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An attempt to talk about Kentucky Route Zero

It’s been almost 4 months since the final installment of Kentucky Route Zero, ACT V, was released, and since I was a huge fan, I decided to replay each act again to lead me into the last one; it has been over a month since I have done that, and since then I’ve written this article dozens of times and it always comes out wrong. Sometimes it feels I revealed too much, hyped it to unreachable heights, and then other times, it feels like I’m saying nothing and serving no purpose; point being, I have to say something about one of my favorite entertainment properties I have ever experienced, and due to my love of it and its nature, I find it extremely difficult to find the words for it, the structure it needs, and be respectful towards the experience it provides. So, if you haven’t played KRZ, you should open a new tab, see what it is, and if you have any interest in it, just play it; if you don’t mind reading a lot of text, point and click gameplay, or exploring in video games, and if you like philosophy, surrealism, and forming mental connections between characters, themes, and personal experiences, then you will, at the very least, enjoy KRZ. As far as this article goes, I will not get into any story details, but my belief is that KRZ is best experienced without any knowledge about it, so be warned and if at any time you feel sold on the game, stop reading this article and come back after you’ve experienced the game.

In order to properly talk about KRZ, one should start at the most basic, fundamental point: What is KRZ? Well, it’s a game, but not in the ways you might expect; normally, when people right off “walking sims” as button mashing simulators, where the only real interactivity is to mash the button that progresses the text/story, I usually ignore them and shrug it off as someone providing “criticism” for something they clearly have no interest in – KRZ is different. There are no “interactive” elements found in similar games, at least in the traditional sense; there are no puzzles to solve, your dialogue decisions do not affect the story or the gameplay in any way, your decisions are not tracked, and for the most part your actions as the player have little to no impact on the world or the game besides you hitting the point where the story will progress. That’s not to say that KRZ does not have interactions – you do choose from a number of dialogue choices, and you can explore this digital world – however they are not used in a traditional context. So, what is KRZ? Well, it’s a game, but not really; it’s a theater play that is acted upon your platform through the medium of video games. Now all the elements of KRZ begin to make more sense; you don’t get to decide what happens next, the writer already made that decision; you don’t get to shape the world, the stage is set and that’s final. In this context, KRZ allows you a degree of interactivity that other games can only dream of, and that interactivity is vital in this particular play; while other games advertise how they would allow you to be the director, KRZ makes sure you understand that you are an actor – you are allowed to interpret the character you’re playing, to improvise on a lot of the play, but you have to stick to the stage and the script. It’s vital because when you are choosing a dialogue option and exploring the world, what you do and how you justify it will shape the tone and the context of the play, it will allow you to connect with the characters on a personal level – unlike the majority of other games, the characters are not yours, they are something far more poignant: they are your interpretation of them. You are not god and the world does not revolve around you, but you are someone helping shape something greater than yourself, even if it is this experimental indie game/theater play.

This isn’t a huge revelation or anything like that, KRZ goes out of its way to make sure you understand that this is framed as a theater play; episodes are acts, different situations are scenes and most of them are on one location as if they are actual, physical stages and sets; when a particularly sad or important monologue happens, the light slowly dims and focuses on the text as if spoken by an actor on stage. What amazes and inspires me, the reason why KRZ is one of my favorite entertainment experiences, is how it uses the format of video games (both its inherent limitations and unique perks) to deliver that experience; take for example the visuals. In an actual theater play, the sets are the most important piece, because they have to not only be practical and look the part, but also inform the viewer where the stage is set, what the state of said stage is, be consistent, and be easily and quickly movable, so that when the stage changes it happens in a matter of seconds; in this sense, KRZ creates some impressive sets and props only doable in this digital format. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you will never see another game like KRZ, partly because of the surrealist imagery (more on that later), but mostly because they are designed and implemented as if they were physical props on a physical stage, which creates this sense of the world actually being real that I never experienced before. However, video games impose very different challenges in the visual department than those of theater; making photo-realistic environments and characters is costly and takes very long to create, like theater as well, but will also lead to a huge download size, to your game looking like every other game, and may be too much to handle for a small size of developers, which could have also led to the scope of the game limited to much the manpower available. Instead, they chose to have this beautifully detailed, low polygon art style that makes their game visually distinct, that also lead to some interesting artistic choices; for example, the characters don’t have facial features that can emote and, alongside the lack of voice acting, could have made the game an atonal, boring mess. Instead, they use font size, speed, style, and the theater-like visual techniques to sell you this notion of you being the actor in this play, not the characters you see; it also makes their abstract figures right at home with the surrealist art of the world and really easy to view them as someone you know that’s in a similar position or to project a face that makes sense to you on theirs. 

Moreover, interactivity allows KRZ to deliver experiences in a way that in a physical theater play would have been extremely difficult, nigh impossible. This is where KRZ truly starts to shine, because it takes its themes and its artistic intentions and delivers them through the inherent limitations and perks of narratives in video games, and it’s that novelty and that uniqueness that makes KRZ so endearing and impactful. For example, in any story, you need to set up the world, the characters, and what the story is actually about; this is a delicate balance to hit, because you don’t want someone walking up on stage and telling people what the story is about and who everyone is, because that robs the audience of an experience and is very boring, so you need to give basic information for the story to begin and introduce everyone slowly. In video games, this is often the case, but video games also have the unique functionality of interactivity, so even though a lot of games have terrible stories, they are often adored for other qualities. In a video game, the interactivity allows for so much more creativity. KRZ uses this inherent perk to its utmost potential; by allowing players the choice of dialogue, it gives amble opportunity and reason to learn all you want to know about the world and the characters; by using surrealist style, weird questions and answers are part of the course, they can be colored with melancholic tones and be expository without breaking suspension of disbelief or clashing with the rest of the game. An example of this is my favorite moment of the entire game; the performance of a song. If you want this can be a highly evocative song that gives the characters a much-needed break, or it can be another weird looking thing that just happened, or it can be an extension of the themes and a take on them. For me, because I found out the story behind the song, it was heart-breaking moment that brought me to tears (twice). Video games, through their limitations and perks, allow good story tellers to deliver a satisfying story and allow players to participate in it with their own personal context and understanding. KRZ, not only allows for that context, it allows for the player to set their tone to the story, what they learn, to characters and their reactions. A lot of games tout that their decisions will allow a player to create a unique story that is going to be theirs, but that is only true in theory; you’re very unlikely to find a playthrough of a TellTale game with all the choices exactly the same as yours, but in practice, your story is not very dissimilar than everyone else; my playthrough of KRZ is entirely mine, not because I chose differently or saw different aspects, but because I am who I am and I will interpret, sympathize, and rationalize what we all read, saw, and experienced uniquely.

All of these points, fall apart without the biggest draw of the game: surrealism. This technique is not too often found in video games, because although the medium is strongly suited for it, it is extremely hard to get right consistently for the duration of a game, but when used correctly, it makes for a special game, and KRZ is no different. What KRZ understands is that, regardless of the medium and its features, your ‘thing’ needs to have a “heart” that everything contributes to. Surrealism is a technique that allows creators to explore and be candid about subjects that are hard to talk about; whether that’s because its heavy subject matter and surrealism makes the visuals so bizarre and otherworldly, that it gives a safe, unreal space to explore; maybe because it is so common or greatly covered topic, surrealism can allow a fresh visual take to give novelty and create interest. Whatever the reason, and there are many, to use surrealism, KRZ’s whole structure as a video game, cannot work without it. What you choose in the game, whether it is intentionally bizarre, funny, or straight-forward, fits within the narrative and the vibe of the entire experience, because of KRZ’s mastery of the technique and the craft to utilize it. For a game that can be summed up as “you point and click”, there’s a tremendous amount of variety in each act, scene, and interval minisode. That’s not to say that KRZ is an easy game to make; far from it, when you create something that’s intentionally weird, abstract, and ambiguous, it’s really easy to annoy and come off as boring or preachy, but KRZ remains a compelling mystery that is poignant in its themes and messages, as well as it allows for an unprecedented personal interpretation and connection, without feeling pretentious or intentionally obscure. This isn’t the equivalent of shock value (where something is gory or grotesque just to get a reaction, with no meaning or reasoning behind it), this is an experimental game whose experiment is a resounding success, and left me in awe of its accomplishments.

In all honesty, that is why I found it so hard to talk about this game, why it took me weeks of work, and a dozen of rewrites. I could have given examples of the gameplay and talked about its variation through the acts, by being specific; I’ve talked about themes and personal connections without saying what they actually are, because part of that process was figuring them out myself and going through a lot of my first playthrough completely oblivious of them; I could have uploaded a few screenshots just to show the visuals, but that would be a shame to have that be your first impression of them; I didn’t even mention one of my favorite parts of the experience, the bittersweet country/gospel music and the weird sounds that keep to the background, because out of context and removed from the experience, they lack the flair that would make them noticeable. That’s why it’s so hard to talk about this game, but I find it so necessary to do so; it blew me away and showed me how much better video game narratives and experiences can be. A narrative game doesn’t need to have timers to make the decisions weighty, or different endings to make it feel interactive; it doesn’t need photorealistic visuals to immerse you or a narrative you can fully comprehend and explore to mean something to you. To many KRZ will be a pointless, pretentious, and boring ‘thing’, because to them it’s not even fit to be called a game, and, surprisingly, I’m okay with that; when something is going for a personal and highly ambitious experience, having some hate it and some love it, is the proof that the developers did not compromise and are part of a lucky few, who have created something that for some will be another game they may never play, but to some will mean the world.

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