Balancing Narrative Design and Player Agency: Part Three

Constructing the Branching Railroad

By: Heather Albano

Last time we talked about the philosophy of the branching railroad game, in which player agency dictates which of multiple well-designed narrative arcs is experienced. The word “branching” tends to scare designers, and with good reason, invoking as it does visions of attempting to create four games for the production cost of one. But branching does not have to be scary or prohibitively expensive. It is possible to design a branching railroad game with only an incremental—instead of a directly proportional—additional cost of production resources, if you architect the whole thing up front.

So let’s talk about how to do that.

Step One: Know where you’re going.

I can’t overemphasize this. It is not possible to achieve a branching railroad that goes to four awesome places if you start the story at the beginning and branch every time it seems as though “Here would be a good place to offer the player a choice, and, uh, great, now I have another path I need to make awesome.” To keep the railroad metaphor going, no one in history has ever laid train track randomly on a prairie and then tried to make that random endpoint into a place the passengers want to be. You build the towns first; then you lay the track that goes from here to there.

Step Two: Start at the end and work backward.

Or, more accurately, look at the beginning you want, and look at the end-experiences you want, and figure out the arcs that connect the two. To create an experience like Choice of Broadsides, you might start by brainstorming, “What are all the stories that begin with the first meeting of two young officers from opposing sides of a war, and end with those same officers facing off in battle?”

Step Three: Pick the three or four strongest arcs.

Three or four, seriously. Three or four. Not one “real” one that represents the story you actually want to tell and two or three less compelling ones. And not twenty—even if you think you have twenty equally good ideas, you won’t be able to execute any of them well.

Step Four: Divide the arcs into scenes.

What beats do you need to tell each story?

For instance:

  • I met a Gaulish officer.
  • I treated him kindly.
  • We met again years later, and he remembered my kindness.
  • We fought off bandits together.
  • Now I am ordered to kill him.


  • I met a Gaulish officer.
  • I treated him badly.
  • We met again years later, and he insulted and shamed me.
  • We fought a duel, but both of us lived.
  • Now I am ordered to kill him.

Step Five: Identify the choices made by the story protagonist that result in the beat of one arc versus the beat of another.

What does the protagonist do that causes their character-arc train to switch tracks?

For instance:


Step Six: Let the player make those choices. (Along with any cosmetic customizations of the player character you choose to allow.)

Step Seven: Show the player the consequence of their choices.

Step Eight: Craft every other scene to be arc-agnostic, and the player’s perception will do the rest.

Now you know what to do.


You are signing up to craft six scenes instead of four, which is indeed half-again the expense measured in time, schedule, designer compensation, assets, production costs, and all the rest of it. But for half-again the cost, you’ve created two games—two distinct emotional journeys—and given your player the agency to choose their protagonist’s character arc. I personally think it’s worth the investment.

Let me be clear, it’s hard to architect this way. I myself have not-managed it more than I have managed it (although I think I may have finally nailed it in A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight. Let me know if you agree.) This is an ideal, an aspiration.

But I think it’s the ideal we should all be working toward. In this ideal, player agency and narrative design are not enemies or trade-offs, but instead work together to take the player to all the awesome places they choose to go. The players who consider narrative design important will be satisfied. The players who consider agency important will be satisfied. And instead of relying on only one technique, you the designer will have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve created something at least twice as awesome, by letting player agency and narrative design work together.

Heather Albano is a storyteller. Sometimes she writes traditional fiction and sometimes she makes games, and she finds the line between the two growing fuzzier all the time. Her most recent game, A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight, incorporates all the principles talked about in these blog posts, and is available here.

If you want to know what she’s doing next, or just follow the random thoughts that wander through her head, check out


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