Player choice is one of the most frequently cited aspects of value to the videogame medium. Since interactivity is the core component to any game, developers and players have been fascinated with making the choices players make interesting and meaningful. Often this can take the form of a branching storyline or multiple ways of completing game objectives. But how do successful developers actually create compelling choices for players to make?
For a long time, branching stories generally involved just two separate endings, based on a binary choice or series of binary choices. For example, Bioshock offered players a Good and Evil ending based on how they chose to deal with “little sisters” in game. The problem with Bioshock, however, isn’t even that its storytelling is simplistic (either ending feels didactic), but rather that the choices that accumulate to either ending are barely meaningful in terms of the actual gameplay for the player. Most of Bioshock’s play mechanics deal with exploring and fighting in the game. That is the primary way the player interacts with the game. The “little sister” choice mechanic is a secondary feature—in fact it’s actually tertiary, since it simply feeds into a secondary player resource economy—and the difference between the two player options is minimal anyway (besides the endings).
The Stanley Parable is perhaps one of the best examples of a branching story done well. Perhaps this is in part because it’s a work of experimental meta-fiction. Players are the eponymous Stanley, whose actions are narrated by a particularly British narrator. Player interaction with the game consists solely in obeying or disobeying the narrator in a series of binary choices. There are no other choices or considerations for the player to make, except whether they wish to comply with the narrator. These binary choices branch the game’s progress repeatedly, crossing and connecting at times so that the narrative can diverge or converge to certain scenes and moments across multiple different play-throughs. Many endings are unique, and specific to a particular path through the game.
Because of this, player choices have weight and meaning. Disobeying the narrator can lead to the reward of a new, original and probably funny scene with the narrator, and players are encouraged to try new combinations of choices to try and reach every ending. Players’ sense of discovery is rewarded by the only content the game has. There’s no getting distracted by other aspects or rules of gameplay—it’s a game all about players asking, “I wondering if the developers accounted for me doing this? Did they write a special piece of content just in case a player did this unlikely thing?”
To illustrate just how large of an impact player choice has in affecting The Stanley Parable’s storyline, here is a flowchart illustrating every single possible permutation of playing through the game.