We’re pretty familiar by now with the idea of a text-based adventure with branching narrative paths. We know what that is, we know how it works – all the shocking newness of this narrative form has faded into a comfortable familiarity. And that familiarity allows us to pick up on nuance that we might not have considered previously. So, for example, we might ask what the range of options shown to a player says about the personality of the character in front of them. We can actually expand this question across branching narrative games more broadly – in the BioWare RPGs, for instance, the options often represent binary moral opposites. You can pick the ‘good option’ or the ‘bad option’ – the pair are less representative of the psychology of the individual character and more abstract universal concepts, the spread of human nature writ large across an epic fantasy or science fiction landscape. Those games are symbolic works, mythical works, dealing in moral archetype rather than individual psychology – at least in terms of their branching narrative options. It is extremely difficult not to pivot here into a close comparison between Mass Effect and Pilgrim’s Progress – let’s go to the Telltale games instead.
In Telltale’s stable of titles (most famously The Walking Dead), the options presented to you are not so much the sweeping moral landscapes of BioWare, but neither are they straightforward representations of the main character’s psyche. Often they are explorations of the agony of choice. They are simply the options that are immediately and obviously available to you – they fall into your lap, and you must choose between them. The Walking Dead is a classic for this approach – you are regularly forced to choose whether you will save one of two characters from an impending zombie horde. The decision itself is almost less interesting than the paralysis of choice, the knowledge that every decision is also a rejection of every other available option. The frequent ‘pick one character to die’ moments are just a really pointed way of making that statement. When you go down one path, you kill all the others. The death of the character you don’t pick is the death of a potential future, the death of a person who could have been. In that sense, what the options represent is less about the content of any given decision, and more about the existential act of deciding.
There’s a moment in Paul Auster’s City of Glass where a detective is meant to be tracking a man coming off a train. When the doors open, two identical men matching the description step out onto the platform. The detective has to make an impossible choice – which one does he follow? There’s no real basis for making a decision one way or the other – the situation is absurd, both choices seem random and meaningless, and he just has to pick one and get on with it. There are moments in The Walking Dead (and other Telltale games, like The Wolf Among Us, pictured below) that aspire to that sense of absurdism and bitter randomness. One of the major criticisms of the Telltale games is their use of false choices – decisions where both options end with the same outcome. They are described as unsatisfying, as a betrayal of the very principle of choice – but in the light of City of Glass, we have to wonder whether that’s not partially the point.
So the options in branching narratives can represent the scope of human morality, or the existential dread of decision-making itself. But both of those examples are relatively impersonal, disconnected from the human protagonist at their core. An alternate, more personable example can be found in Coteries of New York. Set in the fictional universe of Vampire: The Masquerade, Coteries of New York is a 2019 visual novel about getting turned into a vampire. It’s very urban fantasy, there’s vampires making reference to Buffy – it feels very Dresden Files to me, although maybe my chronology is backwards – maybe Dresden Files feels like Vampire: The Masquerade. One of the core mechanics in Coteries is the idea of your vampire Hunger – your need to consume blood on a semi-regular basis. At points throughout the story, you’ll be given the opportunity to feed. It will be one of the options available to you, alongside whatever else you’re supposed to be doing. You don’t have to pick it, but if you ignore the Hunger for too long, it will take over you, and you’ll end up chomping on someone more or less at random.
The Hunger thus encourages us to interpret the branching narrative options as different impulses or instincts experienced by the main character. There is a core base of personality and identity informing the various different options – both nature and nurture, if you like. It’s a very particular view on human psychology – we come into the world and certain things are set for us, but we can also decide which parts of ourselves to entertain or restrict. For example, in the moment at the top of the page, you meet a stranger, and must decide how to interact with him. Do you attack him, try to talk him down, or use your vampire powers to make him behave? The three options are obviously informed by the situation in front of you, but they also suggest that the main character is calculating and methodical, that she is unbothered by violence as a means to an end – that she considers violence and conversation to be equally effective and maybe even in some ways similar methods of achieving her goals. Alternately, in the image below, the Hunger has been neglected, and the options available to the player are reduced to either feeding or not feeding. The instinct has become so powerful that all other thoughts are blocked out from the protagonist’s mind. They have been simplified, reduced to managing this one primal instinct.
And, you know, this isn’t necessarily a new technique in narrative design, right. It’s not something that originates with Coteries. We might draw parallels back to city management games, where you have to manage various factional interests – we talked about that process in The Shrouded Isle, for instance. But it’s worth drawing out and discussing as a way of depicting one individual character. As a narrative technique, it gives us this more rounded view of the protagonist as a complex personality, rather than as a blank slate or walking puppet. Some of the early video game discourse talked about the blank slate character as a canvas of infinite potential, where any player could project their own psyche into the narrative space. That approach was hampered by the limited range of narrative options available – and I think frankly it’s just not very interesting. It makes every game feel the same, tethered to the player’s self-extension into the game space. Coteries offers a different way forward, restoring the protagonist to their customary prime position in the narrative. It offers transformation, escape. It asks you to imagine yourself as somebody else, to negotiate needs and desires that belong to another body. And isn’t that really what we’re here for?
[…] is interrupted by a new character entering the room. I mention Paul Auster’s City of Glass one time […]