Today we’re talking about a tried-and-true, predefined solution to the “Sandbox Paradox” in games — Branching Narratives. You may have heard of them in book form as choose-your-own-adventures. The plot of a traditional choose-your-own-adventure story takes the form of a branching tree with many nodes. At each node you can choose one of (typically) two or three options actions that you’d like your character to take next, and you’re taken to the next branch in the story based on what you did.
More recent developments in branching narratives use more of a narrative network structure. In a narrative network, the branches sometimes double back on previous nodes, splitting and merging again in more complex ways than a simple tree. This boosts replayability because even the order of plot points in which you experience the story might be different depending on your choices.
In short, any time you present the player with some choices, and prepare a different story for each choice, you are branching.
Using branching narratives can give both meaningful player choice and high-quality story at the same time, by writing a really good story-chunk for every possible choice. This has worked well in the past for small games, but it’s prohibitively expensive. If in every single branch the story must be hand-authored the art assets hand-developed, then the cost of development skyrockets as the game scales. There’s also the slight downside of having to limit player choices to 2-3 options at a time, with no way for the players to define their own choices or directions.