While Adventure and Role Playing Games are frequently built on plotlines that progress in only one scripted direction, sometimes a video game developer offers the player a choice about which direction a given segment may proceed, by offering multiple paths that run parallel to each other. Branching plotlines are usually most common in Visual Novel games, followed by adventures and RPGs.
Story Branching occurs when the players' choices determine which levels, objectives, and other choices they will face later in the game and which will be Lost Forever (at least, in the current playthrough). This makes them distinct from optional Side Quests, which do not so much drive the central plot forwards as detract you sideways (though particularly long side-quests can feature story branching of their own); and from Plot Coupons, which you can often collect in any order—but the overall plot only progresses once you have all of them. A chart of the various branched levels and objectives is commonly referred to as a Campaign Tree. For a more in-depth look, refer to Analysis.Story Branching.
It may fall into Story Branch Favoritism if one of the branches receives more focus from the creator than the others. Subtropes include Multiple Endings (where plot branches occur at the finale, or just prior to endgame, leading to different denouements), Multiple Game Openings (where the story starts along a branch), Big First Choice (where the story has a major split after a warm-up period), and Secret Level (where the plot gains an additional episode under certain conditions). Compare and contrast Choose Your Own Adventure, the manner in which branching plotlines appear in other media.
In games with competitive elements, such as a timer or Scoring Points, this trope quickly falls apart, as there will often be an optimal scoring path that players must choose in order to obtain the best scores.
The amount of Story Branching determines the degree of plot (non-)linearity. See Sliding Scale of Linearity vs. Openness for the possible degrees of exploration (non-)linearity, and Combat, Diplomacy, Stealth for a way to introduce gameplay non-linearity. See also Story to Gameplay Ratio.
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Maniac Mansion lets you choose two of six player characters to accompany mandatory player character Dave Miller (canonically, Bernard Bernoulli was one of the two, but this does not necessarily have to be the case). Each has a special skill that the others do not; this limits your options for reaching and taking care of the Big Bad accordingly, with five distinct endings possible based solely on who went into the mansion.
In LucasArts's Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, early on the player must choose one of three paths: The "Team" path has Sophia Hapgood join Indy as backup, the "Wits" path has a plethora of complex puzzles, and the "Fists" path has lots of action sequences and fist-fighting. Each path has a different plot, including different cutscenes and locations to visit.
Heart of China by Dynamix. At intervals throughout the game there are plot branches, where the action you take determines which path you follow. You can take a different action and follow a different path the next time you play the game.
Blade Runner is famous for its non-linear plot dependent on many player decisions and success at finding evidence, leading to thirteen possible endings.
Marathon was planned to have this based on how many civilians (Bobs) you managed to save, but the idea was dropped (probably because the Bobs are damn hard to keep alive) and the different ending terminal messages praising or criticizing you based on your performance are what's left of the idea. The game engine still had the capability to do it, though, a feature several Game Mods took advantage of, most notably Rubicon.
Call Of Duty Black Ops 2: Used several times throughout the campaign, with results of the decisions sometimes not being felt until the very end of the game. Major choices that affect the ending are finding out about the CIA mole, saving / failing to save Karma, shooting Briggs in the knee or head, shooting Harper or sparing him, shooting Alex Mason in the head or the legs, completing all Strike Force missions and killing or sparing Menendez. Less important decisions include Harper's face being scarred and DeFalco's fate.
BioShock Infinite subverts this in a manner that underscores the central theme of the game, namely "constants and variables". At several points, you are offered choices that look like they'd branch the story (e.g. like in the original BioShock), but their "consequences" quickly prove to be negligible and largely cosmetic in nature. This is because in every playthrough, you play as an alternate Booker in an alternate Columbia, but the Luteces' "constants and variables" theory dictates that while you are free to change a few events ("variables"), the key beats of your path are the "constants", regardless of what you do. Your Non-Player Companion Elizabeth is actually the one with the Story Branching power.
Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere has four major branching points (whether to desert UPEO with Dision; whether to desert GR with Dision again; follow Park's orders and kill Fiona or desert with her to Neucom; whether to desert Neucom with Cynthia) leading to five different Faction-Specific Endings. There are also minor branchings, which converge back into the main plot after one-two missions.
Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War branches off at two different points in the campaign before converging back into the main story. Your wingman Chopper asks you a question in the middle of a mission and your Yes/No answer determines the choice. The questions he asks have nothing to do with anything relevant to the missions.
Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War has several missions consisting of three different levels representing distinct phases of the same major military operation. You can only choose to complete one of them per playthrough. Additionally, your Karma Meter determines which boss squadrons you fight at three points of the game (in addition to the two mandatory boss squadrons and the Final Boss).
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation features a subtle branching not unlike in Zero, except that you only have one linear sequence of (very large) levels—but most of them contain up to seven concurrent and largely independent objectives ("operations"). Since completing half of the operations automatically ends the mission, you effectively miss out on all others—but unlike in Zero, you can dynamically switch between operations mid-mission.
Escape Velocity: Nova had six major and two minor storylines. Some of these storylines have multiple paths and/or endings and at certain points it's possible quit one storyline and start another.
The original Wing Commander had branching paths where the success or failure of your missions determined where you would go next, culminating in either the Confederation's withdrawal from the sector or its victory over the Kilrathi sector command. Not present in the Expansion Packs, where a system-loss after the first has you Watching Troy Burnas you retreat. Returns in the actual sequel, where there is some difference in a given system's missions depending on whether or not you "won" or "lost" the previous system. Also, you get a Non-Standard Game Over if you "lose" two consecutive systems, though the first system in these streaks is always the "odd-numbered system"; get on the "winning path" for an even-numbered system and you can enjoy the story.
Subverted in Epic Mickey, where the player's Exposition Fairy explicitly hints that they may solve puzzles and defeat Bosses in multiple ways (typically with either Paint or Thinner) and the player must pick a course of action; this affects NPCs' opinions of Mickey throughout the adventure, but it has zero effect on the adventure itself, nor its ending (though ending cutscenes do reflect the actual choices made).
Brood War's Terran campaign branches briefly during the invasion of Korhal based on whether in the previous mission you destroyed Mengsk's missile silos or his physics labs. This has the effect of accordingly denying Mengsk use of either nukes or battlecruisers in the next mission, though he'll use the remaining option in an Alpha Strike against your base.
The two Enslavers bonus campaigns fork based on choices made during the second mission.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty allows you to choose to either free the Spectres from The Alcatraz at the end of Tosh's mission line, or side with the Dominion and prevent a jailbreak. This results in gaining either Spectres or Ghosts as playable units.
RPG — Eastern
In Chrono Cross, there are three ways to sneak into Viper Manor early in the game, depending on which character the player asks for assistance. Each route progresses through a different area and gives the player a different party member in the process. Afterwards, another branch happens when you must choose whether to save Kid at the cost of destroying an ecosystem. Again, the choice you make will determine the characters at your disposal.
Subverted in the second chapter of Final Fantasy X-2, the player is required to hand an important MacGuffin over to one of two rival factions before the plot continues. While this has only a cosmetic effect on the main plot, it does affect the availability of certain (faction-specific) sidequests available later.
The Witcher has a major story branching in chapter 5, depending on which faction (if any) Geralt sides with. The branches only converge again towards the end of the Epilogue.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings also has a major choice, but it is made fairly early in the game. Based on your choice there, the storyline develops in one of two rather different ways which only come together again in the final chapter.
Neverwinter Nights 2 offers you a choice when you get to Neverwinter. You can either side with the Watch or with the Shadow Thieves. Either choice eventually gets you into the nobles' section of the city to advance the plot, and gives you different defense options during your murder trial in Act II.
In the original Gothic, you could decide which camp to join after starting the game, opening up different quest lines which eventually converged back into a single plot.
Might and Magic VII branches off into two separate paths at mid-game, based on if you align with the Necromancers of Deyja or the Wizards of Bracada. They do not merge again (though several quests are mirrors or mostly identical), leading up to Multiple Endings.
Shoot 'Em Ups
While the original Star Fox for the SNES used different Difficulty-defined campaignsnote Though you could cross between them in a Secret Level, the Nintendo 64 version had this Trope, as achieving the secondary objectives/defeating a level's Secret Boss allowed you to choose between two paths; achieve only the Primary objective and you only get one path. If Peppy says "Never give up, trust your instincts", then that usually means that the secondary objectives are out of reach.
After completing the game once in Star Fox Command and receiving a relatively mundane ending, the game unlocks alternate story paths the player may select after completing each mission - these progress through different areas (with different party members), branching and interleaving to yield a total of nine distinct Multiple Endings.
The Darius series is all about branching levels that take you to one of several Multiple Endings. The opportunity to choose a level occurs at the end of the level that you are currently playing.
In G-Darius, each stage is further split into two paths at some point. On some stages, this leads to different bosses. On some other stages, this occurs at the beginning of the boss and dictates how you approach the boss.
In Contra: The Hard Corps, at the end of the first stage you have the choice of either going after Deadeye Joe or saving the alien cell. At this point, the only impact it has on the game is the second stage (which depends on the choice you make) and whether or not Deadeye Joe appears at the end of the fourth stage. Afterwards, you have the choice of surrendering or fighting to the end. This choice, along with the choice at the beginning of the game, determines how the plot unfolds for the rest of the game. Also, there's a secret story path that doesn't regard the first decision, and it is hidden in the third stage.
Hellsinker averts this trope at first, but after completing Segments 1-4 on one credit, subsequent players will ask you before each of the first 3 segments whether you want to choose the "Lead" path, leading your allies, or the "Behind" path, following them instead. Each branch of each Segment tends to be significantly different from each other. After Segment 3, all future stages only have one path.
Resident Evil Outbreak had several scenarios where the plotlines would branch and you could take a different path of escape.
Turn Based Strategy
Shadow Watch: The game features a degree of randomization and was marketed as being a different game every time one played it (the manual claims that each campaign can proceed 162 ways depending on randomization and player choice). In practice, however, the randomization didn't affect the actual gameplay all that much.
The campaign mode of Panzer General and its spinoffs determine your next mission, as well as your "prestige" allowance, on whether you get a Major or Minor victory or a Loss. To get the Mission against Washington in PG, you must get a Major in one of the two Sealion missionsand one of the three Typhoon missions; otherwise the best you can do is to force an armistace on both fronts.
Story branches are most common in Visual Novels, where they are known as "routes". Story branching is usually the main gameplay mechanic, and for some, the only kind of gameplay there is to them. As such, visual novels tend to put a greater emphasis on story branching, with choices having a greater impact on the narratives than in other genres. See Visual Novel for examples—the majority of them feature story branching of some kind or another.
The Portopia Serial Murder Case is a murder mystery game that allows the player to take several different paths, with several possible ending scenarios based on who the player suspects to be the murderer, though only one leads to the true ending.