Player Choices and Branching Paths
In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time.
Games discussed: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995, Quest), Tactics Ogre Reborn (2022, Square-Enix)
Translation note: Tactics Ogre has multiple different English translations, depending upon the version of the game. This article will refer to characters and locations using the translations from the 2022 version of the game, Tactics Ogre Reborn.
It’s been a long time since I first fell in love with Final Fantasy Tactics—long enough that I should have known it had a spiritual predecessor, one that’s every bit as good as the games it inspired. Released in 1995 by the Quest Corporation, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is a tactical role-playing game set in a pseudo-medieval world that will be automatically familiar to any Final Fantasy fan. While Tactics Ogre didn’t have the brand recognition of the Final Fantasy franchise or a Western release to bolster its sales, it’s nevertheless gained recognition as a classic of the tactics genre. The gameplay is complex without being inaccessible, the soundtrack has stellar songs for every mood, and the story is rich and nuanced—especially for 1995.
I finally discovered Tactics Ogre for myself late last year with the game’s most recent remaster: Tactics Ogre Reborn. Having never played the original (or the PlayStation Portable remake), I don’t have the first-hand experience to judge the merits of the numerous gameplay changes, but it appears that the story has mostly stayed the same outside of a few translation fixes. That’s a good thing, because the story of Tactics Ogre wouldn’t be easy to change. Editing is never easy, of course, but Tactics Ogre relies on a storytelling conceit that adds an additional layer of complication to making changes: branching paths.
I haven’t talked much about branching narratives on CSU before, since the concept doesn’t see much use outside of video games. With the exception of Choose Your Own Adventure books and the occasional branching movie (1998’s Sliding Doors comes to mind, as does an insipid Hallmark Christmas movie I once watched with my in-laws), stories that diverge after key plot points have been related to interactive mediums like video games. When done well, they make players feel like their choices have weight, which creates a sense of ownership over the outcome of the story. You’re not just a hero because you did what you were told; you’re a hero because you did what you thought was right. But what happens if what you think doesn’t matter in the end?
Long before Peter Molyneux first promised players they could grow an oak tree from a dropped acorn in Fable 2, game developers have been dreaming of game worlds where the player’s actions could change the world. Unfortunately, most branching stories have two-to-three tracks at best: good, bad, and neutral if there’s time in the development cycle. Stories with these three tracks tend to follow a similar pattern: the player is given a series of ethical choices to make, and their decisions change the way the player character is perceived by everyone else in the world. ‘Good’ choices make you a good guy; ‘bad’ choices make you a bad guy.
Unsurprisingly, these good and bad designations typically result in good and bad endings. In a good ending, you might be the savior king a country needs; in a bad ending, you might become a terrible dictator that tears a country apart. It’s an effective conceit, if a predictable one, and it guarantees that the player choices will ‘matter’ insofar as much as they affect the end of the story. Of course, whether those endings are good enough to justify the extra work depends on the game, but at least they deliver on the promise of a branching narrative.
Tactics Ogre takes a slightly different approach to the split story concept. In Tactics Ogre, you play as Denam Pavel, a teen boy who joins a resistance to defend his war-torn homeland. The story is divided into four acts, and at the end of Act I, Denam is ordered to don an enemy uniform and burn down a village of his own people. If he follows the order, his countrymen will surely rally against the enemy and defeat them, but he’ll be a war criminal with the blood of hundreds on his hands. Conversely, if he refuses, he’ll be branded a traitor and driven from his homeland, and his former allies will still burn down the village without him. It’s up to the player to choose Denam’s path, but there’s no way to save the villagers from the torch.
If Tactics Ogre followed the standard good and evil plot paradigm, the war criminal Denam would become a twisted shadow of his former self, while the defector Denam would become a beacon of hope for all who choose justice. What actually happens is that the split between plot points is only temporary, and the machinations of outside actors (politicians, knights, and priests) drive the two branches back together for Act IV. The only thing that really impacts the ending is whether or not Denam’s sister is still alive by the end of the game, as that determines who sits on the throne at the end. The player’s decision at the end of Act I only impacts which secondary characters survive the war to show up at the coronation at the end. So is that satisfying or not?
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t thrilled with the ending of Tactics Ogre when I first got to it. I’m mostly fine with the content (either Denam or his sister becoming ruler of a unified kingdom), even if it is a little cliched, but the fact that my choices didn’t really matter annoyed me. I went out of my way to do what I thought was just and good at each point, so it was a bit of a kick in the teeth to find out that Denam’s life turned out the same way whether or not he torched a town full of his own people. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, however, I think the way the paths converge fits the spirit of the game.
Like Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre tells a story about the powerful people who dictate the fate of nations from behind the scenes. For all the good (or evil) Denam Pavel can do, he’s just one cog in a grand machine that’s always turning. Those who control the machine—the politicians, knights, and priests—are the ones whose actions dictate the outcomes of individual stories. Until the end of the game, Denam doesn’t have the kind of authority to effect any meaningful change, so why should his decisions have an impact on the outcome of the game? At the end of the day, the only lives he can really change are the lives of those closest to him, so it’s fitting that the player’s choices determine who’s standing by Denam’s side in the end.
Maybe this is all a post-hoc rationalization for why the lack of choice in Tactics Ogre is less damning than it is. I do like the game quite a bit, and I’m still grinding my way through the post-game content and probably will be for a while. It’s possible that my continued enjoyment is leading me to be soft on the story, as is my affection for Final Fantasy Tactics. I don’t think so, though. I probably would have enjoyed the endings more if my decisions had made more of a difference, but I don’t know if that would have been any better for the story. Maybe it’s better that your choices don’t matter, because in real life, sometimes that’s the way it goes.
Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief
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