I like the idea of branching storylines in games. I see it as an impressive advance in storytelling, a means of increasing player immersion by allowing them to impose their own choices on the game world and watch it change to reflect those choices. But I've been playing The Witcher
lately, and I've found that branching, when poorly written, can be obnoxious instead of immersive. Allow me to illustrate my frustration with an extended metaphor:
Imagine you are hiking in a park, following trails past beautiful scenery to impressive landmarks. All the trails start at the same parking lot, but from there a number of trail layouts are possible. In a pure branching format, each branch of a trail leads to a separate landmark, making each visit to the park unique and memorable so long as you take a different set of paths each time. In the realm of game storylines, this format generally takes too much effort to implement; there are too many possibilities to script for a reasonable sized team of people to create. More common is a format in which the path splits occasionally, but all the branches eventually lead to the same endpoint. Some of the splits lead you to different areas of the park, changing the scenery you see along your walk dramatically. Most of the splits, however, are less drastic; regardless of which path you take you can still see most of the same scenery, just from a slightly different viewpoint, as if the paths you can choose from all run parallel to one another. This is how The Witcher
handles most of the choices which feature so prominently in its marketing, and it's here that the storytelling runs aground on its own ambitions.
To continue the metaphor, imagine now that you are faced with a fork in the path you're walking. Both branches seem to pass the same areas, based on what you can see, and there is very little to help you decide between them. After a moment's consideration, you think you see a dead bird off to the side of one branch, so you choose the other to avoid the momentary unpleasantness. A half hour later on this new path, your progress is blocked by a den of skunks. You can endure the trials of passing by the skunks and soldier on, or return to the fork and attempt to take the other path; thereby losing time while revisiting the exact same scenery with no assurance that the other path would be any easier to travel. Having reached this awful dilemma, you find yourself feeling mildly upset at yourself for having chosen such a perilous route, but mostly you're just angry at whoever ran the damn path through skunk territory without bothering to warn anyone.
This is often how I feel when Witcher decides to make me suffer the "consequences" of my actions. When I chose the path, I had no way of knowing that the penalty was coming, I simply made the best decision I could with the information I had. Similarly, in the game I often find myself making choices with incomplete information and suffering later for my ignorance. What really angers me, though, it that it seems my character is aware of the potential fallout the whole time, despite the fact that I, his "master" or whatever you want to call me, am not. The cutscenes which take you back to the moment of choice and elaborate on the chain of cause-and-effect that lead to your current misery are narrated by the big bad Witcher, himself, and often sound as if he feels guilty for having made such a decision. His guilt becomes mine, as my role in the game is to inhabit his character, but I'm not really sure I deserve this shame. If you're trying to make a point about unintended consequences, that's all fine and good, but don't give me the illusion of being able to change the world for the better, then spit in my face whenever I attempt to follow the rules of the game. Leaving me in ignorance of my full situation is not an awesome new way to create drama; mystery has to be handled with finesse (as in my darling Bioshock
) or else I just end up feeling frustrated and deceived. I don't mind hard choices, and I don't mind surprises, but I do mind being made to feel stupid and guilty when I was never given the opportunity to make an informed decision.
Not every branch point in The Witcher has this irritating quality, but those that do take away from the overall positive experience of the game. The lesson to learn from this is: everything in moderation. No matter how boldly your packaging trumpets the inclusion of "choices and consequences" in your game, don't implement a branch in the story unless you can do so without falling back on ineffective strategies for building the tension required to make the choice actually matter. Leaving the player uninformed works well in the survival horror genre, when surprise is the ultimate goal of gameplay, but when you're trying to make a game that explores ethics, it's always better to use nuance and subtlety to create conflict than to simply omit the real story and force the player to cast judgement without full knowledge of the situation.
As much as I appreciate the effort it takes to venture out into the largely unexplored arena of branched storylines, when a developer tries too hard and falls short, the entire medium suffers a blow in the public relations department. So next time, let's drop the smoke and mirrors and try to make a game with some meat to it, okay? It might not be epic, but at least it won't make me want to tear my hair out. read