The Gravity of Small Choices – Part 2: Usually Just Feeling it Out

In the first post of this series, , I talked about how the “little things” in the narratives that we love can have such a huge impact on the art we consume. Although it was examining a film, I think the ideas translate well across to the VG medium, because while most games require a linear path, many allow for enough deviations that change our experience of playing.
In this post, I thought I’d talk a little bit about specific deviations in Kentucky Route Zero involving word/phrase choice.

Dialogue options in Kentucky Route Zero

When I think of word choice, there is one thing that comes to mind right away: poetry. Poetry is a lot of things to a lot of people, but I think a perfect way of putting is how the Pulitzer Prize winner, Gwendolyn Brooks, did:

Poetry is Life Distilled

Poetry is not only a distillation of life, but in many ways it is a distillation of language. Every word matters. When we consider rhyme, meter, or syllabics, we can break the word down even further, by saying that every syllable within every word matters. Looking at Acrostics or visual rhymes, we can distill our attention a little more to realize that every letter matters immensely to both the format and the reading of a poem. I’d also like to add the constituent movement of language into this list of things that matter, in which we can employ the functions of puns, slang, or oxymorons.
For an example of the importance of word-choice, I’ll take an excerpt of poetry (Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley) and challenge anyone who thinks they can change a single word and have it express the same thing (Even though, hypocritically, I’m changing the meaning by taking it out context):

Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.

A favorite reading of the full poem if you feel inclined:

We can, of course, try to compare the importance of language and words in other forms of media. Famous movie quotes, for example, become iconic and memorable for the eloquent way that they can represent a complex narrative event in a short amount of time. The argument can be made, however, that perhaps the word choice is valued differently. Does it matter that Ingrid Bergman doesn’t actually say, “Play it again, Sam” at any point in Casablanca? Do we care that people prefer to remember, “Luke, I am your father,” instead of “No, I am your father” (The correct quote)?
Keeping the differences in medium in mind, the larger challenge is to ask, do choices in games matter when the conclusion is the same?

To do this, I want to take a look at a series of choices that the player is presented with, which comes early on in the first act of Kentucky Route Zero. After your character, Conway, asks for the password, the fuel attendant Joseph responds:

The password id…uh…damn. I usually just feel it out. “Muscle Memory,” you know?
It’s kinda long, kinda like a short poem, I think. One of those short poems that really sums it all up.

You’ll figure it out.

“Muscle memory,” you know?

I think there’s magic in this passage that I haven’t fully figured out yet. While we later find out that the “password poem” is whatever we want to it be, but if we pay attention closely, Joseph is also telling us how to play the game. He is letting us know, in a very poignant way, that there is no right answer, no right choice, and no best experience in playing this game. The task is simply put, but might be more difficult to execute for some of us. He is asking us to not think too much about Conway, our choice, or the objectively correct game choice, but rather “feel it out.” If we attempt to fully allow muscle memory and feeling to guide our choice, we can imagine the development of our POV character in a way that is in some way owned by our choice, but in many ways shaped by our unconscious. Conway becomes not us, and not not-us simultaneously.

So, keeping this unconscious authorship in mind, let’s look at our poem options that the interface presents us with:
Line 1:
Wheels slide loose.
The stars drop away.
I talk and listen to him talking.

Line 2:
Nobody saw the accident.
The moon throbs.
It’s late.

Line 3:
You just breathe road.
The lights whine.
It will only get later.

My original poem choice was not given much thought, and I ended up with:

Wheels slide loose
The moon throbs
You just breathe road

While any of the poem options could produce a thought-provoking poem, I would challenge anyone to think about their own choices, how vastly different the feeling can be, and then how that relates to the bigger picture within Kentucky Route Zero. While these three choices make a poem, the nearly infinite number of dialogue options make a narrative, and every click, pause, reading, and viewing make a game. Kentucky Route Zero proves to me that games can resemble this complex form of poetry, that uses coding languages instead of spoken ones, and has a special way of blending authorship, readership, and experience, into a distilled piece of art.

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