Follow TV Tropes


Promptless Branching Point

Go To

Most Story Branching in modern video games follows the Gamebook 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.note  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 are usually "conclusive" actions like:

  • 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.
  • Not doing anything is a very counter-intuitive behavior in games, therefore the devs can use the fact that the player stays in a certain location for a set amount of time as a trigger for alternative story progression.

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 Algorithmic Story Branching, 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.


    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.
  • 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.
  • In Heroine's Quest, you need to obtain two artifacts called the Eyes of Thiassi from their respective guardians, by either talking to those guardians and performing tasks for them, or by defeating them in a duel. You can instead sneak into their houses and outright steal the artifacts. You aren't informed that this is an option, but one of the character classes is the thief...
  • Late in Dreamfall Chapters, when playing as Kian, you steal a set of tools from an Azadi engineer getting drunk at the Cock & Puss tavern. After using said tools to break into an Azadi compound, you can backtrack all the way back to the tavern to return the tools, or just proceed with the infiltration — the game gives you no specific instructions, either way. If you don't return the tools, however, the tavern owner (who is one of Kian's key allies) later gets arrested by the Azadi.
  • Warriors: The Road to Immortality does not allow the player more than two opportunities to succeed at hunting. If you fail, that failure becomes part of the narrative. Immersive, sure, but frustrating if you need to practice the game mechanics or don't know that pressing the spacebar allows your character to walk, when Run, Don't Walk has been the norm up till then.

    First-Person Shooter 
  • 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.
  • Early in Far Cry 4, Big Bad Pagan Min leaves the player character alone to make a phone call. While the game clearly intends the player to make a break for it while Min is distracted, they can indeed do as Min asked and wait (a very, very long time) for him to get back. Doing so leads to a secret ending that skips right to the final reveal of the game and strongly implies that the player character joins forces with Min.

    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 many moments like this, such as when Anna takes charge of the surrendering NSF leader Juan Lebedev, but the player knows that she has orders to summarily execute him as soon as Denton is out of earshot. The player, as Denton, can either exit the room (leaving Lebedev 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 a smaller example, in the first level (after the tutorial) you're told to head to the helicopter pad ASAP in order to begin the mission. This seems like an example of Take Your Time and savvy players might wander around the expansive headquarters for a while instead, collecting goodies. However, there's a hidden timer; take more than seven minutes to start the mission and some of the hostages will already have been killed by the time you get there.
  • 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.
  • Dishonored
    • The High Chaos run of the first 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 and 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.

    Light Gun Games 
  • In the original House of the Dead, the path that the federal agents take through the eponymous house (and with it, the sequence of the story events and ultimately the ending) changes depending on which helpless survivors they can rescue from the attacking zombies by killing the latter faster than they reach the former. For instance, at the first branching point, a zombie is about to throw a scientist off the bridge: kill the zombie in time, and the agents will enter the house through the front door; fail, and the agents will descend into the canal to help the scientist, discover that he is dead, and enter the house through the cellar.
    • The same applies to House of the Dead 2, though not to the same extent. You always end up in the same areas with the same bosses, but the path you take there sometimes depends on whether or not you save survivors at certain sections. Like the first game, a survivor at the start is about to be killed by zombies: kill the zombies and you take the more rewarding (points-wise) path; fail, and you take a detour that doesn't provide any advantages that succeeding would have.

    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.
  • Mega Man X3:
    • If you defeat both Bit and Byte with the weapons they are weak against during the eight Maverick stages, they will die instead of teleporting away, and the first fortress stage will have a completely different boss (if you only kill either Bit or Byte but not the other, you'll still fight their merged form as the level boss).
    • If you defeat Vile with his weakness in the factory, he will die there and the second fortress stage will be flooded in some places as well as having a different boss instead of a Vile rematch. You can fight this new boss as Zero instead of X; if you beat it as Zero, he'll be severely injured by the boss's destruction and will give X his Beam Saber after the battle.
    • The ending alters slightly depending on whether or not the player died while playing as Zero at any point after the opening stage - if Zero survives, he will show up in the ending to upload the anti-virus to Sigma and then watch Doppler's fortress collapse along with X; if he dies, Doppler himself instead gives Sigma the anti-virus (at the cost of his own life), and X watches from the cliff alone. The latter is easy to miss simply because Zero is a Crutch Character who becomes nearly useless after X gets any one of his own upgrades, so players are likely to just ignore Zero completely - unless they are going for X's Beam Saber upgrade as described above.
  • In Cave Story, the path to the best ending is hidden behind some notoriously unintuitive instances of promptless choices.
    • While exploring the Labyrinth, you see Professor Booster fall into a pit. If you jump down after him (or try to jump over the pit and fail, since it's not an easy jump), then you get stuck in that pit until you talk to Booster. This results in him giving you his jet pack and then dying, and locks you out of the best ending. But if you successfully jump over the pit, then Booster survives, and you don't get the jet pack until much later.
    • If you thoroughly investigate the room where you fight the Core, you can collect a tow cable. (But this cable only appears if you jumped over the aforementioned pit and didn't get the jet pack.) Shortly after, Curly Brace gets flooded, and the option to save her is only available if you already have that tow cable. And not long after that, you have to make a specific jump in the Waterway to reach the spot where you can repair Curly; if you ignore or miss that jump, she shuts down for good.

    Role-Playing Games 
  • Cyberpunk 2077:
    • At the conclusion of the story quest "Give Me Danger", the house you are in is attacked by elite Arasaka goons and you are knocked out for a short while. When you come to, the game tells you to escape... but neglects to inform you that your Rōnin companion Goro Takemura is also still alive, but will die unless you go back into the house, unprompted, and pull him from the rubble. If saved, he will occasionally contact you on the phone throughout the remaining game, and will become a major character and a Non-Player Companion during the Arasaka ending.
    • The secret ending "Don't Fear the Reaper" is unlocked by maxing out V's relationship with Johnny over the course of the game then refusing to accept any of the ending options he offers V for several real-time minutes. Doing so will make him conclude that you cannot bring yourself to endanger any of your friends, so he instead offers you the final, desperate option to storm the Arasaka Tower by yourself. Moreover, the following mission itself features promptless branching itself: if you die at any point, the game will not let you reload a save as usual, but will instead immediately the (slightly modified) "Suicide" ending (whereas successfully completing the mission leads to "The Path of Glory" ending).
  • 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. In Morthal, meanwhile, if you can avoid killing Hroggar when he attacks you on Alva's command and instead go on to wipe out the vampire coven she belongs to, Hroggar will be freed from the vampires' control and will have some unique dialogue for you after completing the quest.
  • The two endings of Dark Souls 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.
  • Mass Effect:
    • The Mass Effect 2 finale opens with a series of cutscenes depicting the Normandy approach the Collector Base, during which several of your squadmates may suffer Plotline Death — but whether they do actually depends on whether you have have researched and purchased specific upgrades for the Normandy at any point before launching the Suicide Mission. The significance of these particular upgrades to the Story Branching is not telegraphed to you in any way beforehand, especially given that there are half a dozen other upgrades to be researched in much the same manner that don't alter the story in any way.
    • At the end of Mass Effect 3's extended cut, you can shoot the Catalyst rather than talk to it, which triggers the Refuse ending.
  • NieR: Automata:
    • Twice when playing as A2, you can spare the lives of certain machines by simply walking away from them, and the game recognizes your decision in later plot events. Once, when given the choice of killing or memory-wiping Pascal after the loss of his entire village (walking away is actually the cruelest choice in this situation, as it forces him to live with his failure), and later on, when tiny Friedrich-type machines beg A2 to spare their "older brother" Auguste, a mini boss A2 has just defeated.
    • The majority of the game's hidden endings are triggered by unusual choices during normal gameplay. For example, any time NPCs radio to say they're under attack and urgently need your help, dawdling too long or running the opposite direction will result in a short, sarcastic ending where those NPCs all die. You can get similarly abrupt endings by killing all the friendly robots in Pascal's village, removing your own OS chip in the skills menu, or failing the Shoot 'Em Up segment at the very beginning of Route A, among other options.
  • Tales of Symphonia has one of these, commonly referred to as the "hard path", and it can be tough for new players as it's possible to lock yourself into it accidentally. If you head north to Hima instead when the story prompts you to take the boat at Izoold to Palmacosta, the boat will leave and you won't be able to go to Palmacosta and complete the Water Seal Story Arc until you finish the Wind Seal arc (which is higher-level and is intended to be done after Water). The upside is this causes Sheena to join the party earlier, which is helpful if you're going for her Relationship Values with Lloyd.

    Shoot 'em Ups 
  • In Star Fox 64, most stages have optional objectives beyond just finishing the level, and completing those objectives allows you to proceed to a different (and harder) level afterwards rather than the default. It varies from level to level just how clearly telegraphed those optional objectives are. Sector X is a relatively clear example: if you take too long defeating the boss, then Slippy gets shot down and crash-lands on Titania, so you must go there in the next level to rescue him. But if you can beat the boss before Slippy goes down, you proceed to Sector Z instead. And Corneria's an obtuse example: if you can keep Falco alive through the whole level, then fly through all the stone arches (?), Falco shows you the way to a completely different boss fight than the usual. To fight the True Final Boss (and therefore get the best ending) you need to complete enough of these optional objectives to reach the final level, Venom, by way of Area 6 rather than through Bolse.

  • Yes, Your Grace: The availability of in-game resources is limited enough that more often than not, petitioner demands from a given week will outstrip what the player has available, forcing them to chose which of two similar demands to fulfill. In addition to that, choices from a few turns earlier can result in the player having either an excess or a deficit of something compared to what the game is expecting them to have during the current turn, which can lead to being able to help both or none of the petitioners with similar demands. Who exactly gets the help can affect the rewards received, the penalties for not providing the help and sometimes whether the help ends up being outright wasted or not.

    Tactical RPGs 
  • Fire Emblem:
    • Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade has the Sacae vs Illia route split. Which route you take depends on whether the combined level of your Nomads is higher than the combined level of your Pegasus Knights (Sacae) or vice versa (Illia).
    • Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade used the same level method as its predecessor.
      • A later pair of maps in the game determine which one you'll visit by how high your Lords' levels are: if they add up to a certain number, it's one route, if not, the other.
      • Within one of those maps, the current combined levels of certain units in your partynote  determines which boss (an Assassin or a Bishop) you get to fight, as well as the map's layout. If your magic units are stronger, you get the latter, otherwise you get the former.
      • In that same map, the number of doors opened (or number of promoted enemy units killed, depending on what boss you're facing) before a certain number of turns elapses determines whether Harken or Karel will show up.
      • Even later, Bartre's level combined with simply being on Hector's route determines whether Karla will appear or not.
    • Fire Emblem Fates has one on the Birthright path. Should you not have an A Support with Kaze, triggered by battling together and having conversations, he'll die and his daughter Midori will never join you.

    Third-Person Shooter 
  • 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.

    Wide Open Sandbox 
  • Saints Row:
    • The very first mission of Saints Row ends with a minor branching point: Playa gets "canonized" by a dozen or so of fellow Saints, and the game expects you to lose the fist fight against them, with a consolatory cutscene and a $100 reward at the ready when you do. However, if you manage to fend them off and win, an entirely different cutscene plays instead, where the Saints express their respect (except Johnny, the only other Saint who was still standing after his own canonization and who cockily claims that it took him half the time that Playa needed), and your mission reward is upped to $1000.
    • Saints Row 2 has not so much story branches, as entire story missions hidden behind promptless triggers — most prominently, "Revelation", where the players confront Julius Little, their Treacherous Advisor from the first game, to get some closure for the Downer Ending of that game. To start this mission, you have to follow several cryptic hints that the current chief of police has been investigating the sudden collapse of the 3rd Street Saints between games one and two, walk into a heavily guarded police station, activate several data logs, and then call a specific phone number you find. Smaller examples include several hitman and car theft contracts, where you often have to deduce which generic gameplay actions would lure out your targets from their rather sparse descriptions (like leaving your car in the middle of a road to make a meter maid spawn). Lastly, there is a number of phone numbers you can dial on your cellphone for certain goodies, e.g. calling a voodoo circle to bring Carlos back as a zombie, with said numbers only present as non-interactive textures scattered around the city.