Kentucky Route Zero and a New Way Forward
If you had a chance to read my justification for choosing Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead as my favourite game of 2012 here at C&G, you’ll likely have an idea of why I’m excited by the first act of Kentucky Route Zero, an episodic adventure game from indie dev Cardboard Computer.
In short, I think it’s a game that’s helping outline a new path for game design.
There is, I believe, a schism emerging in videogames — one that will see many titles developed in coming years focused on providing players with either traditional gameplay mechanics (think Super Mario Bros., XCOM or Doom) or interactive storytelling design (think The Walking Dead, Dear Esther or Heavy Rain). Some people have been thrilled by the growth of the latter category (myself among them) while others have seen the rise of these games as an affront to the True Faith of Skill-Based Gameplay. Those folks may suggest that Kentucky Route Zero, like The Walking Dead, is not a “game” at all because it is about experiencing a story, engaging with dialogue choices in lieu of puzzle solving or action sequences. I’d suggest, instead, that an influx of videogames concerned more with interactive narrative than arcade-style mechanics can only serve to enrich how we approach gameplay as a whole.
In Kentucky Route Zero‘s first act the player is absorbed not by the devious (often nonsensical) brain teasers of other adventure games, but by an interesting plot, well-written characters and a gorgeous Another World-esque aesthetic. The absence of navigation or inventory puzzles is never felt. The protagonist, Conway, is painted quickly and expertly. We feel as if we’ve accomplished something when we figure out that he is, quite likely, a former alcoholic (a fact that is revealed through allusion rather than exposition). The character of Shannon and the mysterious Marquez family she belongs to are similarly interesting, the first threads of their ghost story unravelling in a series of tantalizing, understated little revelations that drip feed new knowledge like other games offer level-ups.
The plot is carefully built in an inherently “gamey” fashion that emphasizes a dialogue between designer and creator, author and reader. Kentucky Route Zero is inherently interactive despite its lack of conventional gameplay mechanics. Poking around for hints into the fascinatingly opaque cast of characters, mysterious plot and explanation of the eponymous Route Zero is a reward unto itself. An argument that this is not a game is crazy. Many genres — especially action and RPG titles — have trimmed some fat during their evolution and now the adventure game is doing the same to revolutionary effect. Why include frustrating puzzles when the real thrust of so many titles under the adventure umbrella are driven by character interaction and plot progression? Sure, it isn’t necessary to remove skill-testing challenges from every type of game (I certainly wouldn’t want that), but there is a definite sense of innovation in videogames crafted by designers who are bold enough to offer a compelling, dynamic storyline without introducing mechanical fluff that isn’t warranted in the first place.Kentucky Route Zero is inherently interactive despite its lack of conventional gameplay mechanics.
If Kentucky Route Zero makes the kind of splash that I think it will it seems very likely that we’re in for even more debates on whether or not it should even qualify as a game. The people who think it isn’t will probably end up looking pretty silly in the future as (I predict) more titles influenced by the successes of it and The Walking Dead go on to release.
After The Walking Dead ended I got to wondering how long it would be until another game came along that took inspiration from it. I thought it would be too bad if the true successor to its school of design was a new season of the zombie apocalypse game from Telltale itself. Luckily, Kentucky Route Zero — a title that began development before any of had ever heard of Lee, Clementine, et al — shows that this isn’t the case, that the medium is moving forward into new territory as a whole rather than in incremental releases.
Less than a month into 2013 and it looks like this year’s videogames may be the most exciting in recent history.