Whether you’re bread-crumbing your way through a linear story arc or flow-charting paths in a branching narrative, the goal remains the same:

Emotional engagement.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Which is only natural when gaming and app-making and traditional media folks alike suddenly approach you to talk ‘choose your own adventure stuff‘.

Something, my friends, is in the air…

branching stories

Taking that whole ‘choices’ thing literally, huh..?


Some interactive critics claim that this explains why so many ‘sandbox story worlds’ have failed (at least in the past) — even with endless things to do and interact with, there can be a distinct lack of urgency. Of agency. Of the sweet dopamine drips of fulfillment and purpose a player is denied when afforded too much freedom.

To paraphrase master game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda, and…oh, come on, you know!):  ‘It is better to give players and audiences the illusion of choice as you guide them towards a desired narrative or design goal.’

Of course, Link is here to tell you that there are exceptions to EVERY rule. Especially where the Big-N is concerned…

branching in hyrule

So much to see! So much to do! If only they left me the damn recipe book…


This is akin to a ‘highway with many lanes’.

As drivers, we maintain a feeling of control by weaving from lane to lane at will, though w are still all headed in the same general direction. This conceit allows for more manageable design experiences, a proven narrative structure, and a sense of ‘conclusion’ to the journey. Of actually getting somewhere.

And this is how choices in a branching narrative game act like this ‘wide highway’ metaphor. Through them, you’re reinforcing the sense that players and audiences are ‘masters of their own destiny’ by affording them chances to control the story’s direction…even if ALL the lanes and exits and off-ramps inevitably lead to the same terminus.

(multiple endings are sweet too, when time and budget permit)

branching highway

Just try to keep to the posted limits. Hard to ‘change lanes’ from behind bars. The price of a…Need For Speed 😉


In a branching narrative, creating and maintaining a strong ‘illusion of ‘control’ can strengthen the audience’s sense of engagement. This, by design, deepens the bond that readers, watchers, and players develop with their protagonist and the story world as a whole.

Of course, this all hinges on how meaningful the available choices are.

The choices on offer must bring a sense of change to the table. Of impact and consequences. Of very real rewards and punishments for taking a new lane down the same old highway.

Because if not..?

Then, soon enough, the audience will peer behind the proverbial curtain of a weak narrative design, and scoff at the Oz that they find. By that point, it becomes very difficult to regain their trust. Which is a damn shame…

Because user trust = user time.

Time spent with your story.

Your game.

Your world.