Kentucky Route Zero: quick thoughts

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, pacing, interactive fiction, kentucky route zero, if, episodic games, tuckerization

It seems pointless to write a full review or deep analysis. Practically everybody reading this has (long since) played at least some of KR0, or else decided (long since) that they're not interested.

I picked up KR0 a week ago, the day the final act launched. I've been avoiding the game and all spoilers since 2013. "I'll play it when it's done," I said; that's what I did. Now I'm seven years behind on the discussion and I don't expect to catch up. I'm sure someone has a theory about what the brick sandwich represents -- if the authors haven't explained it all in a developer interview. You don't need mine. Which is good, because I don't have one.

But I suppose I have to say something. If nothing else, to repay the honor the designers have done me with that riff in Act 3. (Which was a complete and delightful surprise, by the way. Did anyone tell me that was going to happen? Maybe, but it would have been 2014 and I would have done my best not to remember the spoiler.)

I will, then, talk about the pacing.

(This will not be spoilery, except in describing some of the ways the game will surprise you. Okay, I guess that's somewhat spoilery. I won't get into any details though.)

"Gameplay in Kentucky Route Zero is slow-paced," said the original Kickstarter in 2011. Easy to joke when the planned three-month episode cycle turned into a year, then two, then four. But I found that the writing and rhythm of gameplay was built for these long intervals. You're meant to absorb the strangeness, mull it, and then let it settle out. Take a breath and put it all aside. When you pick up the next act, the last one should be half-remembered, half reconstructed in memory. Do I know that character? Was his arm like that last time? Wasn't someone else telling this story? Maybe this was explained; maybe not; maybe it will be explained next time, in retrospect.

I played one act a night, plus one interlude, for a week. Plunging through all five in one day would have been like eating five ice-cream cones sequentially. The thought is absurd. Even spreading them out over a week is probably too fast, but then I am bad at names and had trouble remembering all the characters regardless. The effect is close enough.

(Oh, some of you long-time fans must have replayed the first four acts before jumping into Act 5. Maybe all in one night? But replaying is likely a different story.)

What about the writing demands such a slow pace? I have already mentioned the dreamlike shifts of situation and environment. The narration is enthusiastically fractured. The POV shifts from one character to another, to a recording, to the future, to onlookers who are never seen or mentioned again. (Or maybe they will be.) Scenes are shown out of order, effect before cause.

This adirectionality extends to the gameplay. The episodes are not shaped like miniature movies -- beginning, tension, climax, sequel hook. Rather, you journey through places until the act is over. You will not know, encountering a landmark, whether you will find a brief highlight, a significant encounter, or a scene that will fill the majority of the act.

It's not that you're expected to puzzle it out. (Although the story timeline is not, in the end, difficult to untangle.) Rather, you're expected to accept whatever comes.

I think that's the key. KR0 deliberately undermines the habit of expectation. To expect anything from the story is foolish; it will go somewhere else. You'll learn better. And impatience is even more foolish. After seven years, you really want to play a game that's over too soon?

Kentucky Route Zero is a wonderful lesson in how not to get stuck in your assumptions. Point of view? Narrator? Sequence? There's a traditional way, and then there are all the other delightful ways that people ignore. Try a few surprises.