In 1941, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story called “The Garden of Forking Paths” that was basically a “wouldn’t it be cool” vision of a story that could include all of its different possible outcomes—when a decision was made, the story could follow each of the forking paths that result.
Nearly 75 years later, Borges’ vision has come to glorious in the medium of videogames. Games that give the player the agency to make story-impacting decisions are commonplace, popular, and dramatically interesting and represent the biggest innovation in storytelling since the rise of film as a narrative medium for telling stories with moving pictures (and, later, matching audio).
Forking-path games (a genre often called “interactive fiction”) like Adventure and the commercial Infocom games (Zork, A Mind Forever Voyaging, etc.), which featured optional content, variable sequencing, and often multiple endings and subplot outcomes. In the 1980s, multiple paths and endings became even more common with the brief heyday of hypertext fiction (more literature than game) and the commercial success of videogames with graphics. From easy-to-design variable endings like Metroid’s to gameplay-based variable endgame world scenarios in the early Nobunaga’s Ambition games (1988’s Nobunaga’s Ambition II apparently featured 38 endings!), we started to see different methods of allowing player input to determine the narrative presented to them. The 1980s was also the golden age of the print gamebook genre (growing since the mid-70s), which ranged from the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” texts aimed at kids to Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf RPG-lite gamebooks aimed at solo gamers.
From the 90s on, though, videogames became the undisputed home base of forking-path storytelling. The RPG (and RPS), strategy, visual novel, horror, fighting, and adventure genres all explored how multiple story paths could fit their styles. Companies like BioWare offer forking-path dialogue trees as well as action options that help determine which of a few major paths and which of a whole lot of minor customizations are triggered in a given playthrough of a Mass Effect or Dragon Age game. 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition was advertised as having 40 endings, though most of those involve minor tweaks to a handful of major endings (all of which involve the same key post-credits scene), and CD Projekt’s Witcher series works similarly (with Witcher 3 boasting 36 endings). Heavy Rain, a 2010 PS3 that’s difficult to describe (story-heavy action-adventure?), lets your actions have major impacts throughout, even to the point of getting half the player-characters killed without causing the story to end, but does so by making that almost the game’s sole focus (gameplay is minimal and focused on exploration and quick time events). Even a traditionally linear series like Call of Duty decided to get in on the action with Black Ops II. And the gamebook genre, which did alright in print, has resurged in recent years as a videogame genre well-suited to mobile devices, as remakes of old Fighting Fantasy titles like Sorcery! and new titles like 80 Days and the Hamlet-based To Be or Not to Be have arisen and done well.
Players love to hate on the degree of influence their actions can actually have in forking-path game stories (see the outcry upon the release of the trilogy-ending Mass Effect 3 for a major example), but this just reinforces the degree to which many players want this kind of narrative experience. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t freak out when they don’t get everything they hoped for. This investment in forking-path narrative highlights my main point: videogames can offer us the opportunity to test out how different actions affect narratives in a way that other media like print and film can’t (though both have tried with relatively limited success). Ours is the era of interactive media, and videogames let us apply that to story in a way that changes how we understand cause and effect and how we experience key decisions in meaningful stories.
What are some of your favorite (or most hated) forking-path videogames (or print or film forking-path stories, for that matter)? What do you like about the approach? What annoys you about it?