Digital Culture

Gamebooks, Video Games and Branching Narratives

Bryan Yaw

Every story in any medium has 3 things in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The order of it is of course subject to change, as anyone who’s read Catch-22 or watched Arrival (2016) would tell you. Now, let’s dispel the notion that you can only have one of each within the framework of a narrative.  

Take for example Gamebooks (or Choose Your Own Adventure books) and video games, which allows their stories to have branching outcomes based on the choices that you make due to player agency, something regular movies and books are unable as they do not allow the audience to actively participate in the narrative. Gamebooks are of course books, but they are presented in a way that if you tried reading one in a linear fashion it would end up a series of text with no relation to the next page.

The 2nd text block of Romeo And/or Juliet by Ryan North

In order to form a coherent narrative, the reader has to start at one point and when presented with a decision, turn to the page which continues on from that decision. Video games have an easier time executing branching stories as they present narrative choices in a linear fashion (it’s much easier to click a button than turn a page), either through overt dialogue options and/or gameplay elements (Telltale’s The Walking Dead or the Life is Strange series comes to mind).

The existence of multiple narratives paths and endings does bring up an interesting question: which one of these endings is the ‘real’ ending? Take for example the endings to 2014s Bloodborne, where you are a pseudo-Victorian monster hunter trying to escape a Lovecraftian nightmare world:

An ending scene from Bloodborne (2014)
  1. You wake up in the ‘real’ world to the sun rising in the background.
  2. You are trapped in the nightmare world by a Lovecraftian entity.
  3. You transcend your human form to become a Lovecraftian entity.

Of course, the recursive nature of video games means you can eventually view all 3 endings, but you still have to decide in the moment. You could consider that ending C, being hardest to obtain is the ‘true’ ending to the story, but this doesn’t invalidate the existence of the other ending options which are equally as valid. Even if you do go through all 3 endings you are naturally inclined to go from ending A to B to C, imposing a sort of linearity within the branching narrative.

It could be argued that even with all these endings, audiences are still drawn to the idea of a singular, be-all-end-all version of the story being told even when given the freedom to decide. Perhaps the draw to branching stories and multiple endings is the freedom to choose, but the freedom to create your own perfect narrative within the confines of your choices, even if the choices have already been pre-determined.