An Apology for the Railroad

I’m often asked how to stop branching narratives from branching into infinity. It’s a question all narrative designers grapple with: how do I write a story that’s choice rich and enables player agency, but doesn’t explode the scope of my project? And how do I do that without railroading the player and getting them grumpy?

Today, I’d like to outline how I approach the question.

You’re Always Working on the Railroad

Player freedom isn’t a goal; it is a means to an end. More than anything else, what players want are engaging experiences. For a writer, that means creating immersive scenarios that link together. And if the writer does their job well, the player will only want one thing: to perform the next logical step of the story.

The truth is that players are happy to jump on a train and travel down the railroad if it promises to be a rewarding time. Besides which, it’s an often unspoken truth that players are always going to be on a railroad. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you’re creating a story, you’re creating a linear journey from a starting point to a finishing point. Even if you have a million writers writing a million branches, players will only be able to progress through stories in the ways they’re allowed.

Of course, there are ways to design content that allow greater degrees of player freedom as they journey from beginning to end – but even in the most open system, there’s only so much anyone can do. Their freedom is always going to be limited by how much content is in the game.

Work Backward to Build Space for the Player

The experience leads the player, not the other way around. If the story suggests that players can do more in the game than they are able (because you have relinquished too much control); or if the game suggests the player should be able to do more than your story allows (because you have not relinquished enough control) – players will be upset. You need to know exactly what the room for the player is in your story, then allow no more and no less – and suggest no more and no less.

The easiest way to set your limitations is to plan your story from the end – or ends, as case may be. Once you know the end(s) of your story, you’ll know where everything in your story needs to lead. That means you’ll be able to judge if every moment of your story is working toward that end; if each moment will justify for the player what they’re doing and what they’ll want to do next.

Once you have your end, it’s that much easier to find your start and fill out your middle. You’ll have a keener sense if everything fits together – if the pacing is right, if each step suggests the next. And if problems arise, it’ll be easier to pinpoint what’s gone wrong and where, and how to fix it.

(And, as ever and always, I’ll advocate player testing. The sooner you can get other eyes on your project, the sooner you’ll know what needs adjusting. Listen to what they have to say and make fixes accordingly.)

It’s All About Motive

Perfect freedom is omnipotence, and omnipotence is boring. What players want are to react to interesting things which happen to them. They want challenges to overcome, they want triumphs to revel in. And these things are available to those who’ve relinquished a degree of freedom. Writers can help give the context of these scenarios, they can help them arise in a way that feels natural, they can help the player become more invested in every moment as it comes along.

And if you can keep your players motivated at every step of your story, that’s the battle won. If you can inform them of what to think and feel and give them just enough room to express themselves – then you’ll have created a wonder of an interactive experience.

Closing Thoughts

Branching narratives aren’t about player freedom, but self-expression. It’s about creating a space where players can have a dialogue with the game. It’s important to remember that players don’t get to decide what the dialogue is about: the writer does. Likewise, the writer is the one who sets the pace and tone of the conversation. And if it’s a good, respectful conversation, you’ll find that your players are more than glad to sit down with your game for hours and hours at a time.