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 Firewatch

In my notes on Gone Home, I said that the mechanics of the game forced the story to be told in the past tense. I didn’t see how one could create a story exploration video game with that degree of subtlety any other way.

Then, a few months ago, Firewatch was released.

I won’t spoil any plot details, and instead only say that, although there are past events that you uncover, the main story is yours, and it unfolds as you play—in the very beginning as a text adventure that quickly moves you through several years, then in the remainder as a “walking simulator” experience that takes place over a summer spent as a fire lookout in the forest, and that is as much about the conversations and other events happening as you go as it is about the past you are uncovering. And it works.

So, no, Gone Home’s retrospective style is not the only option for this medium.

From what I can tell from playing and what I have read, Firewatch follows the same basic plotline no matter what, but customizes its dialog based on your choices as a player. The writer, Sean Vanaman, explained to Slate:

“The conversation is putting itself together dynamically, and that means it can be hyper-specific,” said Vanaman. “There are 10,000 events in the game—speech and everything else—that can happen.” Rather than simply shunting you from branch to branch of a dialogue tree, the game looks at everything you’ve said and done, and picks the truest and most specific thing that can happen next. “There are so many [variables] in our game that are so silly and weird. There’s stuff like, has Henry ever mentioned the outhouse? Maybe that matters.”

It’s a fascinating way to tell an interactive story: Exert total control over the main plot points while letting the player’s choices shade the experience. It makes real one of the first things you see when you play the game: The statement “You are Henry.”

Some people have been frustrated with the ending. Those who were disappointed seemed to think they were playing a potboiler and discovered at the end they were playing literary fiction.

But it seems obvious that this was intentional misdirection on the part of the authors, and if you’re receptive to a climax happening on an emotional register instead of a blowing-things-up register, the fact that you weren’t sure which type of ending to expect makes it that much more impactful.

Aside from the issue of the ending, I would guess that the issue of audience comes into play: The story deals with marriage and kids, and it wouldn’t have meant as much to me if I had played it before experiencing those things.

If you want a more thorough meditation on the ending and don’t mind spoilers, see “The End of Firewatch” in The Campo Santo Quarterly Review. (Campo Santo is the company that developed Firewatch. Any development company that runs a literary magazine on the side is one to follow.)