Thematic Confusion in the Branching Narratives of Video Games

Branching stories are popular in games, but they sometimes don’t make a lot of sense when the game is taken as a whole. Different endings and different outcomes of a choice reflect different themes, but even if each plot thread is meant to stand on its own, they don’t. By virtue of being in the same game, one plot thread affects our perception and interpretation of the other, and sometimes this can make for inconsistent characters and themes.

The worst example of this confusion (or would that be best example?) is Dead Space: Ignition. You play as Franco, trying to escape the necromorph invasion on the Sprawl with your partner Sarah. The game plays very much like a choose-your-own-adventure story: You do a hacking puzzle, then make a choice that branches the story, then do more hacking puzzles, etc. The problem appears near the end. Depending on what path you take through the Sprawl, Sarah will either be killed by the necromorphs or killed by . . . you.

It’s a twist that doesn’t make any sense. Franco’s excuse for killing Sarah is that he’s part of the Unitology cult, and he’s about to do something secret that she can’t see. However, all he does is wake up the hero Isaac from cryogenic sleep. Also, we never get any indication that he’s in the cult at any point earlier in the story. What’s most strange is that if you take the other path, none of this ever comes up, and you would never know that he’s a Unitologist at all.

In the path in which Sarah is killed by necromorphs, Franco is horrified by her death. He expresses regret that he couldn’t save her and slumps ahead hopelessly now that she’s gone. This version of Franco couldn’t have killed Sarah, even if he had to. However, because he does kill her in the other path (and in a shockingly cruel way — slightly taunting her before he closes a door, locking her in with the necromorphs), his sadness here feels insincere, like he’s just putting on a show for the player. I don’t believe him. So his poor character development on one plot path affects my perception of him on another plot path.

The central problem here is that the game tries to force a significant character trait onto a character that hasn’t earned that trait just so that one branching path can have a shocking twist. Franco is established as a good guy early in the story; he wants to help people and uses his hacking skills to do just that at times. After the branching point, he becomes two very different people, one is consistent with who he was before and one is not. It’s simply poor writing.

This issue even crops up in Mass Effect, when you have to choose between sacrificing the Council or saving them. If I choose to sacrifice the leaders, Shepard says that it’s better to focus fire on the attacking Reaper, which is a cold, calculated decision, but given the level of the Reaper threat, it makes sense. However, if I choose to protect the Council then the Reaper is killed in the same way at the same time; there is not even a different cut scene. In retrospect, it feels like the Council’s sacrifice was entirely unnecessary, and Shepard’s decision to let them die was more vindictive than tactical.

The difficulty seems to be keeping the logic of the story consistent across all branching paths. Franco’s actions are out of character in one path but not another. Shepard’s observations of the Reaper threat are accurate in one path but not in another. It’s a difficult juggling act, so perhaps David Cage of Quantic Dreams had the right idea when he suggested people play through Heavy Rain one time only. After all, you can’t compare the branching plots if you only see one of them. It’s ironic that he’d be the one to say that though, since Heavy Rain handles branching paths better than most other games.

If I fail one of the trials, I won’t get a clue that leads Ethan to his missing son. When this happened to me, I really did fail to find my son. It then fell to Norman Jayden, the cop, to save the boy. The logic of the story remained consistent: I’m told Ethan must pass the trails, and he’s punished accordingly if he doesn’t. Norman is also looking for the boy, so it makes sense that the climax would then revolve around him. And if everything goes right, the main cast will converge in the end. The progression of the story still makes sense when you compare one branched path to another.

While certain plot elements are pretty outlandish (what are the odds of Madison running into a second serial killer?), they don’t hurt the logical progression of the story. If a crazy killer tries to drug Madison with a glass of water, I can choose not to drink the water and just walk away. If she drinks it, there will be a fight. If she doesn’t, then the scene ends. The consequences in Heavy Rain never contradict the choices, like if Madison had tried to walk away and still had to fight.

While the overall plot suffers from too many unexplained red herrings, these aren’t related to the branching paths. You’ll encounter these red herrings no matter what, since the developers want to make sure that you’re confused no matter what path you take through the game.

It also helps that the characters remain consistent across all of the branching paths. Our choices are always limited to what a certain character would do at that moment. As Ethan, we can never abandon the search for our son because Ethan the character wouldn’t do that. This means that the choices that we make are never out of character; it’s just the situations that change, not the characters.

At its worst, the storytelling flaws of Heavy Rain prove that it’s better to have an inconsistent plot than inconsistent characters.


You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.