Player as actor in Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero is a videogame by Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt). It’s the most interesting thing I have played (or read or watched) in a while. What I’m jotting down here has mostly to do with the question of player agency vs. authorial control, but that’s just one facet of a game where every corner has been carefully crafted. I’ve included a bunch of links at the bottom for those who want a rabbit hole to follow.

The script and the actor

Here is what the game’s website says about it:

Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it. Gameplay is inspired by point-and-click adventure games (like the classic Monkey Island or King’s Quest series, or more recently Telltale’s Walking Dead series), but focused on characterization, atmosphere and storytelling rather than clever puzzles or challenges of skill.

“Focused on characterization, atmosphere and storytelling rather than clever puzzles or challenges of skill” is probably the best one-sentence description of the sort of games I’m interested in. Like Gone Home, this means no puzzles and no failstate; you can’t lose and while it’s possible to feel a little lost, you never really get stuck.

One of the most interesting questions in games like this is, if all choices lead you through the same story, you can’t get stuck, and you can’t lose, what kind of control does the player have?

Gone Home and Her Story mostly sidestep this issue by making the gameplay an investigation into something that has already happened. You have some control over the order in which you find things out, but you’re uncovering a story that already exists.

Kentucky Route Zero has more in common with Firewatch in that you’re living the main story, not uncovering it. And in both, you make decisions about phrasing and small details that the game remembers and uses later.

KRZ differs from Firewatch in that you are not looking out of anyone else’s eyes, and sometimes the game changes which character’s decisions and utterances you are influencing. This makes it a little strange to call it a “walking simulator.” But if you think of that term as a technique rather than a genre, I think it fits.

The fact that the interaction in this game is fairly inconsequential in terms of plot but still feels important has been commented on by several people. At Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Alex Wiltshire said:

Its players aren’t fully under our control, and our perspective constantly shifts between them as the game requires. “Our surface level treatment of dialogue was to show it as though you are maybe watching a play from a distance, maybe too far to hear the actors speaking, so you’re reading along with the script or something like that,” its writer and programmer, Jake Elliott, tells me.

But the choices you’re given are still meaningful. Perhaps we’re also directors of this story, because I have my own Conway. He’s a gentle and uncomplicated man; he speaks as he sees, and doesn’t see very much. But he could be more insightful or more assertive if I chose other options. You know they won’t really shift the narrative but they have a knack of letting the characters breathe, and you get a greater idea of who they are, and who they could be.

At Paste Magazine, Ansh Patel describes it this way:

Ranging from despondent, bitter to hopeful, each choice holds a mirror to the player, asking them a basic question that games rarely if ever bother asking: “How do you feel?”

By doing so, Kentucky Route Zero is able to achieve something important: It includes the player in its narrative process even though the narrative is linear. Every choice you make in the game affects your experience of it and how you contextualize the characters within it more than the actual plot itself.

In a conference presentation, Jake Elliott, the game’s writer, concisely characterizes this technique as “making the player not decide, but inflect a decision,” like an actor who inhabits a set built by someone else and follows a script but makes the performance his own.

I like that a lot. I have tried in the past to define the “walking simulator” technique with a hard distinction: the player might be given a certain degree of control over the order and pace in which information is uncovered, and some influence over tone through choosing dialogue and small details about the world, but the creator has control over the story. But that distinction will always be problematic—both imprecise and restrictive. Some of the details you choose in KRZ involve the characters’ backstories—does that count as details of the world or control over the story? Elliott’s metaphor is more evocative and freeing: As a player, you are an actor, with material handed to you that serves as both a jumping off point and a set of constraints.

Here’s the rabbit hole

If you want to get a sense of how much care went into this game, just read about all of the influences and explicit references: Here’s the designer, Tamas Kemenczy, talking about film influences, and here’s critic Magnus Hildebrandt doing a very deep dive.

Also check out all the ancillary material that Cardboard Computer has created:

  • The public access TV station in the game, WEVP, has a website with real programming. Here’s a guide to what has been shown so far.
  • Limits & Demonstrations is a retrospective exhibition by pioneering installation artist Lula Chamberlain, a character in the game.
  • The Entertainment is a set of two plays, written by (the fictitious) Lem Dolittle with sets designed by Lula Chamberlain. You can buy the scripts or experience the plays either in a “mouse and monitor version” or a “VR version.”
  • Here and There Along the Echo. I haven’t explored this yet and don’t know what to expect, but the Echo is a river in the game.

All of this and the game isn’t even finished yet! It’s a game in five acts, and four are available so far. Act 4 came out almost exactly a year ago, act 3 a couple years before that. Hopefully that means the conclusion is coming soon.

Notes on The Pickle Index

The Pickle Index is a story app by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn with art by Ian Huebert:

In a glum nation ruled by a stylish dictator, all citizens are required by law to participate in the Pickle Index, a fermentation-based recipe exchange. From within this network, an incompetent circus attempts an unlikely uprising.

Thrills, chills, spills, & dills!

The writing combines George Saunders-style bureaucratic verbosity with some Tom Robbins absurd flair. You can get it in print, too, but you’d be missing some groundbreaking experiments in using software to tell a story.

When you open the app, it doesn’t present itself as a novel. It presents itself as the Pickle Index from the story. Rather than having a page 1 to start on, there are several different places to dive in: the recipe index, the Q&A section, bulletins from the dystopian administration, an animated map of the story world.

Notification badges—little red circles with numbers in them that people are used to seeing on their email app—keep you from feeling unmoored: There are several places you can go, but you never have to wonder where need to go to take the next step in the story. It’s a smart way to keep readers from getting lost.

The app isn’t just a framing device; it is itself story content. For example, rather than being told by a third-person narrator “Flora’s missives became more and more popular as time wore on,” you see yourself that the share count keeps going up. And when you reach the end of the story, the animated map of the story world shows that for the first time people are traveling between two formerly blockaded areas. That could have been a written epilogue: “Following the downfall of the administration…” But instead the app silently shows it.

The app makes playful use of its platform in other ways too: You can shake your phone or iPad to make certain things go faster, and there are title treatments that transform as you tilt your device. One thing I’m ambivalent about: It forces you to read the story over at least ten days—once you finish a section, you have to wait until the next day for a notification to alert you that the next section is available. This makes sense: The app is supposed to be the app from the story, which sends daily bulletins. But as a reader with a tight schedule it’s frustrating to have the time and desire to read something and be prevented, especially if you know you’re not going to have time the next day. I understand the desire on the part of the authors to immerse people in the story world by making story time line up with reading time, and the appeal of having an excuse to send notifications as another way to use the platform, but I think a useful rule of thumb would be “Don’t prevent people from reading your story.”

I’m a couple years late to this party: The Pickle Index was published in late 2015, and right after it came out there was a fascinating back-and-forth among Eli Horowitz, Russell Quinn, Robin Sloan, and Craig Mod. Required reading if you’re interested in this stuff.

The return of the scroll

Phallaina is “the first scrolling graphic novel,” and it is fun. Instead of turning pages, you just scroll from left to right. Breaking free of the confines of the codex means there is no need to divide the illustrations into panels. Take a look at this example, where one plane serves first as the floor but then also as a door perpendicular to that same floor:


There are dozens of thoughtful, playful moments like that, all enabled by the scroll.

This is the sort of thing that is both exciting and difficult to think about in relation to a future generation of ebooks. Sometimes, as you can in most ebook readers now, you want to give people the option to switch between pagination and scrolling. But sometimes, as evidenced by Phallaina, scrolling is essential to the experience. Other times text and illustrations will have been carefully crafted to sit together within the rectangle of a page, and in that case not only must you force pagination, you can’t allow the text to reflow for different screen sizes. How do you accommodate all those variables—scroll vs. page, optional vs. forced, formless vs. definite? One of the under-appreciated virtues of paper is the number of decisions that are made for you.

‘Walking simulator’ as technique, not genre

Games like Gone Home, Firewatch, and The Stanley Parable are sometimes called “walking simulators,” a term that started out as derogatory before it was appropriated, or at least accepted, by people who like these games that focus more on story and exploring a space than on puzzles, fighting, and whether you win or lose. But in reading an article about the making of the interactive short film Solace, I was surprised to see the term applied to something that isn’t a game at all:

The original concept could be boiled down to a cartoon you could play with. Like a more traditional film, I wanted the story to be front and center — the interaction should not overpower the narrative. The challenge was to balance playability with the joy of sitting and listening to a good story, well told.

From the start it became apparent that there was a conflict between listening to the narrator’s voice and playing with the interaction. If any of interaction was too complicated, or absorbing, users would miss key moments in the narrative. On the other hand, not being a traditional animation, if the interaction wasn’t strong enough, a user would get bored. This was an experience that couldn’t use traditional game mechanics, or puzzles in general. It had to be closer to a film that you are mindlessly toying with. Nothing to solve. Nothing to complete.

Through numerous iterations and user testing, the end result can be described (in the trendy parlance) as a ‘2D walking simulator’. The user plays with each of the 17 scenes, but their actions don’t drive the narrative. Each scene and the interaction within the scene is a metaphor for the story at that particular point. Sometimes it is as simple as what the narrator says is what the user sees. At other times, the interaction referred or alluded to greater themes of the story.

This offhanded comment by Evan Boehm does something brilliant: It redefines “walking simulator” as a storytelling technique rather than a game genre, a technique that strikes what I think is a very satisfying balance between player agency and authorial control.

Quietly personalized stories

Sam Barlow, the author of Her Story, is now at a company called Eko, thinking about interactive storytelling without the need for explicit choices from the viewer:

Barlow was uncertain how much of the “WarGames” tracking mechanics he should reveal to the viewer. “The two-million-dollar question is: Do we need to show this?” he said. He believed that interactive films will increasingly resemble online ads: unobtrusively personalized media. “When ads first started tracking you, for the first few months you’d be, like, ‘How did they know?’ A couple of months later, you’d be, like, ‘Of course they knew. I was Googling baby formula.’ And now it’s, like, ‘I’m still getting spammed for vacation properties around Lake Placid, and I’m, like, Dude, we went. You should already know!’ ”

The entire article, “Will interactive films be this century’s defining art form?,” is worth reading. 

Notes on Her Story

Her Story by Sam Barlow is an interesting, enjoyable experiment. Its website describes it as “non-linear” storytelling, but I think a more accurate description would be “random-access” storytelling.

You find yourself in front of a computer screen in which you type in keywords to search for video clips from a series of police interviews with…well, part of your job is figuring out who.

Like Gone Home, you control the plotting but not the story (the syuzhet but not the fabula, for you formalists out there). Like CLOUDS, the database at the heart is exposed and central. Like PRY, you are given an indication of how much of the material you have uncovered. The mechanic feels a little like what I described in my Kuleshov 2.0 thought experiment, except the story itself doesn’t change depending on the order in which you watch the clips; it’s the draft in your head that is changing, mutating with each new piece of information to better align itself with the story slowly being uncovered.

Part of its charm is that in scale and quirkiness it feels like the work of one person, and it largely was. I had fun reading about the tools Sam Barlow used to put it together: a couple VCRs to degrade the video footage, a $100 audio recorder supplemented with a free sound effect library, a MacBook Air that I picture slowly but surely chugging through its Final Cut and Unity renders.

Barlow must have had help recording the actual video interviews, and the success of the whole thing hinges on the performance of the actor, Viva Seifert. Other than that, the development of this game is as close to a writerly experience as I have ever heard of for a visual (non-text) game.

Notes on PRY, part 2

I just finished the second and final installment of the app-novella PRY, which I first wrote about a few months ago. Looking back, I mostly still agree with what I wrote in that post. Some additional notes:

  • It’s an exciting idea to present different parts of a story in different ways, e.g., give readers more of a lean-back cinema experience when the story calls for it, then make them dig with their hands when the atmosphere changes or a plot point is better illustrated that way. Authors do this already by, for example, modifying their syntax to slow down a reader when it serves; film editors modify rhythm over the course of a scene and an entire film. Doing a more exaggerated version of this with software is a leap, but it’s a leap along a path we have already been following.
  • I’m amazed that the word “palimpsest” did not appear in my first post.
  • Letting readers cut between different angles of a filmed scene is an engaging middle ground between traditional cinema and virtual reality.
  • Since remarking on PRY’s “completion indicators” the first time around, I noticed a very similar feature in another piece of electronic literature, The Truth About Cats & Dogs by Sam Riviere and Joe Dunthorne. I wonder if this will become common practice, or if we will begin to abandon the idea of “finishing” certain types of electronic literature as they begin to adopt the less-bounded character of the web.


Hypertext narrative contrasted with interactive fiction

As I continue to figure out the different types of interactive storytelling out there, this dialogue between Emily Short and Mark Bernstein was helpful:

Emily: I like the distinction between calligraphic (sparsely linked) and sculptural hypertext (densely-linked, controlled by rules); though I think I tend to associate hypertext only with the former kind of work. When I hear “hypertext”, I assume something with minimal modeling behind the scenes.

Mark: This is an interesting – perhaps the interesting – distinction between the IF and hyperfiction traditions. IF is inclined to model story, while HT is inclined to model — or to believe itself to be modeling, plot. I don’t believe this has ever been stated clearly. Has it?

UPDATE: Mark Rickerby gets at something similar:

The core distinction [between parser games and choice fiction] is between the story unfolding through actions modifying a world model and the story developing through predefined narrative branches.


Writers of writers

In a couple previous posts, I wondered about what it means for humans’ role in the creative process when computers begin generating texts. Will we be promoted to editors and curators, or be out of a job?

Ross Goodwin provides a different metaphor:

I would have been more nervous about sharing the machine’s poetic output in front of so many people, but the poetry had already passed what was, in my opinion, a more genuine test of its integrity: a small reading at a library in Brooklyn alongside traditional poets.

Earlier in February, I was invited to share some work at the Leonard Library in Williamsburg. The theme of the evening’s event was love and romance, so I generated several poems [1,2] from images I considered romantic. My reading was met with overwhelming approval from the other poets at the event, one of whom said that the poem I had generated from the iconic Times Square V-J Day kiss photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt “messed [him] up” as it seemed to contain a plausible description of a flashback from the man’s perspective.

I had been worried because, as I once heard Allison Parrish say, so much commentary about computational creative writing focuses on computers replacing humans—but as anyone who has worked with computers and language knows, that perspective (which Allison summarized as “Now they’re even taking the poet’s job!”) is highly uninformed.

When we teach computers to write, the computers don’t replace us any more than pianos replace pianists—in a certain way, they become our pens, and we become more than writers. We become writers of writers.

“Writers of writers.”

Anybody interested in machine-generated text should read Goodwin’s “Adventures in Narrated Reality”: Part 1, Part 2.