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Why Does Eternal's Branching Work?

11 months ago
So I read this comment on Rouges: Meh. That's three hours of my life that I'm never getting back. You know what's more fun than reading about petty pickpockets, watching paint dry. Sociopaths, serial killers, kingpins, these are the kind of criminals that make an interesting read. Not to mention, the game was extremely linear, every other choice resulted in game end. The protagonist was one of the worst characters I've ever read. Hell, even Annah would have been a better and more interesting protagonist than him. — the_count123425 on 5/1/2023 12:43:53 PM with a score of 0 This comment brings up an interesting point I've been wondering about for a long time now. And that's EndMaster's branching in his games, namely his epics like Eternal and Rouges. In games like Trash and Geek almost every page has a meaningful choice, but this leads to shorter, less grand games because 4 choices deep and you have 16 endings. Go 5 choices deep and you have 32. It spirals out of control very easily. But in Eternal for instance, the one I feel the most comfortable talking about since I played through all of the struggle path, there are 13 epilogues. This implies about 2 choices that impact the story in drastic ways in all of the struggle path, which should be over 200k words long. In storygames I hold the belief that you should always have a last page choice that leads to a different epilogue, and Eternal does this as well, so that means that there is one choice in the 200k words in between the choice on one of the first pages and the choice on the page before the last. So looking into this, one thing I know he does every once in a while is have a path that doesn't kill you immediately, but always ends in death soon after starting on it. Using the flowchart and looking at the struggle path I've found these examples. Complete Analysis of the Branching of the Struggle Path: Proceeding with the war instead of helping Jacob leads to another choice where both outcomes are death. If you choose to have Roldan replaced you get another choice with death as both outcomes. If you choose not to then you have a choice to use the Svelk as skirmishers where if picked you get a choice with all outcomes being death. If you choose to end things with Allison then years pass, and the next choice after that results in death. And then you have the first and only choice (there's actually kind of two if you go the serve path) in the middle of the whole massive struggle path. To rule or serve. I'm going to keep pointing out examples of EndMaster doing the thing with a small side path starting with the serve path. If you go down the serve path you can choose to get Carry out Your Original Plan and get two choices where both choices are death. Then you get a choice to help Decena or Semra. Which does branch off into two meaningful paths. If you help Deccna your next choice is Children or Immortality, which if you choose children leads to Epilogue 11 after another choice which leads to death if not chosen. If you choose immortality then after another choice where the wrong choice is death you get Epilouge 12. So if you choose to help Decena then the next meaningful choice is the one at the end of the game that decides on the outcome. If you choose to save Semra then all the choices after that point lead to death except the right one until you reach Epilouge 13. So once we started down on the serve subranch of the struggle path there was only one choice before the final choice in the Decena subpath that led anywhere but death immediately. Now let's check out the Rule subpath. The first choice in the Rule subpath is if you retake Delreg over Rask then you have another set of options which both lead to death. Then the next choice is to Bring down the Barrier or to Divert your forces. If you bring down the barrier you actually have the longest side path so far, you get another choice where one correct answer leads to you moving on and the page after that you have two options which both lead to death. If you divert your forces you can choose to then Destroy the City, and if you do you get two more choices which both lead to death. Then shortly after you have the choice to Let Jennifer Stay or not, leading to Epilouges 9 and 10. So here is a summary of the quantitative data I’ve gathered. Before the first choice of the struggle path you have 4 mini paths which have two choices that lead to death. In this same time there are 15 choices that lead to death immediately (not including the ones in said mini paths.) These are the only two outcomes with choices here, except the choices that lead to optional scenes that have a link back to the original page. In the Serve subpath you get 1 mini path before your first impactful choice, which waifu to go with. In this time you get 12 choices that lead to death immediately. If you choose Decena then you have no mini paths and 4 death choices before your last choice and the epilogue. If you choose Semra then you also have no minipaths and 8 death choices before the epilogue. The whole of the Serve subpath has 1 mini path and 16 death choices. In the Rule subpath you have 4 mini paths and 13 death choices before the final choice which determines your epilogue. The whole of the struggle path has 9 mini paths and 44 death choices in it, with a total of 5 endings and 5 meaningful choices. Okay, but why the fuck: So what I’ve been wondering for a while is how the hell a game like Eternal is so epic and grand and one of the pinnacles of CYOAs when it only has 13 endings in over 600k words. That means only 13 meaningful choices, less than 4 choices on average. In fact the way Eternal is set up is 3 choices with the first one having three options. And yet despite it not having many choices that don’t end in death for it’s length, it is never called linear. Quite the opposite in fact. It seems to me that it accomplishes the perceived freedom of choice with so little actual choices in three ways. 1 is the obvious one, he doesn’t go too long without a choice. He just makes these death choices instantly end in death. I don’t recall if they all actually kill you, but they are basically death as they don’t end in an epilogue. The second one is having little side scenes or backstory that don’t progress the story at all. These contribute to the story without progressing the plot, because the more the plot progresses the more a meaningful choice is expected. And most interestingly is the little mini paths. Almost all of them were in the format of you make a choice, that choice has two more choices, both of those kill you. I think without these Eternal would seem much more linear. Afterall, people don’t really consider clicking a link and dying as a real choice, but these break it up more and add to the illusion of choice. These are the conclusions that I’ve drawn. I’d be interested in how others think about this problem. Some solve it by rebranching, or more gamey games. But those types of stories seem a lot different than ones like this, and I’m really interested in how these grand stories without that many meaningful choices per page or even per plot point end up feeling like vastly branching games when they aren’t.

Why Does Eternal's Branching Work?

11 months ago

I think Gryphon or some other reviewer has mentioned this before, but one of the main reasons why Rogues or Eternal works is that the main story branches are very satisfying to read separately while also complementing each other quite well. It's not really about the structure or the numbers, but more about the actual contents within these branches.

Characters that are featured in one branch are portrayed very differently in another, giving the reader on a reread another insight of them. It's been quite a while, but I think the best example is perhaps Gruz. During my first playthrough he was just one of the many colleagues you have in Allison's route. He didn't stand out too much aside from being a very amicable guy. He turns out to be one of the player's father figures if you made some other choices in the beginning.  Reading that other branch made me change my view on him.

One way the branches are also very much connected to each other is that there's a theme or a central element binding them together and making the overall story more cohesive. For eternal it's the lawful nature of the Eternal (a constant thing in every route) and his relation with the Emperor. Ahum, also the many father figures that are featured in most of the branches and also are foils for one another. The Eternal himself, the Emperor and Gruz are the few that I can think of. 

A classic counterpart is perhaps these lol random stories. In theory they offer many choices and lead the player to very different outcomes, but ultimately they don't really work because those branches don't form a fully cohesive narrative. 


Branching and stuff on a technical level

What I've seen so far is that each author kind of has to balance narrative depth with the amount of branching. Well, you can actually do both, but then you'll be forced to write a million words long behemoth. 

So with interactive fiction with little gamey aspects I've often seen authors having at maximum three main routes they want to explore in depth while sprinkling some short side branches along the way. In practice it's still a huge ass endeavor and time sinker, so most of the time I've seen narratives on this site strongly favoring and paying attention to one main branch (Enter's Brimstone or Wizzy's Godclock).

Stories that work with stats are often ones that are more linear storywise in my experience. The choices mostly involve on the HOW, not on the WHAT. So a less gamey IF would sooner pose the question whether you want to pick a fight with this robber, while a more stat heavy IF would sooner ask of you whether you want to use your strength to overpower the robber or your wisdom to outwit your opponent. The fun of your choices is mostly derived from doing the numbers game and min maxing your build. I guess the Lone Wolf and Magium series falls more in this category.

No method is worse than the other.


conclusion; the only thing worth reading

I think we have this kind of discussion several times now and honestly, what I've said is already spoken about multiple times and more eloquently by other people. Oh well, might as well forcibly resurrect a dead horse to beat it to death one more time. I dunno, I think that people worry about branching a little too much. Good writing can make up for a lack of branching, good branching will only spray some perfume on a rotten pile of shit.

Daemonologists (Bestist frend jane does it too but at the end it gets better) has one of the most piss poor half assed attempts at giving the player "choices" while railroading you so long that its length of real choice deprivation rivals the transsiberian rail. Still, people clearly like it enough to write positive reviews of it.

Btw. The only nitpick I had with Endmaster's older stories is the "optional" background and lore dumping pages. At worse they felt like homework, at best they felt very unnecessary (like the page explaining Suzy's entire fucked up family or the page summarizing all the circus freaks). The only time I felt they added to the story was in Death Song and even then those letters could have also be worked into the main story. So I really don't understand why you coat this particular element with such lavish praises, but oh well.

Why Does Eternal's Branching Work?

11 months ago

I mean it’s going to depend on the reader. There’s tons of people who don’t like Eternal due to the branching and feel it doesn’t give enough “choice” and have said it’s “linear.” I’m sure there’s some in the comments section somewhere.

In fact I’ve heard this complaint about even for something like Necromancer which is way shorter, though some people have believed it’s longer than it actually is due to the scope of the story itself.

The way I even write this stuff is more “old school” due to me being well old. I generally think nothing of killing the reader off even on the first choice if I feel like it. This is the way the old gamebooks from the 80s worked.

As such, this is why I don’t think of “Death/End choices” as “fake choices.” A Death/End choice still had a meaningful impact. You obviously chose wrong and got killed. That’s pretty meaningful. Just wasn’t in the way you probably wanted.

To me a “fake” choice is what you see all the time nowadays in video games where you might get some dialog difference, (Snarky, faggy, psycho, silent, etc) but nothing else happens and the story continues pretty much the same. (Re-branching)

Now I do believe this approach works better in video games since you’ve got more interaction in general (Fighting, driving, exploring dungeons etc). Meaningful dialog choice can take somewhat of a backseat if you’ve got other elements in the game doing the heavy lifting.

Even using a pretty terrible offender of this idea, Mass Effect 3, had combat to off set the shit dialog choices. (Not really enough to save it though) Fallout 4 would probably be a better example, since it still at least had 4 “meaningful choices” in the different factions to choose from and you had a whole wasteland to explore to offset the rest. (Dialog choices might as well not have fucking existed though)

However I don’t like this in choice based IF where choices are the only major element of interaction and I personally try to avoid it as much as possible. Sometimes it is unavoidable though even in those cases I try to keep it to a minimum.

Other people obviously feel differently though. I mean there’s a whole philosophy that for some baffling reason you’re not supposed to be killing off the reader so much (or even at all) Some people prefer to just play through something with fake choices as long it leads to waifus. I mean I hear there’s a company that seems to cater to such a crowd.

At the end of the day, the writing and storyline is what’s going to make you overlook whatever you think of as flaws in any particular IF. If you don’t give a shit about the storyline or you think the writing is shit, it’s not going to matter how branching or linear it is.

For example I just mentioned not too long ago there was a short IF where it constantly looped until you got the “winning” ending. Generally I hate that shit, but this one didn’t bother me and that was probably thanks to the writing and the premise. It might have also been a case where the short length of the IF helped. If it had been a longer IF, I probably would have gotten more annoyed with it.

As for the guy bitching about Rogues, well not sure what he was doing for 3 hours, but I’m guessing he missed all the paths where you become a crime lord, a serial killer, etc since those are all available. People are free to be fucktards though.