The Gravity of Small Choices
Part 1: Who shot first?
Games like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, or Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero often have the same criticisms: that there is only an illusion of choice; that the dialogue options do not matter in the larger narrative. In a series of posts, I want to explore the dynamics of choice within narrative, focusing on the smaller details, the things that may or may not matter, and the how the smaller, more detailed choices we make in games only changes the requirement of how close we have to play them to find them interesting, not how important they actually are.
In examining the importance of “details of choice,” I want to start by examining a small detail in a popular narrative that we can see changing a character in a major way. After examining this detail, which has created vast discussion and controversy, we can try to imagine it in the context of a video game, and think about in what ways our “dialogue choice” effects the character without directly impacting the remaining plot of the narrative. Let’s look at the choices of Han Solo during his infamous showdown with Greedo in the 1977 film, Star Wars.
First, a short primer on this controversial detail (and scene) within the Star Wars narrative in the most objective sense:
- Greedo forces Han Solo into the booth at gunpoint
- Greedo has “been waiting a long time” to kill Han
- Han readies his weapon without Greedo seeing
- Han shoots Greedo dead in one shot
Now, take a close look at this side-by-side comparison of the original scene, and then the remastered version:
The controversy lies in between points 3 and 4. In the original 1977 version, Han Solo says “I’ll bet you have,” and kills Greedo suddenly. In the remastered version, Greedo takes a shot at Han, misses, and then Han kills Greedo.
While the debates, articles, and theories surrounding the divergence in character that happens here are both numerous and exhaustive, the basic thesis is that this divergence either makes Han cold-blooded or it makes him lucky.
Greedo shooting first marks Han as lucky, because although Greedo is very close to Han (and is an experienced bounty hunter), he misses by several inches. If Han waits for Greedo to shoot first here, he puts his life in the aiming ability of a professional killer sitting a few feet away. While this choice can mark Han as both stupid and/or incredibly fortunate, it also resonates further throughout the rest of the films if we imagine Han as having some kind of miraculous nature about him; that he has an implicit destiny in this world, and the unlikely survival during that encounter was somehow sealed in fate. Every time Han escapes death after Greedo shoots is a commentary on his luckiness, because we witnessed it happen in such an undeniable way.
The more popular opinion, that Han shoots first, marks Han as cold, smart, and willing to kill to save his own life. The ability for Han to un-holster his weapon, engage in witty banter, and kill his attacker before he can even take a shot shows poise under pressure, confidence, and the willingness to do violence to others for a greater purpose. If we take this path after that encounter, Han is starting in the role of an anti-hero; a criminal who stays alive using his wit and application of violence by exploiting the weakness of a less violent (or more hesitant) person. In this way, he was more of a “bad guy” than the bad guy who was sent to kill him, and his subsequent transformation into a heroic character for the galaxy becomes that much more dramatic.
So what? If we consider the film continuing on after that scene, no matter which version we accept as canon, the plot, acting, and basic storyline of the Star Wars films are still exactly the same. They never comment on who shot first, the actors aren’t aware of a change or a choice, and the film’s ending is not affected by the character’s decision. So, does it matter? And how does our involvement in that choice implicate us in Han’s choice? It’s not hard to imagine a “choose your own adventure” type of game to have a similar moment, especially when fans actively change this detail in their own edited narrative of that film:
You are an infamous smuggler, having a drink in a bar. Suddenly, a bounty Hunter named “Greedo” points a blaster at you, forcing you into the corner booth of the bar. Do you:
[ ] [Remain seated]
[x] [Silently un-holster weapon]
You silently un-holster your weapon, and Greedo says “I’ve been waiting a long time to kill you, Han. Do you:
[ ] [Say “I’ll bet you have” & immediately shoot Greedo]
[ ] [Say “I’ll bet you have” and wait for a response]
While the result of both options is going to result in Greedo dying, we can clearly see how implicating ourselves in a simple choice can have a rippling effect on the character’s development.The question of: Who is Han Solo? now has multiple, hugely different answers depending on our reading (or our choice). Can we similarly ask: “Who is Conway?” when we play Kentucky Rote Zero? Like our either lucky hero or cold-blooded killer, Han Solo, there are multiple Conways in the universe now, and we each have our own.
The question now becomes: is this the exception or the rule? Not all choices in games are as grand as “Who shot first?” but do they all still matter? What if I pet my dog in Kentucky Route Zero? If Conway is short with the attendant at Equus Oils, does it change his disposition for the rest of the game? If no matter what happens in Act I, Act II starts the same way, what are the consequence of my actions, if any, and is the playing of a “Choose your own adventure game” only the illusion of choice?
I guess a compromise right now is that it always matters if you read closely enough. I’m sure there are tons of Star Wars fans out there who think that it is of little importance “who shot first,” and there are others whom will defend their choice relentlessly. So it does matter, but it’s up to us how much, and giving weight to the details of a gaming experience is an act of defining ambiguity that cements, in our mind, an experience that would otherwise be completely passive. If we are invested in our version of Han, we want him to be one way and not the other. If we are invested in Conway, it matters how he gets to Route Zero just as much as the fact that he gets there. The importance of Conway’s actions (and Han’s) is as important as we choose to know those characters. To know them is to go deeper than to watch them interact with the world, and their virtual embodiment goes beyond that of the plot-line and outcome. To know a character, and to experience a character, is to assign weight to choices closer to the ways in which we weigh choices in our own lives, and to dismiss those small choices as irrelevant creates a distance between choice and destiny that might be the opposite of what interactive narratives have to offer us.
In part two, I’ll look at word choice in Kentucky Route Zero, and how close reading can also mean close playing.