Authors who write many branches: Question about the roads not taken

Hey All–

I’m interested in hearing perspectives from authors who write many branching pathways for their games (so probably mostly choice-based authors). How do you ensure that every branch is likely to be visited? CAN you ensure that? Do any of you have areas of games that nobody explores because no one picks those options? What general ideas do you have about designing choices so that they are equally attractive? Does it feel awful to spend so much time on a branch that doesn’t get a lot of traffic?

Any general comments on story branch equality design would be greatly appreciated.

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I don’t really have numbers on who took which route, cause people seem to play my branching games but not really comment on them (or at least the routes they took). But…

I don’t think you can ensure that players will try all the routes (as individuals or group). Even when enticing the player to go a certain route, with a nudge or a hint in the text, or special formatting for that choice, or trying to make as replayble, it just comes down to personal preferences: the player makes the choice regardless of your intention.
Having consequences down the line tend to help, though (like a blocked path if a previous one wasn’t taken).

Personally, I write a path if it makes sense for the story rather than a specific group of people in mind. Would the MC do a certain action or visit a certain place? Does it flow well with the rest of the passages? Could it be referenced later or have consequences for the player? Do I feel content with it?

If players tell me about it down the line, :partying_face: . If not, well, I’m happy with it, so :woman_shrugging: .

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When you get testers, do they tend to follow some paths more than others? Does this cause you to rethink options that are less travelled? Or do you just not worry about it: you wrote it, you like it, it’s no big deal if it never gets seen?

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I usually look for testers that will replay the game and try multiple paths (or all of them, if possible) or get a large enough pool of testers to cover all paths.

Mostly that. I’m more worried about coding errors at this point (the more variation you have the more issues you can get :sob: ).

And I know there are completists out there who will try all the paths, find all the endings, collect all the achievements, so someone is bound to find it at some point. :stuck_out_tongue:

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I would be very much interested as well in views on this topic. My IFComp entry did have two branches (very long ones) but I cheated because I started out by putting the player on one branch, while the other branch “wins” the game :stuck_out_tongue: As one reviewer put it, it is quite OK to allow the player to immediately abandon the false branch…

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I guess this is just a really different way of thinking than when writing a standard parser game, which tends to shepherd you along one story line while trying to mask that fact. Multiple ways of solving a problem are common, but most of them tend to be all to the purpose of getting through a single locked door. So it’s hurting my brain to think of writing multiple paths for a parser game, because there’s this big part of me that moans and wails at the prospect of doing all that work for pathways that might not get seen. I almost never replay games to get different outcomes, mostly because I dislike starting something from the beginning again and going through things I’ve already seen. I have also never really cared about my score, or about unfound easter eggs, or stuff like that. I won’t replay a game to get the last 2 missed points, or to get the diamond I missed. This idea is kind of nagging at me to try it, but it also causes some anxiety.

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Ok this has become more of a ramble of different thoughts, I hope it makes sense?

I think it’s just different from writing linear stories, period. It’s different requirements and preparation behind the scene before all works out (like having to track all the branches and write all the variations, and code the whole thing…). Getting from one kind of story telling to another is not simple. You need to like… re-wire your brain almost.

But also, not every story needs branching. It’s sometimes obvious when a branched game should have been kept linear only, with variations feeling out of place from the rest of the story. (Even on the creative side it’s painful to try to force it.

Also also, some authors are better linear storytellers than branchers, or prefer it. And that’s ok too! It’s like creators just doing parsers or just doing choice-based.
Working on your strength and what not :woman_shrugging:

You could test out an idea during a small jam, like a no pressure/unranked one. See if the whole process of doing it is fun or not. You should have to feel pressure to try things that give you anxiety, esp with hobbies :green_heart:

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I haven’t written a lot of branching-path stories yet, but I’m working on a huge one right now, and it matters a lot to me that people won’t all make the same choices. If I found out most people were getting the same ending, I’d feel like I might as well have written a linear story. So I’m thinking hard about how to make all the options seem interesting, if not all to the same person, at least to different types of people. So far I’ve just been eyeballing it, but I’m guessing playtesting is the best way to do this, so I’m adding temporary codes to all the endings that will tell me what path people took, and I’ll adjust the wording if too many testers go down the same branch.

This story also benefits from being played more than once, so I’m adding the ability to easily rewind in the hopes that people will be more likely to play again and try new branches.

(And I will be keeping an eye on this thread for more ideas and insights!)

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Not precisely choice-based branching, but I noted that, in due process of the initial alpha-testing of my WIP, all the testers combined got only a part of the many variations of text about items/locations/&c. stemming from the gradual understanding of the PC of the environment…

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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You just nailed my concern here.

Yes, please. I’ll play through multiple paths if this is an option. This really should be standard, IMO.

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How do you ensure that every branch is likely to be visited?

I don’t. I tend to take it from the angle of “What options are my character likely to consider at this point, and which ones do I wish to prioritise in my choices?” (Having a strongly characterised main character makes this easier to do - a self-insert with a role a la Zork would have to take into account a huge range of players, making for a lot of choices at some points. There’s one reason it’s a parser game). Those could be large differences in action or subtle differences in phrasing - the idea is that the question looks interesting, even if it turns out every player picks the same choice in the end.

Also, some of the choices I use are there for reasons other than to have strong attraction. Some paths are intended to be there to make sure the player is paying attention (Budacanta has a game-ending one in one early scene, which is game-ending precisely because selecting it only makes sense if everything stated in the section preceding the choice was ignored).

Some are there primarily because such thoughts would be in the main character’s mind, and thus revealing the choice informs the player of this. (I have a bad habit of over-explaining by also writing about that thought before the choice appears, which is something I need to do less often as the introduction flows into the early mid-game).

Some choices are unequal because they change countable variables (such as money or attempts to input a password). Which variables are more important tends to change through the course of a game, meaning that there are likely to be times when the choice is obvious for the majority of playstyles. Sometimes it’s possible to lean into this, perhaps to help teach gameplay or make a narrative point.

Being able to use choices of different weight is a useful artistic tool. So is being able to use choices that are all (or mostly) valid, but for different reasons (this is probably the closest I get to aiming to have branches that are equally attractive).

I also try to put a difference in each choice that has some sort of significance, even if it has zero impact on the long term, so that replayers have a motive to explore the choices and nobody clicks on a choice the first time and thinks, “Well that was clearly the dull choice out of this lot” - unless I’ve got a strong plot/character reason to induce that feeling. (For example, if you make it clear that in a particular section, taking the exciting-looking option every time will lead to disaster, the dull choices are doing some work in increasing the tension involved in the section. Namely, what’s the best compromise between excitement and averting disaster?)

On the other hand, I want any given pathway to make enough sense that nobody feels forced to replay simply to understand the plot or have fun. There are entire sub-genres of IF built that way, but it takes a lot of skill to make them satisfying and I don’t think I’m there yet.

CAN you ensure that?

I can’t. No author can do so. Players are simply too varied to be able to say “Well, choices X, Y and Z are equally attractive”. What authors can do is help the player who chooses to try every pathway (or indeed replayers who aren’t as exhaustive as completionists) feel like this was a good use of their time. If a player trusts that this has happened, the player is in turn more likely to give more of the options a try. If the player feels that initial exploration of those alternatives was enjoyable, they may well do more.

My testers tend to give me feedback on a path only if it’s germane to a particular point the tester wants to give me about it (be that a bug report on a specific path or a feeling that one particular path evokes a different emotional response than another). Testers who believe their discussion points cover the whole work don’t tell me what path(s) they took to get that impression. I also have translators, who by the nature of the job look through everything.

Do any of you have areas of games that nobody explores because no one picks those options?

I wouldn’t know if I was one of these people (short of getting a bug report that made it impossible to reach part of the interactive fiction), because the software I use (Ren’Py) has no tracking tools of that type out of the box.

Due to the views of some of my playtesters regarding trackers (one in particular refuses to use any site with cookies unless they can tell exactly who has control of the cookies, what they are doing and absolute assurance that no third party will get that information), I do not want to incorporate any sort of non-voluntary or automated transmission of such information. I’m happy to incorporate tools that enable individuals to choose to send their choice selections to me (although I currently don’t have a history system implemented, let alone a contact system), because that’s voluntary and can have the choice and its consequences clearly demarcated. This will definitely have consequences on other parts of development.

What general ideas do you have about designing choices so that they are equally attractive?

  • Think about which parts of the game would be stronger for having choices in the first place. If a choice IF is to have multiple choices in one place, that feel equally important, the character and player both need a reason to select either option. If an author is trying to portray a main character as curious and adventurous, a choice of “Go on the adventure or don’t” won’t get an equal number of players, even if the circumstances described would strongly appeal to the sense of loyalty to home and hearth that the author also carefully built up during the interactive prologue.

  • Dilemmas are your friend. Look for conflicts that have been built up, which lend themselves to equal amounts of subsequent content.

  • If you are trying to accommodate different play philosophies through different ways of playing an interactive fiction, it is necessary to plot through the entire game with each of those philosophies in mind. At each decision, you need precisely one choice that is optimal for each philosophy. The choices at each point need to make sense to both player and character.

  • Be careful with any choice involving countable variables, especially ones that can be exhausted in the course of the interactive fiction (or intuitively can be expended in the outside world). Either reassure people that you start the game with enough money to buy everything or make sure everything that is at the same price point is equally useful and looks equally interesting.

  • Consider cosmetic choices. These are probably the easiest to make options equally-attractive. An example of this is selecting a different favourite colour (which can be particularly useful if the game remembers and uses it somewhere that makes sense, without requiring much extra writing work). A game made purely of cosmetic choices is going to be linear, but having some well-timed purely cosmetic choices can help with player engagement and encouraging attention.

  • Have different reasons for selecting each choice. If picking one path sounds like it could accommodate the other path as well, it’s going to pick up some people who might otherwise have picked the other one.

  • Make sure that expectations built up are met within choices. If the player clicks on a choice and it feels like their decision got cancelled, that’s going to cause people to go for whichever choice appears to be the one the author intended, as the interactive fiction gets treated as a genteel railroad.

  • Have consequences that are equally rewarding to read (they don’t have to be of equal size), if the options in a given choice are intended to be equal.

  • Build up all choices that make sense to build. It’s OK to be brief with options that don’t warrant much explanation, but for larger sections, a similar length and interest in all paths intended “equal”.

  • Beware: the first choice in particular tends to get picked more than others, when no other metric to make the decision exists. Also, few choices truly are without a selection metric: while left/right is the classic “guess-the-answer” choice, but the one that’s presented first will almost certainly get more clicks (it’s called the primacy effect but it’s not clear how being interactive fiction specifically affects this).

Does it feel awful to spend so much time on a branch that doesn’t get a lot of traffic?

I would have no idea if I wrote a branch that got no traffic (unless it had a bug preventing that traffic), so I can’t say I’d get any particular emotion from it. Bugs are part of a developer’s life and best tackled with reason rather than emotion, and people don’t tend to get emotional about things they don’t know about.

On the other hand, it would feel awful to spend time on a branch that got traffic and was considered awful on grounds that made it clear I’d completely messed up the intent of the branch and those reasons were ones I should reasonably have addressed before it was released to the public.

Edit: Ren’Py has rollback and save-anywhere as standard, so it lends itself to exploring alternatives. Budacanta has an option to return to the last valid point when picking a game-ending option and extends the rollback to “every screen except the very first choice for technical reasons”. Eventually it will also have a history and a modular ending (that is, instead of having a single ending per major pathway, the ending will be divided into vignettes, each affected by different aspects of the player’s run, that will hopefully help give clues as to what to change to get different ending “snapshots”.

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Wow, thank for this in-depth reply! You’ve given me a lot to think about.

What I’m realizing (I already sorta knew it, but now I REALLY know it) is that choice-based authors don’t have anything like a transcript to help them see what people are doing (or not doing) and that this is just the way it is, and y’all are more or less cool with this.

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Maybe show the whole map and highlight those unexplored pages? After first completing the game, I mean.

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Depending on the complexity and length of the game, this may not be possible to visually do that.

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I have a few discrete splits in my parser WIP, but the variations are usually only an average of two rooms long each. Two busy rooms in a parser game is still a big difference to the experience. I’ve never split into more than three discrete areas, and probably never would due to the time-cost blowout.

I’d say the biggest guard against waste in a situation like mine is making sure players realise they’re making a choice. In the world, people usually understand that if they choose A now, they might see B and C later, but they might not, too. Up front, they make the choice they most want to make. If the split happens without people investing in a choice, it will be less appreciated and perhaps even retrospectively invisible without multiple plays that aren’t guaranteed to be coming.

A nice blatant split would be making one way lead through Moria and the other going overland. But the moment of choice/consequence doesn’t have to be at the moment the path diverges.

For instance, a clear moment earlier in the game where you help Jenny or don’t, could result in you being funnelled into one discrete area or another, later, based on that choice. Because people invested in the Jenny moment, they pre-invested in the consequences (and it will be apparent they’re in a particular area because of how they handled Jenny) and again, unless you made it so no one would NOT help Jenny, you’re likely to get some players ending up in both sections. This also positively affects people with surprise (even admiration?). ‘Wow. I did that action way back there and now, later, I’m in a whole new area just because of it.’

So personally, I do want a little of this stuff in my game because the game’s big. I just never make the discrete parts too long – the emphasis is on them being unique – I try to make sure none are so unappetising that they’re going to be avoided by everyone, and I make sure people can see at some point that they chose a discrete way.

Also, I think of my contract with the player sort of like the way you (@AmandaB ) described your play style. They may not play again, they’re doing what they want. And I think whatever way they played and experienced things was the right way. That means if the cost of unchosen discrete stuff wasn’t beyond the pale to me (and I reckon none will be totally unchosen), it was worth my time to make them.

-Wade

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I tend to write lots of branches even in short games, and I’ve wondered before if I was basically wasting my time on some of them. But with short games, it is more likely that people will replay to explore another branch or two (or more), so even with games where my testers all ended up playing the same one or two branches, post-release it usually seems like all of them do end up getting seen. And I guess if a branch feels interesting to me to write, then I like having it there as a possibility even if only a few players ever see it. Which ties into Manon’s comment:

This is also how I tend to approach it; if I could see the main character saying any of three things at a certain moment, for example, then I’ll write branches (however short) for all three, even if I’m guessing that most players will gravitate toward one of the options over the others.

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This is one of several ways to achieve the effect. Some games lend themselves to having the whole map available (I’ve even seen a couple with the whole map revealed from the beginning - with suitable spoiler protection for unvisited screens).

Different games will of course lend themselves to different approaches, and not all approaches are mutually exclusive. For example, if the author “teaches” the player that doing different routes gets different results (implicitly or explicitly), then that’s also an encouragement to look at other paths - and this in itself won’t stop someone from including a game map.

(Obstacles to that, aside from potential engine and accessibility limitations, include paths that open conditionally for reasons that aren’t simply previously-visited areas, interactive fiction with a New Game + mode, and as Manon said, length/complexity - I know I had trouble coherently mapping the Budacanta demo on paper, let alone on a computer).

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I don’t know if this is equivalent at all, but a big part of me moans and wails at the prospect of writing descriptions and verb interactions for odd VERB NOUN combos that might not get seen in a parser. How many of those have you written?

There’s an inherent aspect of interactivity, I think, which is if you provide the player with a genuine set of choices to make, they’re going to choose one and not the others. Yes that does mean you might put a lot of effort into something that 3 people see. In a case where I deeply suspect that will happen, I personally decide whether that choice is even interesting enough to players to provide, whether it is thematically or narratively important to put in anyway, or whether I just Want To Write It Because It’s Fun. If no to all three, I cut it.

Also there are a fair few parser games which don’t shephard you on one path, or which have multiple solutions and/or endings that are hard to get. Metamorphoses and Sub Rosa jump to mind, if only because I did a presentation on them :3

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Can you talk a little bit about those cases? What made you suspect they’d be unpopular choices? I mean, I just have no idea. If given the choices:
1.) Stab the old lady
2.) Give the old lady flowers

I would almost always pick 1. But I don’t know how many other people would do that, so I don’t think my finger is really on the pulse of the average player.

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Sometimes I find myself thinking it’s simply none of my business what path they choose. :eyes:

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