The faux butterfly

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By 2017-11-05

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Ceylon Today Features

Games that focus on narrative have a new trend; using the butterfly effect to create a branching storyline. Games with stories that give consequences to choices may be on the rise, but isn't anything "cutting edge".

In fact, all games have choices with consequences. If a game developer authorizes an action for the player to execute, a scripted reaction will happen. The difference in this specific type of game comes from coining the butterfly effect as a mechanic.
Of course, scripting a "true" butterfly effect is impossible with modern technology and programming language. To do so, game developers have to anticipate every possible action players may take and script reactions for each one, while compounding all past choices together to create a future scenario based on the actions taken; a task that wouldn't be feasible economically or logically.
Instead, developers create critical moments where the game pauses to give the player two or multiple predetermined choices to act and react to the situation. The game continues based on the choice taken. This simplifies the task for programmers, and gives a level of satisfaction for players; a compromise on both ends. Yet choice is still an illusion. A fake.

The butterfly effect is quite a popular term in popular culture (pop-culture) stories at the moment, mainly among the science fiction narratives and others that discuss a common topic: Time travel. Its theory is quite simple. Small choices can lead to big consequences. A butterfly flapping its wings can case a hurricane somewhere across the globe. While game titles of the east have been using this topic for quite some time, recently game developers of the west have begun to take their own spin on the yarn, with games such as Heavy Rain, Until Dawn and Life is Strange taking the frontlines among other titles. The Walking Dead series of games are also quite noteworthy that follow the choice-consequence mechanic.

Japanese visual novels have been using this method for narrative progression for quite some time, with Steins; Gate being the highest appreciated.

However, there are drawbacks to this system as well. If the player wanted to take an action different to the proposed choices by the developer, a dissonance occurs, forcing players to a choice they aren't willing to opt. Also, maintaining a branching storyline with consistent quality and depth is tough because of how much work there is. Also, narrative inconsistencies and plot-holes are more likely to be recurrent. However, there are many games that use this method to great effectiveness.

While what we have isn't perfect, developers have managed to make the best of it, with award winning titles released throughout each year. The future is bright for this genre, and there is much to be learnt.

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