One brilliant thing about video games is that they can react to what players do and have multiple endings. Books can't do that. Movies can't, not even Clue. Many in gaming argue for branching storylines. Here's an argument against:
"What we found is that if you over-branch the storylines [is that] if there was one route you went down and got one reaction — and a completely different route got another reaction — we found that people would get really disappointed. They always felt they were on the wrong path. They always felt, ah, I wanted to see the dragon!"
That's Peter Molyneux, renowned head of Lionhead Studios, speaking, in an interview with Kotaku at Game Developers Conference last week, riffing on some talk about his team's next big role-playing game, Fable III.
We had been discussing the propensity for gamers to abandon the games they are playing, a potential problem for Molyneux, whose Fable III is supposed to reveal its true scope only in its second half. The first half of the game is a hero's journey, the player-character's fight to stop a villain in the fantasy world of Albion and Aurora. The latter half of the game sees the player as king, now required to rule the people he saved and either enjoy or suffer the reactions of the people to whom he promised favors on his rise to power. That concept of playing through kingly responsibility was inspired, Molyneux had told Kotaku, by a curiosity he had about super-hero comics that never showed the aftermath of big super-hero fights. How did the people react to the damage caused by the heroic battle? How did they live in the aftermath? That is the back half of Fable III.
But many people don't finish games, Molyneux conceded. He mentioned that he was already fading on Bioshock 2, because it felt too similar to the first Bioshock. He said he was playing through Heavy Rain, but doing it in small bits because he found the game "harrowing," something he could handle only in 20-minute doses.
To compel people to play, Molyneux believes, players should want to know what's coming next and must sense that that next thing will be something cool, something their friends will urge them to accomplish or see without spoiling it.
But the buzz-kill, he said, can be when the player believes they can't experience that next cool thing at all, because of a choice they made.
It's surprising to hear Molyneux dismiss the over-branching of game stories, in part because the technique has been used a lot by role-playing game makers like BioWare or even by the creators of Heavy Rain. The allure of multiple endings and varied experiences can backfire. The first Fable, Molyneux recalled, was going to have a dragon in it, but a dragon that only some players would find, if they played the game a certain way. That frustrated the people who tested the game and was dropped.
Molyneux has, of course, championed the malleability of Fable's content. Players are expected to see their character and, in Fable III, his or her weapons morph. They are expected to shape the community by marrying and divorcing, having kids and buying shops. That range of options clearly appeals to him. But it seems that big storyline forks don't.
Should a game's story branch? Should it be a choose-your-own adventure? For once, the argument is in the negative. The argument has been made: Sometimes forking your gaming story is just too much, too frustrating and too annoying.
Branching tree pic via Flickr