Writing for Video Games: Branching Stories, Part II

If you haven't read Part I of Branching Stories, read it first! It's a great overview and setup for everything I'm going to talk about in this article.

Those of you who've been following me for a while know I'm the lead writer at Achromia Games. My job is to write stories that don't have a set ending. You, as the reader/player, get to determine the ending based on your actions in the game. Didn't get enough points for a specific character? Too bad - you won't get their ending. Did something heinous in the middle of the story? Uh oh - you're not even going to make it to the "canonical" ending. 

This leaves me, as the writer, with a near impossible dilemma. If I want the player to feel really immersed into the world, I have to give them as much freedom of action as possible. Giving them freedom means anticipating all the choices they might make at a certain junction, and then writing all the possible follow-up consequences. OP9, the first game I scripted, required about 130,000 words to achieve this level of player freedom.

But that leaves an important question: how do I know what the player might choose to do?

This question is pertinent for all writers, whether or not they write video game scripts. Let's imagine a hypothetical situation. Let's say you're Maru, the protagonist from my second book. You're faced with a difficult decision: two authority figures, Rin and Saito, who disagree and are constantly fighting. And you're now in a position where they're asking you to take an unofficial side. What do you do? 

As a writer, you can't think about what you would do. You have to think about what Maru would do. This same strategy works for branching story scripts. You have to put yourself in someone else's shoes and think about the possible choices they might make, even if they don't think like you.

One way of doing this is to make a list, which might look something like this:

Possible options:

  1. Agree with Rin
  2. Agree with Saito
That much is obvious. But Maru is an imaginative and often rebellious character, and she would probably add a few options of her own:

      3. Refuse to take a side
      4. Call them out

As the author, you probably know both Rin and Saito better than Maru does. You might even know a little secret tidbit (no spoilers) that makes it very obvious which side Maru should take. But you have to remember that she isn't clairvoyant - she's in the middle of the world you've created. You have to account for her lack of knowledge and her personality differences.

So how can you figure out what someone else might do, when you're not in their shoes?

1. Ask
Crowdsourcing is an underrated yet vital part of writing. Most authors are a bit secretive about their work - I'm guilty, too - but there's no better way to figure out what all the possible options are in a situation than by asking other people for their ideas.

I put this strategy in action for a project I'm currently working on. I needed to create a set of three nearly unsolvable, but not completely obscure, riddles. So I called up my favorite writing group (thanks, pickle juice and brass doorknobs!) and asked them to answer the riddles. Their answers helped me make the adjustments I hadn't thought of myself.

2. Observe
You see people every day (regardless of corona). You see people doing very odd things, but you know that they probably have a reason for their actions, no matter how ridiculous they seem. What are those reasons? What could possible make them do something so unexpected? Following these thought processes can help you figure out what somebody who thinks differently than you might do in a certain situation.

3. Read
It's surprisingly easy to make a "profile" of people based on their writing. Try reading through some of the posts on this blog. Can you guess what kind of person I am? Read your own writing. Can you learn a little about yourself? (If you can't, this might be something to work on - check back for an upcoming article about authentic writing!) Writers are often hesitant to read while they're writing because they're afraid they'll get sidetracked, or accidentally plagiarize. True, these are both possible pitfalls, but they're very avoidable. Reading is a great way to sift through someone else's thoughts.

Once you've made a list of all the possible actions someone might take, it's time to write them into the story! Here you really have to put yourself into the character's world. You don't necessarily have to think like them - the fateful action has already been done - but you do have to think about the consequences of their actions. It's the butterfly effect of fiction: one character does something seemingly minute that later becomes significant to the story. This presents yet another challenge (writing is challenging, if you haven't figured that out yet!): how do you keep track of all the tidbits that might have effects later?

This concept is well explained in the first article of this series (linked above). However, for those of you who haven't seen it, here's a brief review. Each little event that might lead to something larger is commonly referred to as a Chekov's gun. The thought goes something like this: if one character puts a gun on the table, it must be fired by the end of the story. Otherwise, what's the point of mentioning that it's there?

The same goes for events in branching stories. You don't have to give the reader complete freedom - in fact, you can't, or you'd be writing for years without reaching all the possible conclusions to the story. What you have to do is give them freedom on the choices that matter.

In OP9, the protagonist, Ami, has to perform a mock stealth assassination as part of her training. Early on, she must choose who she sides with when disputes arise about who the culprit might be. It's significant later who she sides with, because it would seem suspicious if she tries to pin the blame on someone she never suspected in the first place. At the very beginning, the group splits in three, with each one pointing to a different culprit. Ami - the player character - must decide who she plans to frame well before she acts on her decision.

In computer programming, it's relatively easy to keep track of key decisions like this using variables. For example:

[Which group will you choose?]
Group 1:
$ group1 = "true"
$ group2 = "false
$ group3 = "false"

and so on for each group. Later in the story:

if group1 == "true":
[one possible outcome]
[different possible outcome]

... and so on for the other possible decisions. You can then simply make a list of variables at the bottom of the script and refer to it whenever you've forgotten about an important choice. That's one beauty of writing scripts for games - you don't have to make complex Post-it diagrams to keep track of things like this.

But what if you're not coding, and you're simply working on your manuscript as usual? How do you keep track of the guns you've placed on the table?

There are many strategies you could use. If you feel like a programmer, you could use Twine 2, which is the digital equivalent of a Post-it wall. It allows you to chart the consequences of specific actions, much like variables, but with no code required. Or you could create a real Post-it wall. Or you could keep a list on notebook paper. 

Regardless, it's extremely important to have someone (other than yourself) read through your story, especially if you have a lot of key events. You're bound to leave one out on the first draft - we're all human and we make mistakes. But your reader is also likely to notice, especially if they're focused on the story. Choose your reader wisely - pick someone who is interested enough in your work (whether because they like the subject, or they like making money) to give it the attention it deserves. 

There are a few places you can look for beta readers. Fiverr is a good option. You can also check out the subreddit if your work isn't too long (a chapter or so tops), and I'll personally read over it and leave comments. You could also consider posting your work on Wattpad - but beware, book pirates are rampant.

Once you've 1) thought of all the possible outcomes, and 2) charted the consequences of each important decision, you're well on your way to completing your story! Keep in mind that this doesn't all have to be done before the story is written - it's okay to make changes on the fly. The important thing is to keep track of those changes, especially if they're significant to the story.