeds off the others, rewarding replay? Or does each branch exist in isolation, so the story finishes when any one is played?

While working out my ideas, I muttered a couple of times about my very long journey through Virtue’s Last Reward (2012). I even claimed, based on what I saw on the game’s story map, that I was finally approaching one of nineteen endings.

I was very wrong about that. VLR confounded my expectations about reaching an ending and charged straight on at the problem of the 100% itch. It’s a fascinating model for story game design.

 

What to do with 100%ers?

So does VLR acknowledge that its audience may play more than one ending? Does it give a nod during one branch to the events of another? Is the import of one branch heightened by the content of another? All of those and more. The threads of this story are very far from being isolated and exclusive possible narratives.

When I reached what I though was an ending on the game’s story flow chart, I was prompted to enter a username and password on a computer. I had no idea what it was, but I was sure I hadn’t just missed it somewhere — it simply hadn’t been available to me. I tapped cancel to leave the password screen of the computer, assuming I would now be hunting for clues. No: the game reset.

I was back at the opening cutscene. It turned out that the password for the computer in the first branch would only be found in another branch of the story. The story branches weren’t just influencing each other by informing the audience how to react to the other routes, but they literally depended on each other: events in one branch were caused by events in another branch.

 

Sounds annoying

Virtue's Last Reward story tree bottom.png

If, like me, you’re not a great replayer, you might dread the idea of resetting to cover every branch because it entails going through the trunk again and again to try them all. You want novelty, not repetition. VLR is wise to this: the story map can be used to navigate, skipping to any previously played point, and it shows where the branches are and how many they are, so you know there’s reward for going back. On top of that, you can fast forward through all the dialogue you’ve played already, drilling you right into the seams of novelty you’re craving.

 

Sounds weird

VLR may sound like a collection of incomplete narratives. How do any of them work coherently if their parts are logically isolated from each other? Answer: wishy-washy science-fiction. The story raises so many concepts about reality, causation, quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, agency and the like that by the end you’re inclined to think, “Aaaah! That explains it! Probably.”

Maybe it does all make sense underneath, but in my case, playing bit by bit over several months, I settled for giving it the benefit of the doubt, without being completely convinced.

(It definitely had some smart moments: a Schrödinger’s-cat explanation for changing the story by observing it; discussions of AI and other minds challenging the player character’s standing among the NPCs…)

 

Is this still a branching story?

Has Chunsoft found a way to present a branching story and then deny its branchingness? Is cake being both had and eaten? There’s a feeling that this is not exactly a branching story any more. Since the sci-fi ties it all together, there’s really only one story — a story about branching timelines. The story flow chart becomes like a hub level, and the branches are the separate stages to be played in any order. However, if you need to play them all to finish the story then they’re not really alternatives. Ergo, not branching.

That’s an interesting implication of this game, but it doesn’t actually undermine the sense of playing a standard branching story and making choices. The branches are just like any other game’s, except they’re substantiated in the world of the story, which only lends them more weight and makes them more engaging. There was no great sacrifice made in this regard, I think.

 

What price repetition?

There’s only one cost to this approach, and that’s the destruction of player-character identity. Although the player experiences all timelines, holds them all in mind, and ranks them as equally real, the player character doesn’t. When he goes back to the start, his memory is wiped completely.

Interestingly, once you start replaying the trunk narrative, you have more in common with one of the NPCs, who also seems to be experiencing multiple timelines. Your movement through the world is tied to the first character, your understanding of the world is tied to the second, and your role within the game is best represented by the abstract flow chart that enables your navigation. Whatever the metaphysical forces are that make this strange, branching world happen, you, the player, become the substance of them.

Destroying player-character identity is not always a bad thing — I enjoyed it in Uncharted: Golden Abyss — but in VLR you’re allowed a full run through one branch of the game before the identity starts to weaken, and the game doesn’t really seem to understand that it’s doing it.

 

Some lessons

So VLR scratches the 100% itch by granting every branch of the story equal reality, and giving them causal influence over one another. The cost of this approach is that the player must stand in a relation to the game world that is unlike the usual relation of characters to the world of a branching story. VLR has the characters (especially the player character) respond to the world in this usual way, so player-character identity falls apart.

As a footnote, two tweaks to this model are suggested by VLR’s approach. First, you could sacrifice the usual relation of the player character to the game world (i.e. have him/her share the player’s awareness of multiple branches). Second, you could accept the destruction of player-character identity and signpost it better: Uncharted: Golden Abyss did it by putting the player in control of other characters; 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors did it by using one screen of the DS to always describe the player character in the third person.

Either of those tweaks entails its own sacrifices. The question of the 100% itch doesn’t have a single right answer — decisions must be made; a path must be chosen.


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