I choo-choo-choose you!
Bandersnatch, Charlie Brooker’s latest addition to the Black Mirror canon, is taking the internet by storm. Using Netflix’s Branch Manager technology, it allows viewers to take control of Stefan, an up-and-coming video game programmer in 1984. You control Stefan’s actions—from what he has for breakfast to how he deals with a stressful deadline—as he attempts to adapt a sprawling choose-your-own-adventure book into a game well ahead of its time.
Brooker’s use of the medium is interesting and innovative from a plot standpoint—exactly how needs to be experienced for oneself, as finding out what’s going on and reacting accordingly is a part of the story—but branching narratives are as old as the hills. From Choose Your Own Adventure books to video games to stage plays, there’s a long, impressive history of narratives where you choose where to go next.
It would be impossible to go over every example of branching narratives in every genre. But here’s a brief history—and maybe you can share your favorites in the comments.
Turn to Page 12: Bantam’s Choose-Your-Own-Adventure
Nerds of a certain age will remember cracking open one of Bantam Books’ Choose Your Own Adventure series. The series, with its familiar red bar and arch-enclosed cover art on the front of each book, comprised 184 titles between 1979 and 1998. The carefully constructed books invited you to make decisions every few pages, flipping back and forth to different scenes scattered throughout the book. Occasionally, a clever writer would drop in hidden scenes that could only be found by “cheating,” or reading straight through.
The concept was so popular that Bantam launched spinoff series totaling up to more than 100 new titles, but they weren’t the only ones publishing in the genre. Ninteteen rival series were launched during the heyday of Choose Your Own Adventure, and more came out well after the original series ended.
Nowadays, the format is so much a part of our world that there are open-source resources devoted to constructing your own stories in this style, in text and via apps. Apple’s HyperCard was a precursor to many of these, as well as to web browsers, enabling users to create interactive programs for just about anything they could dream of. The open-source website Twine lets you create interactive stories for personal or commercial use. And freeware visual novel suite Ren’py lets anyone create a branching story—in fact, if you play new visual novels, it’s likely you have played at least one made in Ren’py.
If you’ve ever killed a dragon with your bare hands, you know what this is about.
Titles like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Colossal Cave Adventure, and Zork were some of the earliest story-based video games, told entirely in text to circumvent the costs and technical limitations of graphics production at the time.They may not have had the sophisticated metatextual elements of modern games, but they laid the framework for the games to come.
The shortcomings of these games, sadly, were obvious to anyone who played them. Limited processing power on older computers meant limited vocabulary for the game. So you had to make sure to word your requests exactly right, like you were talking to some sort of weird direction-giving computer genie. You want to take a boat? Sorry, you can’t take the boat.And if you happened to find yourself in a maze, well, give up and go get a snack, honestly.
At this point, games were choice-based in that they gave you the choice of either picking a series of right answers leading to one ending, or getting tangled up in potential wrong answers. This would, eventually, change. But not before wrong answers got fun.
The Exciting World of Industrial Safety Videos
While not intended for entertainment purposes, training CD-ROMs are an interesting note in the history of interactive digital storytelling. Here, though, navigating to a good ending meant you knew your stuff and were ready to go to work operating heavy machinery.
In the world of the training program, as in the real world, a wrong or lazy choice could have disastrous effects—and many programs didn’t shy away from showing just how disastrous. There was just one problem: people became more interested in finding the worst-case scenarios than in actually giving the right answers. Why? Because the wrong answers tended to be more gruesome, more chaotic, and more fun.
To be fair, if you do your job right, you’ll get to see people walking away from situations unharmed on the daily. It’s a lot more interesting to see a dude lose a leg.
Phoning it in: What’s Your Story?
Making live television choice-based is a bit of a problem. The biggest reason? There are, of course many people watching, so you can’t just have one person choose. But in 1988, one TV show figured out a way to do it.
What’s Your Story? was a daily children’s series on the BBC, hosted by then-incumbent Doctor Sylvester McCoy. Scenes would play out, after which the audience would be asked what they wanted to see happen next. Then, it was over to the phones, where a group of operators would take live calls from the kids at home. Once the results were tallied up, the crew went home to bash out a new script and new sets, and the story continued in the next episode.
The series changed format after the first week to account for the unprecedented level of response. It wasn’t the most elegant setup, but it was innovative and let kids have a hand—however small—in the world of television storytelling.
Visual Novels, Dating and Otherwise
When gamers and anime fans think of branching stories, one format springs instantly to mind: visual novels. A more cost-effective choice for people who have an idea for an anime but can’t rustle up a studio, visual novels are a favorite way to tell all sorts of stories, from straightforward sci-fi tales to dating sims and interactive erotica.
Not all visual novels involve player choice. Some are primarily picture books with text and maybe some recorded voice lines. Others, like Kinoko Nasu’s Fate/ series, offer the player the opportunity to make choices that will affect the game as a whole. This could be as simple as picking which classmate you give your heart to, or as complex as choosing whether or not to align yourself with a world-destroying entity. Certain especially involved games like Clannad and School Days operate more on story webs than story trees, with entries to potential storylines opening and closing as quickly as you can choose whether or not to say “Hello” to someone.
Visual novels espouse the Choose Your Own Adventure idea that there can be more than one “correct” ending. Any game worth its salt has at least a Good End—where things go as well as possible—a Bad End—a devastating critical failure—and a True End, where the is thematically intended to go. But there are even more nuanced structures, where some endings aren’t even accessible until you’ve found others.
As unlikely as it may seem, live interactive theater on a group basis isn’t impossible. In fact, you’ve likely already heard of some.
Shows like The Night of January 16th and The Mystery of Edwin Drood have multiple endings, which the audience selects from via voting. The majority choice will be acted out onstage for all. Chris Econn’s The Boomerang Kid in 2007 took the concept a step further, giving audience members handheld voting devices, allowing them to make decisions as a group at 50 separate points in the play. And 2005’s American Standard, while not allowing the audience to change the action, gave each audience member a headset that allowed them to tune through the inner monologues of the three characters onstage. This didn’t alter the plot, but it did create unique experiences—and unique stories—for each person.
More recent immersive theater like Sleep No More has brought the audience fully into the experience. Similar shows, like Third Rail’s Alice in Wonderland-themed Then She Fell, offer different experiences for every audience member. Each person’s version of the performance changes based on what shelves they explore in the lobby, whether or not they choose to drink “potions”—actually herbal-infused cocktails—offered them, and how they react to certain characters and scenes. Every audience member will see all the main scenes, albeit in a different order, along with hidden scenes they unlock for themselves, making each person’s perception of the story notably different.
Video Games of the Now
Nowadays, the idea of branching storylines in games is becoming not only common, but in some cases expected. The ability to choose allegiances, story beats, and moral codes is a high priority for many gamers. It came to a point where saying a game was “on rails”—that is, devoid of choice that would change the game’s outcome or overall experience—was an insult rather than a descriptor.
Games like Heavy Rain, Until Dawn, and Detroit: Become Human use their beefed-up modern computing power to become even more nuanced and personalized. Detroit has at least forty potential endings, with story points that can be as easy to miss as choosing to throw away a pizza box before checking out a bit of graffiti. While these games may not always hit the mark, they represent the ascendance of the genre—studios are now pumping millions of dollars into these kinds of titles. And even games many not marketed as narrative-focused offer at least enough choice to keep the player from feeling as though they’re being walked through by the hand.
Indie game devs are happy to go where big companies won’t—and that includes dressing down a beloved medium and using it for new, unexpected lessons.
Choice-based games risk becoming simply about collecting all of the various endings. But some games have more to say about the concept of choice. High on the list, of course, is Toby Fox’s Undertale, a game whose choices aren’t a matter of obvious decision points so much as play style. Offering you the option to go against the grain and play peacefully, the game takes note of how you deal with each enemy encounter. Play through the game on a “genocide” run like a typical roleplaying game and not only will you get a different ending, but the game will remember what you’ve done in future playthroughs.
Dan Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club hits players with a double-cross, creating a visual novel that—besides being stealthily on-rails—questions the very concept of dating sims and throws players into a psychological horror story of free will vs. determinism. As an added bonus, the game’s Good End can only be achieved by cheating—which you are thanked for should you choose to
Clearly, branched storytelling—the basic, the televised, and the subversive—is nothing new. Bandersnatch isn’t a first-of-its-kind creation so much as a love letter to the format and a terrifying twist on it at the same time. And, if you’re not already up to your ears in choices, it could be a great gateway to some undiscovered stories.