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Personal Canon: How We Write Our Own Stories in RPGs
Branching storylines have been around for years, normally in role-playing games, and they’ve only increased in popularity and sophistication in that time. Although there is still a big market for games that tell a linear story, games with choices, branching storylines and multiple endings add an extra level of interactivity to the most interactive entertainment medium there is. What they provide is an individual tailored experience, and even though statistically 1000s of other players will have have made the same choices as you it’s the way in which you create a mental map of the relationships between characters that makes your experience unique.
Everyone has a different justification for the decisions they make over the course of a game, and these justifications change the way they think about their characters. Inventing relationships between characters based only on implication is something we do naturally as humans, it’s the basis for shipping, and it’s been a focal point of discussion for every form of media since a prehistoric man pointed at a cave painting and said; “I don’t think the human is hunting the tiger, I think the tiger is hunting the human.” In other words we create our own personal canon when we first play a game with an abundance of choices, but what we create, we can also destroy.
There are many people who will play a branching-story RPG over and over again until they have seen every possibility, every eventuality. To me this seems to, in some way, defeat the purpose of the game, although they are seeing every possible piece of content, every ending, every scene, every single line of dialogue, they are obscuring the canon that was created by their first playthrough. By focusing on ‘completing’ the game by experiencing everything it has to offer perhaps they are in fact missing the opportunity to come away from the game with the unique experience that was intended: The experience of forming relationships between characters, and forming their own map of how characters relate to each other. You don’t even need to play over and over again to create this effect. If you play again and do everything differently you are sure to see the personal canon you have formed contradicted, as love interests become friends, good friends become distant companions and, in some cases, living characters become dead characters.
I understand the drive to replay this type of game; personally I do it all the time. If it’s a world we loved then we want to see everything we can, and even if we didn’t like it there are still completionists, those who must see everything, or people with a pathological need to get every penny of value they can out of a game. However, I think that too few people consider what they might be losing when they replay a game and make decisions based on seeing a specific piece of content, or reaching a specific end. By the time they’ve seen everything and done everything they may find that what were once well-defined characters and relationships have, in their minds, become amorphous and unsatisfying.