Download 2014 Simulations and Serious Games Portfolio PDF About Us Clients include
Unschooling Rules Project Clark Aldrich Bio Books and Articles Clark Aldrich Designs

Number 1: Have the onscreen character be friend or coach, not just the adversary (10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques)

As well as full sims and gamification implementations, Clark Aldrich Designs (portfolio) creates short, effective (and cost-effective) branching stories to be used in distance education programs.  For example, an ethics or cyber-security program may include five or ten short (5 minute long) branching stories to make the content more interesting.   We have uncovered best practices along the way.  Here are 10 more simple but effective branching story techniques.  Clark Aldrich Designs works with both eLearning providers and end-clients.  If you have a question, please send an email to clark@clarkaldrichdesigns.com


1. Have the onscreen character be friend or coach, not just the adversary

The most common branching story is probably the one-on-one conversation, where the player is trying to sell to or otherwise influence the onscreen avatar.  This means that the onscreen avatar is the adversary – who must be, for lack of a more politically correct word, overcome.

However using the exact same genre (a one-on-one conversation), the avatar can be a coach, even a friend, who is both setting up any situations, and even playing the role of the adversary if need be.

Here is one way I have created sims to introduce this alternative role.  Even the language, "I am your helper" sets a critical tone.



This approach can still enable the one-on-one influence scenario, and perhaps even a bit more richly. In this example, the coach is temporarily stepping into the role of the adversary, while still adding commentary.


A bit of care has to be taken to use a consistent “grammar” to effortlessly lead the player.  In this situation, I use quotation marks if the coach is speaking for the adversary, and I also use quotes in the response if the player is speaking directly to the adversary.  The screen shot above is an example.

When using the Branchtrack tool, in a branching story in which the coach is going to play a role, I use the neutral emotion for the coach as him or herself, and the various emotions if the coach is playing the role of the adversary.

This general approach allows a branching story to be significantly more enjoyable and educational. The player has an onscreen companion, who can explain what is going on and make implicit things explicit.  

Number 2: Use branching stories as labs, or information interviews, or choose your own adventure, not just persuasion (10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques)

As said in #1, far too many branching scenarios used today are around persuasion scenarios.  These are effective, but only a small subset of what these tools could be used well.

Other types, especially if the coach technique explained in #1 is used, include:
  • Labs:  Players build or experiment with something, and see the consequences.  (Example here)
  • Information Interviews:  The player interviews the onscreen avatar to learn more about something of interest.
  • Choose-your-own-Adventure: The player is taken on some ongoing story, making key decisions that influence the flow of events. 
Any practioner of branching stories should explore all of these various types, and more. Each will improve your skill in all.

If you are interested in having Clark Aldrich Designs build branching stories (or any other type of sim) for your organization, email: clark@clarkaldrichdesigns.com/

Number 3: Create deep dives and rat holes (10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques)

Use the branching format to create situations where players can go very deep into a single area if they want, while still being able to move on at any time.  As with real life, these deep dives or rat holes can start with productive content and get less so (diminishing returns), or start less productive and get more so over time, or just be fun and get people comfortable with the genre.  I like to put a rat hole or two up front to set a tone.

Here is part of a light hearted rat hole from one of my sims.  The mentor is patient, if eventually a bit eye-rolling.

One nice thing about rat holes is that they also give power to the player.  They give a feeling of control and ownership.  Because they are relatively linear, they are pretty easy to create.  However, all forms of interactivity can be added to them if the desire is there.


If you are interested in having Clark Aldrich Designs build branching stories (or any other type of sim) for your organization, email: clark@clarkaldrichdesigns.com/

Number 4: Present different spins of the same world depending on the player's paths (10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques)

In branching scenarios, different paths lead to different outcomes.  Typically and necessarily, the player influences some or all of the depicted events.  But along some parts of the journey, a good branching story may also present different interpretations of the same events and even different versions of the same options.

In this veterinarian scenario on mindfulness, the sim, depending on if the player (inadvisably) jumps to a conclusion on the diagnosis or keeps an open mind, presents the same two options but with different shades of spin.
In the sim from which this was taken, this second choice, (nodes #42 and #39 in the chart below) led to the beginning of two different paths down which the player could go.


Number 5. Make it easy to start over; make it easy to skip to the end (10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques)

Most of the individual branching stories I create for organizations are about four or five minutes long.  A typical half-hour program may have six of them, and some of my favorite programs draw six random scenarios from a pool of twelve created to mix things up.

One of the best signs that I have created the right branching story is when players replay a sim three or four times, exploring a variety of paths, even when they don't have to.  The sim has to be interesting enough, even charming enough to warrant that extra-attention.  (Charm is that secret ingredient that has to be considered essential,)

Similarly, especially if a branching story is a lab or a choose-you-own-adventure, if at all possible, put both frequent options to [Start over], and frequent options to [Skip to the end] and get the explicit  "lesson."  This puts players at ease, and lets them explore the sim in their own way.  It feels less like an assessment and more like an enjoyable, instructive experience.  (I try to avoid a directive leadership style whenever possible, and prefer a collaborative approach.  I assume the person wants to learn, and I create a rich experience that justifies and rewards their interest.)

Almost every time in one of my sims a player has skipped to the end to learn the formal lesson, he or she has returned to see what it is like to apply the material

Number 6. Giver the player some optional alter egos (10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques)

In the first list of ten simple techniques, I suggested that designers give players some no-consequence decisions, especially around self-expression.

In one recent sim, I asked students what beverage they wanted when they first woke up.  It was not relevant, but led to an important moment.  The choices I gave the student were:
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Orange juice
  • Water
  • Milk
  • Protein smoothie
  • Mountain Dew
  • Bawls
  • Bacon Hot Sauce, straight up.
The generic responses got generic responses, but some of the more bizarre choices got more customized and targeted responses.

In other sims, I have taken this idea one step further, to add some charm to an experience, and encourage exploration.  I have given the player the possibility of taking on very character-driven alter egos, or just play it straight.  

Here is a snippet from an information interview style branching story, where I created a consistent, manic, cheeky, far too talky alter ego option (think shades of Monty Python or Dr. Who).  This hardly impacted the flow, and not any conclusions, but it added some fun.  


Number 7. When ordering the presented options in a branching story, develop a consistent navigation strategy (10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques)

If designing a branching story - such as a persuasion scenario, a lab, an information interview, or other - I try to use the ordering of the presented options predictably and constantly throughout an experience, if possible.

For example, if a player is navigating a structure, I may have in the back of my mind:
  • Option A: Interact 
  • Option B: Move to the Left
  • Option C: Move to Straight Ahead
  • Option D: Move to the Right
In a persuasion scenario, I might try to think of the different strategies, and put them in a consistent order, such as:
  • Option A: Listen
  • Option B: Be accommodating
  • Option C: Give a hard choice
  • Option D: Deliver an ultimatum
Obviously the language changes each "turn", but the options are roughly the same.

Similarly, in information interview style interaction, I used the following consistent framework, 
  • Option A: As for clarification of a term.
  • Option B: Go into more detail in the current item.
  • Option C: Skip over the details and go to the next big idea.
  • Option D: Move on to the next entire section.

This last example makes it much easier to design.  Here is a snippet of an implementation from an information interview of web design:
  • Node 1 (Subject Matter Expert): I look for people who have some critical hard skills, also called the technical skills. For these products, I like to think of them in terms of  "frontend" and "backend". 
    • What's the difference between frontend and backend? [Go to Node 2]
    • Tell me about the frontend. [Go to Node 3]
    • Let's skip the front end and  go right to the backend. [Go to Node 4]
    • Interesting, but my eyes are glazing a bit.  Let's switch topics. [Next section]
  • Node 2: The frontend is all the things that the final users will touch and see. The backend is all the hard-core coding that goes on to make products reliable and function properly.
    • Got it.  Tell me about the frontend.[Go to Node 3]
    • Let's skip the front end and go right to the backend. [Go to Node 4]
    • Interesting, but my eyes are glazing a bit.  Let's switch topics. [Next section]
  • Node 3: For frontend programming, the most important language you can learn is JavaScript. You should be very fluent in JavaScript, and all the relevant JavaScript libraries.  Other languages you need to be familiar with are CSS and HTML.
    • Tell me about the backend. [Go to Node 4]
    • Interesting, but my eyes are glazing a bit.  Let's switch topics. [Next section]
  • Node 4: There are a lot of different platforms that run web services. The most popular one today, and probably the easiest to get started with, is Ruby on Rails. 
    • Go deeper.
    • Interesting, but my eyes are glazing a bit.  Let's switch topics. [Next section]

Finally, I never tell the player that I am doing this, nor do I rely on the player being aware of this, but it does makes the use of the scenario subtly more intuitive and even gamelike.