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Games want to offer us many roads but Kentucky Route Zero is the one road that matters

Player choice has to be about more than numbers.

"Your choices matter" is a refrain repeated again and again in the marketing campaigns of dozens upon dozens of narrative-driven games. Like most things with video games, it's the promise of scale and scope. The more variances that can occur, the more drastic the consequences, the more the game is seen as a success. The recently released Detroit: Become Human promoted itself on this basis, touting huge choices and variations. True enough, the game can play out with drastic differences. The problem is that no matter what way it played out, I felt nothing.

I'll wager that the most meaningful decisions you've had in these kind of games, the ones that really moved you, were the smaller choices. Not whether you saved the entire galaxy in Mass Effect but whether you rescued your good buddy Garrus from giving in to vengeful bloodlust. Not who rules the world's kingdoms by the end of The Witcher 3 but whether you took the time to bond with your adopted daughter Ciri, to help her grow as a person.

With that in mind I think Kentucky Route Zero is the game that really points the way forward on "meaningful" choices. It follows a delivery truck driver named Conway as he's pulled into an increasingly surreal world beneath Kentucky. See, it takes a completely different approach to choice. It doesn't have big branching narratives. Instead the choices you make are largely contained within a scene. Some carry on throughout the game's episodes (only four of five have been released) but don't change the direction of the plot. Take, for instance, the first choice it gives the player. What's the name of Conway's faithful canine companion? No matter what name you choose it doesn't change anything that follows. But does it change how you feel about that dog? Damn right.

Cover image for YouTube videoKentucky Route Zero (Kickstarter, 2011)

What Kentucky Route Zero gets at that I think is often missed in narrative choices is that what's really important is not asking the player what they think will happen, but asking them how they feel. How do they feel about this person? This situation? KR0 stages itself like theatre with its acts and scenes, casting the player as director. You're not here to dictate the plot but simply its tone and its character. It wants players to form a personal relationship with the story, to explore how they feel about what's going on. Not to treat narrative choices like challenges keeping them from the best results.

That's why Kentucky Route Zero leaves such an impression and it's why those blockbuster games' smaller choices that stay with their fans. Games are meant to challenge us and make us feel. Treating narratives like something you can stretch out to give more value does a disservice to players and our engagement. A game's choices don't have to let us change the world to matter. They just have to let us make a little difference for ourselves.