How Branching Stories Fail - Complications Ensue
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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Hunter showed me Survive the Outbreak, a video choose-your-own-adventure made to promote The Outbreak, another zombie movie. Basically there are cutscenes, then you choose one of two story options, and find out whether you die or survive.

While it was sort of interesting to fool around with the choices, I found it unfulfilling. Here's why. The seeds of a great ending start in thebeginning. A story that seems like it could go either way really can't. The beginning of a movie that has a sad ending foreshadows its tragedy, possibly in small ways. To be emotionally satisfying at the end, a movie that has a happy ending opens the door to the happy in the first ten minutes. (In my book I call that making a "contract" with the audience.)

You can't do that in a binary tree adventure. The beginning has to serve all possible endings.

In Survive The Outbreak, you'll note that in order to survive you have to be a good guy in one situation and a terrible guy in a similar situation. While life is like that, stories want a more consistent character. It's hard to get emotionally involved if we don't know who we're watching. Of course the tree could have been written more cleverly.

It is theoretically possible to write a binary tree adventure so that we reinterpret the beginning in different ways. The writers can create an ambiguous situation that resolves itself through later information; MEMENTO was all about that. But that is awfully hard to craft. There's a reason there's only been one MEMENTO.



Good to read your blog again. I remember telling someone years ago that most branching stories are not going to work because the viewer can't get emotionally invested in them. Put away the tissues. You'll never get me to cry!

By Blogger Joanne, at 3:33 PM  

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