The Perils of Branching

God‘s Own Branches

The main narrative portion of Drinking With God has seven decision points. Assuming there are exactly three directions you can choose from at each one — there aren’t, but assuming there are — you would expect the game to have several thousand scenes. (Or at least you would if you’d read the last few entries.)

Instead, there are about thirty.

How, you might wonder, have I managed this?

Well, if you’ve already played it (and you have played it, haven’t you? Unless you have a Mac — but we’re working on that, honest!), try playing it again, making some different choices as you make your way through it. Have you noticed anything?

The Inevitable Cheat

No doubt when playing the game the first time through, each time you made a choice, you felt empowered. “I can take this story in direction that I want to!” you exclaimed in glee, pausing only to add under you breath, “Except for the infinite number of directions that Yossi didn’t think of, each of which I would have preferred to the ones that he did.” (A comment that I politely ignored, since we’ve already been over this.)

But then you played it again, and when you did, you probably noticed something: no matter what choices you made early on, you eventually reached the same point in the story. All of the branches converged back into the story’s “trunk.”

So much for that feeling of empowerment. “Yossi, you bounder!” you hollered at me when you realized this. “You cad! You cheat! How dare you waste my time with this nonsense?”

The Feeble Excuse

Well, first off, in my defense, you were warned. Drinking With God is described as “quasi-interactive” for a reason, after all. The Sheep even admits to such in his grudging introduction.

But, you are no doubt wondering, why cheat at all? The simple truth of the matter is that once I’d decided to create a branching narrative experience, I didn’t really have much of a choice. It was either that or create the thousands of scenes that I described earlier. I wanted to finish this project within my lifetime, so there you have it.

Remember those CD-ROM Interactive Movies from the 1990s that I’ve been going on about? They didn’t really have much of a choice, either. They were also built on the concept of branching narratives, which, since they had to be created within real-world production constraints, inevitably means that they also relied on the concept of folding narrative branches back into a trunk. This could be one of the reasons that they didn’t really take off — when people began to understand the cheat, they lost interest.

But does it have to be this way? Aren’t there ways to create Interactive Movies that don’t involve branching narratives?

That’s what I’ll talk about next time. See you real soon!

For more on branching narratives and their problems and perils, see Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling.