Narrative Variety in Unexpected Games


So this is mostly because I am writing a paper right now on games whose narratives you don’t really get until you play it multiple times. But I’ve been thinking about games like Until Dawn or Life Is Strange that really try to put emphasis on their “butterfly effect” mechanics but whose narrative really doesn’t have variety. With the former, it’s mostly just who dies and who doesn’t and a lot of it is decided in the last quarter and LiS does have two endings but it still feels like a pretty streamlined narrative.

But I’ve been watching and playing so much of Undertale and really coming to appreciate just how many differences there are between the different routes on everything from the gameplay to the narrative to the interactions you have (or are blocked from having!) with the NPCs.

So: What games have you come across that do narrative variety particularly well, maybe even surprisingly to you?


I think one of the things that makes Undertale special is that there aren’t many games that allow for variance as much as Undertale does in its narrative across multiple playthroughs, especially when you factor in it will change based on choices in previous playthroughs. Until Dawn/Life is Strange/etc are good at guiding you down a story where the small choices have “big” consequences, but will always funnel back to a single point, a single ending or a single choice between endings or checking if you “pass a check” for the good ending, rendering all the other choices just small variances (that will no doubt be erased when it comes time to a sequel).

I mean, that was why the Mass Effect experiment failed when it came to the third game. And I mean experiment, because very few games had done what Mass Effect promised out of the gate: a story molded by the player’s decisions, where what you choose to do will affect the fate of the galaxy. And, honestly, 1&2 did a pretty good job on that. There was a lot of little differences between playthroughs that excited fans who compared notes. Sure, those first two games were linear stories with mostly different moral ways of handling situations, but the opportunities were all there. Ultimately, the experiment fanned the possibility space of its narrative out wide then snapped it all inwards when it was time to actually make good on the variance, relegating much of the divergences to a + or - to a number score. Hell, even having some characters die in previous games didn’t actually affect the outcome of the story beats they were involved in.


Pathologic is one of my favourite games ever, and one of the reasons why is the way it structures its narrative: basically, you choose to play as one of the three main characters, all different types of healers (nicknamed Bachelor, Haruspex and Changeling), in a backwards, vaguely Russian town ravaged by a strange plague. Each one of them has different motivations, methods and backgrounds, and the ones you didn’t pick still exist in the world, working parallel to you to find the source of the disease and the cure, but most often doing so in ways that are counter-intuitive to the agenda of the character you’re playing as. They each have their own narrative and come up with a different solution at the end of the story, so the only way to have a complete understanding of the game is to finish it three times, with all three characters.

I think this structure works well because Pathologic has a dense story, with tons of characters, factions (even the local children have their own gangs and political strifes), twists and turns, so it’s a way to ease the player into its universe without overwhelming them too much. Also, for the most part, each thread feels really specific and informs a lot about the characters, the world and the plot, revealing different sides to everything, and each storyline is really just fragmented and biased pieces of information you collected, filtered through your character. Some examples are: the Bachelor is a famous academic from the Capital so he’s well-received by the local elite, and his dialogue options often reflect his privilege and prejudices, while the Haruspex starts off being hunted for a crime he didn’t commit and has to regain his reputation back throughout the game, staying in contact mainly with the local children who take his side; something may happen to you as the Haruspex, but you’ll only fully understand why when you play as someone else who had a direct hand at the event; other characters who oppose/dislike you can actually lie to your face and jerk you around if they don’t trust you (and you’ll only realise it way later), while being friendly, helpful and cooperative with someone else; you may like a character while playing as the Bachelor, but get a totally different view on them with the Changeling; and so on and so forth.

But the thing is, Pathologic is kiiinda like a mix of a walking sim and visual novel with survival horror, and while the latter mechanics are crucial to the experience, they are brutal, and you can totally get into an unrecoverable situation midway through the game. I managed to play through all three storylines but it can get hard enough to see one story to the end, let alone subject yourself to all three of them, which is a real shame because the narrative and the way it is presented is really, really cool.


If I recall correctly, Alabaster is pretty branchy from the get-go. You might say “oh, that’s a text game”, but honestly, I feel like most narrative-heavy parser games stick to the “few major decision points” model of plot branching, with the bulk of the variation being in how you approach those plot points, interactionwise – the obvious exception being single-move pieces like the famous Aisle (whose author would go on to create Her Story), which just shear away everything except for the One Decision Point. (Although, to be fair, Aisle takes it to the extreme, way beyond what normal games do.)


Maybe not as drastically different as you’re hoping for but maybe pyre by supergiant games could be an example. By the end of the game the narrative is tailored to a very detailed level based on your in game decisions to the point where it would be difficult to replicate across 2 different blind runs. The end card summarizes it but within the story itself what happens to the games characters is drastically different. It doesn’t branch in the more basic/traditional sense but could be worth a look into. besides that its a fantastic game worth playing in its own right.


To add to what’s already been said about Undertale, one of the additional things it does particularly well is incorporate its moral choice/branching narrative system implicitly into gameplay. It’s rarely an obvious “choose a door” approach that a lot of branching-path games end up with (either through QTE sequences or through tasks that are relatively the same difficulty to complete). Instead there are tangible differences in your moment-to-moment experience and the way the game plays out depending on which options you choose—whether talking down a certain monster is going frustratingly badly, whether you feel like you need XP and the higher health that comes with a higher LV to get past certain fights, etc. And that ends up pushing the moral system into the background and placing each decision you make on more play-related grounds. Unless a player knows what the game is up to, they’ll run into a certain fight and make a decision based on what’s convenient at the time, rather than thinking “oh, this decision will save this character and get me closer to a good ending.” And that plays perfectly into the genre subversion the game eventually pulls.


9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors sticks out because of how it actually does the visual novel multiple route thing and uses expected norms of the genre to catch you off guard AND serve the narrative at the same time. Basically, there’s only one good ending in the game and a bunch of bad endings, which is to be expected with a VN. However, you can only get the good ending if you get one particular bad ending first. The reason why is because the game is taking place in multiple timelines, and the characters are gaining memories of other timelines with the right stimulus. You can only get past the teasing coffin ending with information you get from the safe ending, and you also need safe ending information to guide different characters off paths from other possible endings, like stopping Clover from going ax crazy. The entire reason anything i he game is occurring is because the “villain” is trying to save their own life, doomed in all but one timeline, and both you and the character you’re controlling are being manipulated to making that timeline happen by using elements of another timeline.

I’d imagine the other Zero Escape games do similar tricks.

On the other end of the spectrum, I like that Spec Ops: The Line, rejects player choice as important to the plot. It is important, but for reasons entirely thematic and to let the player reflect on their decisions and what they say about them once it’s revealed none of it ever mattered in the first place or had no real greater impact after all the damage you’ve caused. A few of those earlier decisions end up mirroring the final one too.


The Zero Escape series does a great job with that in general. Particularly in VLR and ZTD.

With all the branching timelines and choices that can be referred to by other characters, I really wonder how many different conversation paths there are. Characters get upset at you for betraying them, but your character has vague memories of being betrayed in the past. It’s not super deep or impactful, but it does mention the branching decisions you’ve already made a fair bit. Also, particularly in ZTD, I loved all of the clever decisions you can only make after you know the ultimate twist. It’s rare to see a game that allows you to do that in general just because of how they’re built narratively, but it was very clever how they built those in.


I went into Aviary Attorney expecting Ace Attorney with animal puns: a linear visual novel with some light detective puzzles. But I was very impressed with how well it handles decision branches even across chapters. For a (trivial, barely spoilery) example, if you give money to a beggar, she shows up as a merchant in a later case. And there are three very different versions of the final case depending on what you did in the previous one.


I think the greatest example of “Butterfly effect story telling”, will always be Alpha Protocol. Once you kinda get past the somewhat dull opening section, every single decison you make will have an effect on the story. Even starting from where you go between the three hubs. Don’t go to Hong Kong first? You’re immediately on the bad foot with your loose cannon contact there and have to work to regain his trust. Go there first, not only are you starting off best of friends, you can even nerf one of the hardest boss fights in the game in Moscow later on because your contact has intel on where the boss is getting his cocaine supply, so you can poison it before you confront him and take away a buff that makes him invunerable. And hidden intel in the levels isn’t just filling off a checkmark on the completion screen. It has genuine intel in it including character profiles of major characters, that you can bring up during the games branching dialog system if you have it that can completely change the relationship of the character or even in one end game case. Reveal that one of the villains killed the daughter of one of the Alpha Protocol advisors during the game in Rome (If you picked to sacrifice her) which will mean the advisor will kill the villain the minute he sees him during the end game, completely negating a boss battle with said villain.

Then when you have finished it, you can New Game+ as a “Rookie” which will make the game harder but open more dialog choices, and if you can beat that. You get to enter as a Veteran which gives you more perk points, dialog and even ways to enter levels prepared. People were finding new things up until about 2015, it was that dense. If you want to play it, I’d recommend the PC version so you can mod it to make the first part less tedious but it’s one of the best branching narratives put to pixels


This has been mentioned but please please please check out Pyre if your interested in changing narrative variety based on choice. It might not be “unexpected” (as it comes off as half visual novel) but the differences you can see in different playthroughs that both are based on the player’s performance and choices is phenomenal.

As for more unexpected games, the original Deus Ex has a surprising amount of flexibility for your choices, if I recollect. There’s a lot of little choices or detours from the expected path you can make that the game usually takes in stride.

Also, the Trial in Chrono Trigger blew my mind when I first played it


I’m definitely interested in Pyre now that it’s been recommended twice, especially for the descriptions that it seems to go beyond the visual novel’s typical branching system. Thanks for the rec!!


For what it’s worth, the reason it’s special: the gameplay consists of narrative/visual novel stuff, and then a kind of magic basketball game that you play. The story changes based on whether you win or lose those matches, and which characters you play as when you win or lose. Later on, you can free some of your teammates from the purgatory you’re in if you win these matches. The story bits change a whole lot depending on who is freed and who isn’t.

Pyre was a great game. 2017 had good games