People who play games normally want to complete them. If it’s a story-based game, I’d say that’s even more normal. When you start a novel you intend to read to the last page, when you start a film you intend to see the credits roll, and when you start a story in a game you expect you’ll see the ending. But when have you finished a story game?
If a story branches out to multiple endings then you can start and end a story without covering all the content of the game. So do you replay it? Have you completed it if you don’t replay it? The urge to 100% a game isn’t unusual — many games tease you with a measure of how completely you’ve completed them — but I think it raises an interesting challenge to adventure and discovery in a narrative.
Perhaps all game stories deal with exploration and discovery, at least in the most basic sense that the events of the narrative are revealed as it progresses. Those revelations, however, imply a lack of knowledge. There must be things unknown so that they can be explored and discovered. A normal, linear story, as it progresses, leaves a trail of revealed knowledge behind it, and follows a path of as-yet-unknown events ahead of it. Once the narrative reaches its end, in a certain sense nothing is left unknown because the single course that was followed is necessarily the entirety of what might happen in the fiction. Events could only have unfolded in the one prescribed way.
A branching narrative, on the other hand, allows the unfulfilled possibilities to exist not only in the world of the fiction, but in the medium itself. That direct modelling of modality adds a thrill of decisions having been made and of paths that might have been taken: even after one path is taken, it’s true that the other might have been. However, these open possibilities are what clashes with the itch to complete every avenue of a game.
Even more inevitability
Now, with a branching story, the player can return to the first scene and re-run the whole thing, clipping off new branches at each juncture and repeating until the story tree has been fully pruned. But what has that done to the power of the branching story?
The great thrill of those branches was the direct modelling of possibility. That was manifest in the literal ability to leave paths unaddressed. Once that intricate model has been ransacked so that every option is explored, what was a model of possibility has become a model of the exhaustion of possibility. The finality of the events and the impossibility of any other outcome — a limitation I observed in a normal, linear story — has now been made thumpingly explicit through repetition. When the inquisitiveness into what might have happened is indulged, frustration is inevitable at its dead ends.
In short, if a story depends on adventure and discovery then we must put out of mind the finite linearity of narrative. A branching story tempts the audience with concrete instantiation of paths not followed. However, succumbing to that temptation will only prove the finiteness many times over. It’s the itch to follow every path that excites us. Once the itch is scratched, we’re numb.
The real reason
It’s taken me months to get through Virtue’s Last Reward, and the story tree suggests I’m finally near an end which will only be one of nineteen possibilities. The above seven paragraphs are my rationalisation for stopping there. Disagree if you like, but please just wait till I’ve finished the game.
Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people