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On Writing for a Branching Narrative

Dice for various games, especially for rolepla...
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Howdy, all. I’m one of the new hires here at Chromed, and I’m both stoked and appropriately intimidated to be working on this project for reasons I will make clear.

When plotting a narrative, it’s hard enough to beat out a single storyline—making sure every setup is paid off in satisfying fashion, that all characters arc accordingly, that the pacing has been torqued for peak performance. It can take months, years to get the balance just right. Now try pouring in a sackload of alternate routes your protagonist could take through the story. Say your protagonist—for whatever reason—decides not to run the red light after he gets that alarming phone call, and winds up missing his boat. (Not that there’s an alarming phone call. Or a red light. Or a boat.)

From this seemingly minor divergence point onward, everything in the story is different. The timeline of events has changed. Characters may or may not be encountered, or may be encountered in a completely different order. Critical clues and objects may not be in certain locations yet, or any more. And events the hero wasn’t meant to witness, he may. (Not that the hero’s a he.) (Well, yes, okay, he is.)

In any normal screenplay or game script, such a change in the storyline precipitates a rewrite to incorporate the consequences. Not so in a branching narrative, where every story has equal weight and value. Each route must be as thoroughly plotted and supported, as timed and balanced, as any other. So instead of rewriting your script, you write a parallel script that continues from the divergence point onward… until you hit the next choice, when the story forks again. And again at the next one. And again and again at each divergence point, sparking hundreds of different storylines, each of which must seem as natural and organic as the “main” one the protagonist started on.

It’s less like writing a movie script and more like preparing to run a roleplaying game—you’ve got all your notes in front of you, and you’re ready to respond to wherever your players take the story. The difference is that in March 32nd, every permutation of the story, every divergent choice and alternate course of action, must be mapped out, written, and coded. It’s a tremendous undertaking.

So you can see how I’m a bit intimidated. But as daunted as I may be, I’m even more excited. And that’s because whenever I write a movie or a webseries, there’s always—always—far more backstory and detail in my notes and show bible that can ever possibly wind up on screen. There’s just not the time or the opportunities to incorporate it all. But in March 32nd the mechanism of the branching narrative provides a chance to present the entire world, every last aspect of it, on the various paths through the story. True, no one player will experience it all … but it will all be there, waiting, lingering as an undiscovered possibility until the right player figures out the right combination to experience that unique piece of the game. And that, for a writer used to only presenting a single path through a story, is truly exciting.

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