Have you ever played through a branched scenario that worked properly from a technical perspective but didn’t feel interesting or realistic? That’s because the branching functionality is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to crafting scenarios that make an impact. Your scenario choices—both how you write them and how you use them—are just as vital for making this kind of learning experience meaningful.
As you think about ways to use choice strategically, there’s a great source for inspiration that you might not have considered: video games. Game designers have been playing with ways to make scenario options engaging for decades. Let’s take a closer look at a few best practices we can glean from analyzing video game scenarios.
Make early choices low stakes
You know what’s really frustrating? Realizing you accidentally selected the wrong choice because you misunderstood the way the user interface works. That’s why many video games ease you into the controls by ensuring the first options you interact with don’t affect your branching or outcomes. These easier questions are essentially mini tutorials, giving you a chance to make a few mistakes risk-free.
With a branched e-learning scenario, you might not have as much time to include guided practice as a multi-hour game, but you can probably afford to give learners an easy question or two at the beginning to help them get used to the way it works.
Not all choices have to lead to new branches
When you start doing the math on how many new branches each question could create, the idea of actually building a lengthy branched scenario can seem overwhelming. But video games have proven that you can still create realistic experiences without every choice changing things.
One of the first games I played that was upfront about this was Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. When you make dialogue choices that impact the game branching, a message flashes on screen saying the other character will remember your decision. So when that doesn’t appear, you realize that your choice doesn’t alter the story. But knowing this doesn’t make those interactions seem less interesting or fun. After all, in real life not every option leads to different outcomes.
As you plan out your scenario, here are some ways to save yourself development time:
- Since not all decisions have to lead to a new story branch, keep an eye out for times you can simplify where choices go next. Sometimes all your options will logically lead to the same next screen, such as if they’re just there for practice or to build out the story. And if you’re already providing immediate onscreen feedback about a choice, you might not need to have the story branch afterward to drive your point home.
- Look for times multiple answers can go to the same next screen. For instance, in simple situations where a scenario choice is either right or wrong, you might only need to create two branches no matter how many options you give learners.
- Just because your story branched doesn’t mean those new paths can’t come back together later. You can reunite branches when it makes sense for the situation.
It’s okay to offer all bad or all good options
Many learning scenario choices follow the same formula: one option is great, one’s just okay, and the final one is definitely worth avoiding. It’s not an inherently bad way to structure choices, but it’s often not realistic. Not only that, but in real situations sometimes none of the options available are good. The game Spent is a perfect example of how to apply this to scenarios. Designed to help people better understand the day-to-day challenges of poverty, players must weigh terrible options and try to pick the one that leads to the least harm. You don’t have any great choices in the game precisely because there aren’t great options in the real-life experiences it’s depicting.
So if a situation you’re simulating wouldn’t have positive options, it’s okay to only offer weak choices and challenge learners to identify the least harmful one. Take a scenario where learners practice assisting angry customers. If they make enough mistakes along the way, it makes sense that eventually they’d run out of choices that could magically save the day. At some point, they might just need to do damage control to keep things from getting worse.
This also works in reverse—sometimes it makes sense to offer multiple good options. Going back to our example, there’s often more than one way to help an upset customer. Starting the scenario with several different good choices could help learners figure out which approach feels most natural for them.
Ripple effects of past choices can unlock additional options
Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? They were a fun, low-tech way to experience the kind of story branching we use in e-learning scenarios today. But the branching in these stories was simplistic, with each set of options operating in isolation. That’s why the move to digital has been so helpful for this type of storytelling—there’s now a way for the story to “remember” your choices. And this opens up all sorts of new possibilities to adjust your story branches or conversation options based on one or more past decisions.
Visual novel games like One Night, Hot Springs do a great job of showing how much this can deepen a story. Just like in real situations, the things you say or do change how characters relate to you for the rest of the game—not just immediately afterward. New conversation options open up because of past reactions. And some story paths can only be unlocked if you make a specific combination of choices earlier.
While this level of complexity isn’t always needed, it can enhance scenarios involving conversations or interpersonal relationships. That makes it a good fit for training “soft skills,” like difficult conversations, coaching, interviewing, and more. It also works well for escape room scenarios where learners need to find items and solve puzzles in a specific order.
Time limits can mimic stress
Few things can amp up the pressure like a clock ticking down. And that stress can make scenarios more realistic and motivate learners to think fast—when used strategically.
Video games use time limits to shift behavior in all sorts of ways, from the time field in Super Mario Bros. that encourages you to speed through levels to the bomb countdown timer in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes that turns up your anxiety and makes it easier to make mistakes. These limits can increase the difficulty of a level or pressure you to speed up how you play. But in the case of Keep Talking, the timer also makes the situation feel more realistic.
While time limits can be a strong motivator in e-learning scenarios, they can also backfire if you’re not careful with how and when you use them. Here are some best practices to keep in mind when using them:
- Allow learners to opt out. Timed challenges can be an accessibility issue for some learners. So if the limit isn’t a legal requirement, consider including a way to turn it off.
- Only include timers when it improves learning. A little time stress goes a long way. It’s best to save this feature for instances where meeting a time limit connects strongly to learning goals.
- Don’t make it too hard. Ensure the limits you do use are realistic and achievable. If it’s too hard to meet the requirements, your time limit could cause learners to tune out instead of engage.
Make it easy and worthwhile to replay
Part of what makes branching scenarios so powerful for learning is the ability to replay the experience to see how different choices would have played out. Like having your own time machine, you can rewind and see what would have happened if you’d done things differently. It’s fun from a curiosity perspective, but this functionality also provides a fantastic opportunity for people to learn from their mistakes and try again.
Many video games these days play with the idea of story branching and replays, but unfortunately not all of them make it enjoyable. The ones that get this right tend to have two things in common: they’re easy to replay and the story branches are different enough that going through the scenario again feels worth the effort.
Overboard, a mystery in which you’re a murderer trying to cover your trail, is a solid example of this. Content is easy to skip, so you can zoom through sections you’ve already seen. The game also highlights past choices, making it easy to know what options you haven’t tried out yet. Then, at the end of each playthrough, it shares hints about new things to try next time around. And because the story goes in so many different directions depending on your choices, it’s not only effortless to replay—it’s enjoyable too.
These approaches are easy to replicate in e-learning scenarios. You can encourage multiple playthroughs by making your story choices and paths feel meaningfully different from each other. Not locking down the navigation makes repeated content quick to skim through. Clearly identifying past choices and offering replay hints can make it easier for learners to find new story branches. And adding a Replay button to the final screen encourages learners to give it another try.
It’s clear that making a compelling branching scenario is about more than making sure each of your slides redirects the learner to the right place—it’s also about connecting your story choices in ways that feel realistic and provoke deep thought.
By being thoughtful about how you motivate and encourage learners, removing frustrating barriers, and making your content both realistic and intriguing, you can design scenarios that take full advantage of everything this format has to offer.
Want to learn more about creating e-learning scenarios that make an impact? Check out these articles:
- 6 Things Video Games Can Teach You About Writing Engaging Scenarios
- 7 Tips for Writing Effective E-Learning Scenarios
- 3 Different Types of Scenarios You Can Design
- How to Easily Create Branching Scenarios in Rise 360
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