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Literally Me Ranting About Branching Paths for a Few Paragraphs


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You know what doesn't make much sense to me? Branching paths in MMO's. The four most notable ones I am aware of are Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and, of course, City of Heroes.

Why is this a problem in my eyes? Well, it's EXTREMELY hard to do in an MMO, in large part, because of the multiplayer aspect of the game. The ways they can be messed up are pretty obvious, but it seems like nobody's really cracked the code to implement it well in an MMO setting.

The core thing that writers try to avoid when doing this is conflicting narratives with other players and giving everyone a feeling of influence on the world without creating completely different "alternate timelines" that make the canon confusing. City of Heroes was actually extremely guilty of this later in its lifespan. Not only is there no clear answer as to which Who Will Die or Pandora's Box arc actually happened (Hero/Villain), but some of the choices you can make in Praetoria leave massive questions as to the state of the world. For example (spoiler for CoH lore),


Is Kadabra Kill dead or alive? It's entirely dependent on not only your final choice, but also if you SUCCEEDED. These characters have been noted within Midnighter lore for as long as I can remember and their current state is effectively unknown.

While the game seems to be capable of tracking decisions you made in previous story missions, the actual capabilities of this are likely (at least as of now) extremely limited given that the two characters that the game tracks your interactions with throughout Dark Astoria between arcs are pretty much inconsequential.

World of Warcraft has also attempted this to some extremely mixed results. I don't remember the exact circumstances of this, but my sister mentioned to me that, at one decision tree, one choice you select actually gives you a prompt warning you that the path you are about to take is entirely non-canon. In other words, you might as well be playing a fanfiction written by one of the developers.

Not only does poor handling of branching story paths bring about a great deal of confusion as to what is happening in the wider canon or just highlights how pointless your choices actually are, but it can actually lower the quality of random parts of the story. My favorite example of this is Guild Wars 2. Generally speaking, I remember the game having a pretty good record of tracking your decisions and making them matter. But there were a few issues that always hung with me. For example, the branching paths limited who the writers could bring to the forefront. The farther back in the story you go, the harder it gets. The only characters that are the exception to this are, of course, the characters that persist regardless of what actions you take. But this necessity heavily limits the actual importance of characters you might have grown attached to up to and including them completely vanishing from the story until they get a short little cameo at some point down the line (which might even be their final mention). The more you notice this, the less important your decisions even feel.

But I did mention lowering quality and, again, I bring us to Guild Wars 2. There's one particular path you can take as part of being a human that involves discovering your sister who was KIA might actually still be alive and being held prisoner. Long story short, you save her. But do you know what I didn't experience during that? I didn't experience a moment of giving a shit. Which is screwed up! It's your character's sister, why wouldn't I be invested? Well, it's quite simple. While the game did take record of what stories you would be experiencing in character creation, the game developers, be it out of laziness of time constraint, never added any moments leading up to where you would experience the missing sister arc that made any mention to your sister. As far as the game is concerned, she doesn't exist until that story arc starts. And do you know what happened only once after that for the longest time (if ever)? Her being brought up at all.

And the above issue was pretty much an issue for all stories. Some more than others. And, keep in mind, GW2, as far as my memory goes, had a pretty good branching system going on. In an MMO setting where you can't have the game canon do whatever the hell you want because there's people sharing the same world? It told a pretty fun story. It just made sacrifices in the process.

SWTOR's branching system, as far as I recall it, really only works because the branching that happens is primarily self contained. Early into the game, anyway. I know they went a little crazy later on, but the base game was really good about making your decisions feel important and actually show them as being important. The issue, of course, is that it is an MMO and one problem SWTOR had was that it mainly felt like a single player experience up until some random player ran by and reminded you of the game's nature. Because most of the story you interacted with that had impact was your personal story and your personal story was kept isolated enough to not threaten the stories of other players, it ended up becoming like a silo.

But branching paths in video games that are meaningful is entirely possible. Mass Effect for the vast majority of the original trilogy made every decision actually not just stand to change the world, but come up later. Hell, one decision you could make in Mass Effect 1 would literally alter if an NPC you negotiated with in Mass Effect 2 was from the first game or a new introduction. But, as I said, MMO's are a shared universe. You can't make huge world shattering choices in an MMO without confusing the state of the entire game world.

It's possible to give players choices that don't really matter but feel impactful for your playtime. For every major choice you made in the world, there were a ton that never got brought up again. But, because of the excellent writing, it didn't matter that the world didn't dramatically change. But it still felt like you made a difference. Those are the kinds of decision trees that, if an MMO writer is going to make, they need to implement.


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I will add to this phasing techs, which can leave chunks of the world and whole zone in contradictory states depending on who has the star.


Wildstar was really bad at this. Not only did they have zone phasing depending on quest state, but also they did not account for whose quests were active. You could be on a team, doing team quests, walk across an invisible line, and your teammates and the things they're fighting completely disappear into another phase.  You could not even see your teammates.

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