Every story comes with its own bargeful of “what if”s, whether they’re minor points of interest or catastrophic differences that could change the entire course and outcome of the plot. After all, string theory states that there’s an alternate universe out there where every outcome and variable is true (which means there’s a universe out there where string theory isn’t true even if it is, but that’s a headache for another day). These things are always fun for the creative-minded to play with in fandoms, but what’s interesting to me is works that actually ask and answer a lot of those “what if”s as part of their storytelling process.
Games and visual novels, obviously, are a perfect medium for this—they’re less concrete than movies or books, for example, whether their plot itself is linear or open world. Either way, generally with a lot of games half the point of interest is an interactive and fluid audience experience, where the audience is well, less of an audience, and more an active participant in the events. In open world games like Skyrim this can mean choosing your what political or rebellious factions you get involved with and thus swaying the outcome of the history of the land, or, it could just mean wandering the wilds of your own accord, deciding whether to be a good knight or a pickpocketing ass, or whether or not to fill your house with cabbages.
In more plot-based games like the Mass Effects (or interactive-movie-esque, decision-based ones like Beyond Two Souls), every decision fits together to be vital (at least a little) to the final result of the story of the trilogy, going so far as to have your choices from the first instalment affecting the gameplay in the third. This gives the player an epic sense of immersion in the story, and a feeling of responsibility for the fate of the universe, throwing them into a strong analysis of the morals of war that they as a person in the real world are directly involved in… or, you could just play around and focus on picking which crew member to romance. Which is another genre that this multiple-plot-string storytelling goes hand in hand with.
And also why it’s kind of universally expected that adaptations of dating sims or things like them will in many regards fall a little flat: changing the medium means ironing the game into one coherent (?) storyline, which changes it completely. The appeal is a self-indulgence that the player can meander down the paths of learning about and getting close to (whether in the shoes of a protagonist or in a totally blank, self-insert state) different characters. Beyond that, having separate routes dedicated to each character, whether they’re being jammed into a romantic role or not, is an interesting way to explore character development—it acknowledges that you can’t, as a writer or a person, get to know all the ins and outs of someone if you don’t pay a certain amount of attention to them or end up wrangled into certain situations.
I never thought I’d say this about harem games, but they provide a sense of realism that way—if you’re going down a different path and focussing on one person or group of people in particular, you can go completely blind to the hidden depths (and possibly/probably tragedies) around you. Mushing multiple routes into one story can distort this message a bit, and squish out what’s really interesting about that multiple path experience. Whether that means converting the choose-a-date tension to who-will-the-protagonist-end-up-with? tension (and by tension I mean and endless game of will they or won’t they because even if there’s one ending picked out, you still have to pique viewer interest by hyping up the potential for other ones). With multiple routes and multiple endings, you can stretch and sculpt your story like you simply can’t with one plotline.
Sure, you can have your True End, but the path to it isn’t fenced in with the game medium, and you can step off it and wander down side alleys into strange and interesting territory. It’s an opportunity to hide foreshadowing and other juicy secrets, throw your characters into new situations and see perhaps a darker or stranger side of them, or hey, take the opportunity to kill them in awful ways and toy with that whole concept of protagonists with assured immortality. If you mess up, it reveals the consequences, and again, the messing up or the path-choosing is in the player’s hands, which gives anything that happens a larger impact and makes the happy (?) actual ending (if the work in question does have a True End and not just multiple threads, some of which taper off more horribly than others) have more impact.
Of course, looking at multiple outcomes and possibilities isn’t just for these interactive mediums, and it’s pretty interesting when concrete shows and books delve into answering their own “what if”s. Doctor Who pulls this card up in season two (those were the days, huh?) when the TARDIS gang arrived in a parallel universe where history has been toyed with just enough to be weird, showing us an England with a president and a bizarre and sinister integration of technology… and, closer to home and heart, an alternate continuity where Rose’s father is still alive, but Rose herself was never born. A similar thing is played with in Donna’s episode ‘Turn Left’ where it shows how one tiny decision creates a chain of events that change the entire fate of the universe, darting back through the events of the series and showing what would have happened if the Doctor, thanks to Donna, had not been there to save the day. It gets ugly, to say the least.
This is a fascinating thing to explore, I think—playing with the threads of a plot, exploring the multiple and varied outcomes that could come of crucial plot points going differently, whether it’s for comedy like Community’s multi-timeline episode or for drama like Sliding Doors. Run Lola Run is a German film that tries this out, rewinding the story several times until the heroine gets her mission right, and on each sprint to the finish line she has a different effect on the people around her, leading to little photographic flashes of where their life will go from then on. Tiny differences in timing mean things that were background furnishing in the run before are suddenly hugely important, and new discoveries are made or missed due to small decisions or minute trip-ups. There are a million different possibilities and they’re all peeked at.
It’s a way to have fun and stretch your imagination story wise, but it’s also a way to test characters and see what they would do or how they would change if they were put into different situations, and the multi-path story structure gives everything the chance to go horribly and interestingly wrong without the ending (if there is one ending) being truly affected. Maybe that’s the whole, a la Madoka Magica where our heroine (???) has jammed herself in a time loop until she gets one thing right, which in the end has screwed the entire system over. It’s a less fun Groundhog Day and it allows the story the freedom to be fluid and explore different possibilities that bring up different points and situations, and makes for a profoundly interesting viewing (or playing) experience that makes the audience think. It makes me think, anyway. If you start examining your own life this way, however, you end up with nothing short of an existential crisis, so I’d recommend we keep this to the realm of fiction.