Kentucky Route Zero, an unsettling point-and-click-plus-text-adventure starts with a wide shot, Edward Hopper style, of an old American gas station complete with a man-sitting-watching-world-go-by gatekeeper. It’s an unmistakably American scene, and a strangely constructed-feeling one. But we’ll come back to that…
The game, being released episodically as five Acts, features Conway, a man with Elvis quiff and a vague association with truck deliveries; Shannon, the cousin of a lady called Weaver who runs into Conway after he is sent to a delivery there; and a straw hat-wearing dog (which you name yourself, from a few options) that I chose to call Homer.
Its story unfolds in: traditional point-and-click scenes, where the graphics combine with gorgeous audio to paint fantastic scenes of a type of southern American life; but it also occurs over a top-down map of roads, which Conway drives; and in text vignettes, which are played like Twine games are, in text adventure .
This alone makes Kentucky Route Zero really interesting. It doesn’t make it so because of the novelty of these different approaches, though; the game has different approaches to better achieve its desired atmosphere, integral to its quality and made more effective by attention to different narrative approaches.
In other words: its theme has certain aspects to it which are more powerful using one method than another: and the game realises that, and runs with it, rather than confining the theme to form. If Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click, and if it is also a text adventure, it’s because it wants to express its story through an atmosphere; and if it uses both of these it is because it betters that story, that atmosphere.
But it doesn’t really give me choice. Jake wrote in 2012 about why violence, not narrative, represents greater choice in games – and maybe he’s right, as Kentucky Route Zero evidences. Like many games, Kentucky offers text (description and dialogue) and then a choice of dialogue options from which to move things on. It also (both when driving Conway’s truck around the map and when in point-and-click sections) offers you different routes – but, always, only one route really offers advancement.
For example, in scene IV of this first act, Conway and Shannon enter a mine. They sit on a tram, which the player moves along the mine shafts by clicking in the relevant directions; and depending on which shafts you take, you learn new and interesting things about the central story (not to mention some very creepy music and disconcerting imagery). About half-way down the first shaft is a turntable which presents new routes — bearing in mind that you must eventually escape this mine — for Conway and Shannon to navigate.
The 2D scene offers 4 new routes (2 on each rotation of the turntable) and each has its own merits (atmosphere, increasing context for the mystery behind this central story, lush settings) but does not lead to the exit for the mine.
Guess which does? The original mine shaft, before you took the turntable options. You entered by one route, and to get out, all you had to do was keep going right. This means that the other shafts, which improve the overall ‘feel’ of the game (and this game is about feel, for sure) are incidental, in theory – nothing to do with the move from scene to scene and the eventual completion of the act.
This is the Kentucky Route Zero deceit, and it’s very clever. It makes you feel like you’ve explored a quite organic world, simply by playing on the expectation that, given the option to try a new route by using the turntable, 9/10 players will never continue down the first shaft, to the exit. What Kentucky Route Zero does here is give you the feeling that you’re a frontiersmen, an explorer, penetrating possibly endless shafts with all kinds of options (in reality each is very short and offers a single set piece) simply by playing the odds; by assuming that the video game convention (how could it be the first way?) will lure you into a feeling of choice, or indeterminacy.
It does this with dialogue scenes, too. Before entering the mine, for example (and this is one of the most emotionally affecting little snippets I’ve seen in a video game) Shannon asks Conway to speak into a microphone which is connected to a PA that blasts down the entrance to the mines.
The pretense for this is that it will tell us how deep and sprawling the mines are. But it also gives the player a chance to understand, but also feel like they’re shaping, Conway’s narrative. Shannon asks him to tell a story: you are given the option of explaining your first delivery of the day, or your breakfast with Lisette.
All of these choices (at least for the purposes of the first Act) seem incidental, but they give the player a valuable feeling: that they are contributing something that could happen later. In his interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, co-creator Jake Elliott put it this way:
We’re thinking of it like the way that an actor chooses… They don’t necessarily choose the dialogue or the plot, but they choose how to inflect it and how to think about, depending on their method of acting, the inner life of the character. There’s a lot of construction that happens, creative construction that happens at the level of the actor in a play. We’re trying to put the player in that role.
Theatre has influenced more than just the dialogue. Walls of buildings fade away to reveal the interiors, much like the set of a play. In one memorable point, the camera zooms out slightly to reveal a new frame around the scene, with a band playing some melancholy bluegrass in the corner – to put you in the mind of a theatrical Chorus, perhaps.
What makes all this so arresting is this: Kentucky Route Zero has chosen its material superbly for its intentions. This is like playing a piece of theatre, with a sense of mystery and agency that makes it so wonderful in the way that (for example) the long, rambling cut-scenes in a Metal Gear Solid game — which is like watching a film in between playing a game — does not have.
At no point do you think “Well, this is all just prescribed to me” because it constantly performs these sleights of hand which mask that linear, game-like reality.
You never think “I have no power here: why would I bother?”. It’s too beautiful for you to notice.
Most importantly, though: while the choices you make don’t matter in terms of the action, and perhaps don’t even matter in terms of the text options you see later, they do matter. Also like a good book (or a good film: Kentucky feels much like both, or a halfway house between), the game brings choices from you, the player, and asks you to think; and while this might not affect what the characters on screen do or think, in terms of the options they are next presented with, it makes them as characters.
In the opening shots, when you are asked to log-in to a computer and give a password, Conway is asked to pick three lines of poetry, three times: and whatever you choose, the password is accepted. Some might call that prescriptive. But, won’t my Conway be a different person from your Conway, depending on the poem that you get him to answer?
Maybe Kentucky Route Zero is also a bit like a great poem in that, in its combination of mystery, story, atmosphere and sound, it goes some way towards poesis.