Created By: Koveras on February 5, 2017 Last Edited By: Koveras on July 16, 2017
Troped

Promptless Branching Point

When Story Branching occurs without explicit prompts, through gameplay alone.

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trope
Most Story Branching in modern video games follows the Choose Your Own Adventure model of framing their branching points as explicit choices for the player to make, accompanied by obvious prompts like mutually exclusive options in a Dialogue Tree or branching level design (go left for story branch A, right for branch B). This trope is about games that instead interpret and react to the player's use of their primary mechanics to determine which branch the narrative will follow. This is particularly noticeable when games toy with the player's expectations by letting them interfere with "story content" through always-available mechanics, e.g. by not confining them to Controllable Helplessness during what seems to be a Plotline Death of an NPC, and later by having that NPC's dialogue and cutscenes recognize their actions to show that this was not a case of Script Breaking but something the devs thought about.

Two sub-categories can be recognized: plot choices that don't even appear as plot choices at first (i.e. the player doesn't know that they're at a branching point), and plot choices that are presented as such but have hidden third options, which the game recognizes as valid branches but does not semaphore to you in advance. The danger of both approaches lies in their Guide Dang It! potential, as the devs must convey just the right amount of context for each branching point: given too much, the players won't feel rewarded for their cleverness and engagement with the game, but with too little context, and they will likely dismiss the game's writing as arbitrary and inconsistent and won't engage with it at all.

Not all mechanics are suited for use in Story Branching, since repeatable and/or inconsequential actions like chugging a health potion or looking in a certain direction lack the necessary commitment value to base the story progression on. Instead, mechanics commonly used as branching triggers include:

  • Traversal mechanics on their own would fall under the "repeatable, inconsequential actions" label, except in specific cases:
    • Entering a certain location can branch the story in two ways: a) it can be paired with another mechanic/action and serve as a Point of No Return, i.e. after entering it, you can no longer use that action to change the story, and b) branching can be based on which of several mutually exclusive locations you enter, although this variation is hardly "promptless" anymore.
    • Leaving (or escaping from) a certain location is usually paired with another mechanic to give the player an implicit choice of either doing something in that location (e.g. killing an NPC, taking an item, etc.), or indicating that you will not do so by leaving.
  • Attack mechanics are very popular for promptless branching, since they often have the very binding consequence of a Non-Player Character's death:
    • Killing an NPC is a effective way to branch a narrative since Death Is Dramatic, but especially because Story-Driven Invulnerability for important NPCs is assumed by default in modern games, so killing one always feels like Script Breaking at first.
    • Killing one NPC or the other, once again, ventures towards the borderline prompted choice territory, unless the game prompts you to kill one NPC, but does not prevent you from turning on the other instead.
    • Non-lethal takedowns, if the game allows them, can branch the narrative, especially if paired with the option to kill the NPC instead, or to leave without doing anything to them. In rare cases, simply attacking the air near an NPC can count as a non-lethal resolution, if it scares them away.

This trope is a staple in the Immersive Sim genre, which commonly eschews Dialogue Trees in favor of interpreting and reacting to player's actions. It is not to be confused with "'Cumulative Story Choices", where the branching occurs based on the cumulative effect of multiple plot or gameplay choices throughout the game (cf. Fractional Winning Condition): the most obvious example would be a game picking from among its Alignment-Based Endings based on the player's final Karma Meter score.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Adventure Games 
  • Beyond: Two Souls often sneaks in small branches depending on which NPCs Jodie and Aiden manage to save from danger. Perhaps the most cryptic instance is saving the life of the Magical Native American Paul if he is wounded in chapter "Navajo": after he is brought back inside the house, Jodie cannot enter his room anymore, but can send Aiden through the locked door to use his healing powers him. This must be done in the very short break before the ritual to banish Ye'iitsoh begins, or Paul will die, and the game gives no indication that it is even an option, unless you have the presence of mind to remember where Paul's room is, as well as that Aiden can go through solid walls and can heal people.

    Flight Simulator 
  • Most branching points in Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere are resolved by Nemo flying after one allied plane or the other (such as the decision to either follow Abyssal Dision and desert UPEO, or return to the UPEO home base with Erich early onnote ), or by shooting or not shooting certain targets (e.g. blowing up a transport plane piloted by Fiona, or destroying interceptors sent after it by your commander and deserting along with her).

    Immersive Sim 
  • Deus Ex has a moment where Anna detains Denton's brother, but the player knows that she has orders to kill him as soon as Denton is out of earshot. The player, as Denton, can either exit the room (leaving his brother to die) or kill Anna, his ostensible ally, to save him, and the game's later plot seamlessly adapts to however the player resolves the situation.
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a brief level where Jensen and Malik's jet is shot down over Hengsha, and the game throws a large number of well-entrenched enemies at them to trick player into believing this to be an Escape Sequence. "Successfully" escaping, however, leads to Malik's Plotline Death, as she is unable to take off again before the ambushers kill her. On the other hand, if Jensen somehow manages to take out all enemies in a very short time, Malik survives and meets up with Jensen later in the game.
  • In Thief: Deadly Shadows, you can decide whether to take late Captain Moira's hidden stash he left for his widow or leave it and head for the exit. If you do take it, a loyal manservant of the Moiras will later track you down and attempt to kill you in revenge.
  • The High Chaos run of Dishonored forks at the very end into two very different finales, depending on whether you can rescue Emily from Admiral Havelock before he leaps off the lighthouse with her. There is a multitude of possible solutions, with Emily's survival resting on quickly killing or otherwise dispatching her captor before he runs out of monologue and before he can react to whatever Corvo does.
  • Dishonored 2 has a major branching point during the mission to the Stilton Manor that is not indicated to you in any but the most cryptic way: when giving you the power to jump back in forth in time, the Outsider warns you that altering the past will affect the present, but for the bulk of the mission, this seems to only concern minor things, like clearing out a bloodfly hive in the present by disposing of an infested body in the past. But when you reach Aramis Stilton, the master of the manor and an all-around Nice Guy, in the past, you have the option to knock him out, so his past self cannot witness the events that drove him mad, and his present self remains sane and retroactively allies himself with you. This changes not just the state of his manor, but of large chunk of the city around it in the present, essentially banishing the entire mission hitherto into a Bad Future that never came to pass.

    Platform Games 
  • Mega Man X2: The main baddies, the X-Hunters, are holding the body parts of Zero, your comrade who was blown up in the first game. You can choose to either try retrieving it from them (by entering a stage where they're indicated to appear and then fighting them; they all appear in randomly chosen stages), or not. If you manage to do it, Zero will later do a Big Damn Heroes to save X from a black copy of Zero that they made in the final stage. If you don't, they'll steal back whatever parts of Zero you took from your base, and Zero will appear in the final stage Brainwashed and Crazy and you have to fight him.

    Role-Playing Games 
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has a lot of moments like this. For example, at the start of the Dark Brotherhood quest line, its leader kidnaps you and forces you to execute one of three (largely) innocent NPCs to prove your worth. However, if you turn on her instead and manage to kill her, the game starts a whole new (albeit much shorter) questline where you help the Imperial secret service wipe out the rest of the Brotherhood in Skyrim. At other times, you may interrupt a scripted murder in progress (e.g. of Arivanya in Windhelm and of Margret in Markarth) by killing the killer as he sneaks up onto the victim: far from breaking the respective questlines, the game lets you continue on them, correctly accounting for the killer's death, while the victims later recognize you as their savior.
  • The two endings of Dark Souls I are reached by either lighting up the inconspicuous bonfire in the middle of the Kiln of the First Flame, or by leaving the Kiln after defeating the final boss. The first one results in you becoming the new Lord of Cinder and prolonging the Age of Fire (as said bonfire is the First Flame itself), while leaving and thus letting the flame die plunges the world into the Age of Darkness.

    Shooter Games 
  • Spec Ops: The Line has many moments like this, usually centered around the shooting mechanic. For example, in one scene, you are asked to execute one of two criminals: a water thief or a murderer. This seems like a regular Player Personality Quiz, but the game also correctly recognizes your message if you instead shoot the soldiers presenting you with the choice. Later on, you are surrounded by an angry mob of civilians who just murdered your friend and have to scare them away with gunfire. The game does not tell you how to do that but gives you different Achievements depending on whether you shoot into the crowd, or into the air or the sand. For more discussion of this, see this Extra Credits episode.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops II features a moment where you're told to snipe Raul Menendez. Two supposedly allied Mooks take him out to the open with a bag over his head, and your CO orders you to shoot him in the head. You can do that, or you can shoot his legs. Either way, you're treated to a cutscene where it turns out "Menendez" is actually Alex Mason, and you've basically been tricked into shooting one of your best friends. Whether you shot him in the head or the legs determines whether or not he turns up alive in the ending.

Community Feedback Replies: 17
  • February 6, 2017
    sailing101
    Regarding your note at the top, The Same But More Specific covers cases where a trope is a combination of multiple existing tropes. This is Story Branching with Gameplay And Story Integration.
  • February 6, 2017
    henke37
    • Cave Story you are presented with a character who has fallen down. It's difficult to not hit them as you advance. You automatically check up on them as you hit them. Checking up on them sets their Death Flag.
    • Undertale has three main story branches. The first one is the default that you get normally. The second requires fully embracing the message of the game of not needing to fight. It's a tad difficult to find, but the game hints towards it. The final third branch requires not only killing every monster you run into, but actively grinding far beyond what is needed to the point of running out of random encounters in every area. The game gives no hints that this branch exists and when on it actively encourages you to quit.
    • Fate Stay Night makes it really hard to get the normal version of the first ending. Even showing a minimal amount of respect for Saber will raise her Relationship Values enough to get you the better ending.
  • February 6, 2017
    Koveras
    @sailing101: Thank you for your input, I will keep that in mind. :-)
  • March 18, 2017
    Getta
    Maybe this doesn't fit, I dunno.
    • Mega Man X 3: The ending of the game will have X being cornered by Sigma's virus form before being saved by either Zero (your partner) or Dr. Doppler (the penultimate boss) attacking Sigma with the antivirus. Usually it'll be Zero, but Doppler will only come out if you switch your character to Zero before you fight a specific boss (which only appear if you beat another boss with its weakness); that boss will incapacitate Zero, making him relinquish his Z-saber for you and affecting the ending.
  • May 30, 2017
    Koveras
    @henke37: I don't think the Cave Story and FSN examples fall under this, as (at least from the descriptions you've given me, and I haven't played either of the games), it doesn't seem like the player is given any indication what consequences their actions may have — as such, it is much more of a Guide Dang It thing. Undertale counts, however, as AFAIK the player is explicitly instructed by an evil-looking character to kill everything for XP, while a good-looking character tells you to spare everyone, with both happening before you get into the first proper fight.

    @Getta: I think it is also a Guide Dang It moment, unless there is a strong indication earlier that Zero will not make it out of that particular boss fight intact.

    It slowly dawns on me that "unarticulated" may still be too strong a term for this. What I mean is not a plot choice that is not telegraphed at all (that would be a Guide Dang It), but one that is not framed as such explicitly. Maybe I would have less trouble finding a descriptor for it if I split my two sections into separate TLPs from the start?
  • May 30, 2017
    Getta
    ^ "telegraphed"? What does that mean here?
  • May 30, 2017
    Koveras
    ^ It's a term I borrowed from fighting and action games, where enemies "telegraph" their attacks by visibly charging them up (or doing some other kind of preparation) before striking. In a similar manner, a lot of games with Story Branching explicitly warn the player that they are making a plot-altering choice before or even after ("This will have consequences", "X will remember this", etc.). My idea behind this TLP were games that feature story branching and give advance warning of it, but not in explicit or even mechanically codified ways.
  • May 31, 2017
    CactusFace
    Type 2:

    • Until Dawn has the Butterfly Effect as its main theme, so many of the characters fates are based on decitions made in previous chapters, which often seem insignificant, or important in another way at first. The game will in hindsight tell the player through its butterfly menu which actions lead to which outcome. There are also a variety of totems which show the player possible future events, such as death, upcoming danger, as well as some good outcomes, to help making the right (or wrong) decitions.
      • Poor Matt is the target of the most intricate string of events, which results in the game punishing you for playing him genuinly nice and will reward you for being a dick. Early in the game Emily will suggest to go to a fire tower to call for help. You as Matt can now either agree, or tell her that you two should better regroup with the others, but will go there anyway. There, you as Emily can find a flare gun which you can give to Matt. If he agreed to call for help, he will shoot it straight away, but if he didn't he will keep it. When the fire tower colapses, Matt will have a choice to either help Emily, or save himself. If he saves himself he will stay safe until the last chapter. But if you decide to help Emily, you will drop into the mines, where the Wendigo will grab you. If you have the flare gun you can shoot the Wendigo which allows Matt to escape, but if you don't it will impale you on a meat hook. Because of this, he is the character with the lowest survival percentage among first time players and frequently the first to die.

      • Early on Chris and Ashley get captured by the Psycho and Chris gets tasked with either shooting himself or Ashley, with the survivor being free to go. This then turnes out to be a mean prank by Josh, with both surviving no mater what. But if you "shoot" Ashley she will keep a grudge on Chris, which leads to her later not opening the door for him and him getting torn to pieces by the Wendigo.
  • May 31, 2017
    hszmv1
    • Marvel Ultimate Alliance concludes with Uatu the Watcher informing the player that his or her choices during the play through will have outcomes and gives you a brief recap of your choices in optional and choice based missions. A few options have no good outcome, with one explicitly making life for all mutants difficult no matter what choice you make.
  • May 31, 2017
    Getta
    My example definitely fit Guide Dang It, yeah. Zero usually cannot fight bosses (he'll teleport out and then X will take his place)... except for one certain boss.

    Beyond that, I don't really know. Didn't play much RP Gs to see something like this.
  • May 31, 2017
    Koveras
    ^^^ I am not sure about Matt's specific example, but the overall write-up of your example seems to support that it is a fuzzy plot choice...

    ^^ As written, that would rather be covered under Modular Epilogue, I think.
  • June 6, 2017
    Koveras
    I have reworked this TLP to focus on one particular thing. I may split the "fuzzy plot choices" and "cumulative plot choices" off into separate TL Ps, but right now, I'd like to tackle them one at a time. I have remove the Undertale example again, because it is much more in line with the "cumulative plot choices" trope. The "fuzzy" examples section, for the record was:

    Fuzzy plot choices

    This category instead uses the "traditional", i.e. explicit plot branching mechanics, such as menus and dialogue trees, but in a way that partially obfuscates their impact, i.e. the player is neither told the exact consequences of each available choice, nor is kept completely in the dark. This can be implemented by assigning a hard utility value to each choice, but instead of revealing this value to the player explicitly, it is instead reflected in the "soft" content, such as dialogue, lore, and Flavor Text. This way, the players can infer the likely outcomes of each decision from the sum of their knowledge, despite the underlying values being hidden from them.

    • Mass Effect 2 bases its entire endgame segment on such choices and requires the player to figure out who, among their crew, is the most capable at hacking, biotics, field command, and holding down the fort from many, many clues scattered through the game's wildly non-linear plot. It furthermore expects you to recognize the importance of upgrading your Cool Starship and to invest valuable resources into these upgrades without any indication to their usefulness beyond a single teammate suggesting that any small advantage counts.
    • Until Dawn has the Butterfly Effect as its main theme, so many of the characters fates are based on decitions made in previous chapters, which often seem insignificant, or important in another way at first. The game will in hindsight tell the player through its butterfly menu which actions lead to which outcome. There are also a variety of totems which show the player possible future events, such as death, upcoming danger, as well as some good outcomes, to help making the right (or wrong) decisions. E.g. early on, Chris and Ashley get captured by the Psycho and Chris gets tasked with either shooting himself or Ashley, with the survivor being free to go. This then turns out to be a mean prank by Josh, with both surviving no mater what. But if you "shoot" Ashley she will keep a grudge on Chris, which leads to her later not opening the door for him and him getting torn to pieces by the Wendigo.
  • June 6, 2017
    Koveras
    ^ Regarding that section, I am currently pondering to use "enthymemetic plot choices" instead, although I don't know how descriptive that title would be to most readers.
  • June 6, 2017
    Getta
    • Mega Man X 2: the main baddies, the X-Hunters, are holding the body parts of Zero, your comrade who was blown up in the first game. You can choose to either try retrieving it from them (by entering a stage where they're indicated to appearand then fighting them; they all appear in randomly chosen stages), or not. If you manage to do it, Zero will later do a Big Damn Heroes to save X from a black copy of Zero that they made in the final stage. If you don't, they'll steal back whatever parts of Zero you took from your base, and Zero will appear in the final stage Brainwashed And Crazy and you have to fight him.
  • July 15, 2017
    Malady
    For Mass Effect 2, how important are the choices of who you choose? Like, if you choose Miranda instead of Liara or whoever, would you still be okay, depending on certain things? Or is it just a matter of Relationship Values?
  • July 13, 2017
    Koveras
    ^ Mass Effect 2 is no longer relevant to this TLP after the rewrite, but if you are interested in the specifics of the suicide mission, Analysis.Mass Effect 2 has a detailed breakdown.
  • July 13, 2017
    CrowTR0bot
    Call Of Duty Black Ops II features a moment where you're called to snipe Raul Menendez to death. Two nominally allied Mooks bring him out in the open, with a bag over his head, and your CO orders you to shoot him in the head. You CAN do that, or you can shoot him in both his legs. Either way, you're treated to a cutscene where it turns out "Menendez" is actually Alex Mason, and you've basically been tricked into shooting one of your best friends. Whether you shot him in the head or legs prompts whether or not he turns up alive in the ending.
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