Promptless Branching Point

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, 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.
  • Item interaction mechanics, such as looting treasure or activating a checkpoint, can be used to trigger entire branches, especially when paired with an option to leave the location (and the items within it) for good.

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:

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    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.
  • In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy can grab the Grail before Elsa does and either give it to the knight or try to escape with it himself. Either way, Elsa lives, but in the latter, the floor opens up and swallows Indy.
  • In Firewatch, the Dialogue Tree prompt when you speak with Delilah over the walkie-talkie is only shown while you hold the Shift key. If, however, she asks you something and you don't bring the menu up or dismiss it without picking an answer, after a short while, the game still interprets it as a dialogue choice, namely that you refused to reply, with appropriate consequences for your relationship with her.

    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.
  • Fallout: New Vegas:
    • At the end of Dead Money, Dean Domino may betray the Courier (forcing you to kill him) depending on your previous dialogue choices with him. Saying pretty much anything Dean could consider disrespectful or as showing him up—including passing a certain Barter check—will make him hostile. Dean is that kind of guy.
    • You normally have to complete the main questline of Honest Hearts to be given the Zion Canyon map, which lets you make your way back to the game's main area. However, if you kill any of the four major friendly NPCs, you can just take the map.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic, opening any of the containers in the Sand People's enclave turns the enclave hostile, cutting off any chance of a diplomatic resolution to their conflict with Czerka, or if you've already done that, allowing you to wipe out the enclave anyway for extra XP.
  • At the end of Mass Effect 3's extended cut, you can shoot the Star Child rather than talk to him, which triggers the Refuse ending.

    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.

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