Part of me wanted to wait for the entirety of Kentucky Route Zero to be released before writing about it, but ultimately I felt I was doing a disservice to the work by waiting. Because you shouldn’t wait to play it. And I shouldn’t wait to talk about it.
I first played Kentucky Route Zero a couple of years ago when only the first act was available, and it blew my mind. But Netflix has spoiled me on binging episodic content; waiting months between each episode is agonizing. Still, Kentucky Route Zero is worth each excruciating wait, and it deserves to be written about.
KRZ is a hypertext-adventure game hybrid that situates itself firmly into the traditions of theater. Each screen is very intentionally framed, sometimes with foregrounded geometry that explicitly recalls the curtain around a stage. Parts of the stage light as we enter and dim as we exit while important set-pieces might be lit with a spot, or we might see the characters as silhouettes while inside buildings as if the buildings used a virtual scrim. We control the protagonist, but we also control other actors as well. The pleasure experience of the work is not one of assuming a role in a story, but one of directing the story, choosing character blocking, which bits of dialogue to reveal, how to characterize and frame each character. It’s an excellent example of what I have called extra-diegetic agency elsewhere: our choices don’t affect the outcome of the story world, but they do affect how the story is told and our understanding of it.
But as much as Kentucky Route Zero celebrates its theater heritage, it also celebrates and comments on its other heritages as well. For each reference to Waiting for Godot or The Aeneid, we find a reference to Zork, Xanadu, or Spacewar!. It borrows heavily from film theory, sci-fi, post-modernism, and art history in a fantastic example of a game that understands allusion and uses it to great effect. Kentucky Route Zero is unabashed about its highbrow ambitions, but it packages them in an approachable surrealist point-and-click adventure game.
It’s difficult to talk too much about overarching themes or narrative consistency until the work is finished, but KRZ certainly seems to be making self-contained arguments along the way. Act 3 takes several jabs at Ted Nelson and roasts academia as an institution, an interesting position for a game so aware of its own position in a canon. The narrative seems to be heading into an exploration of debt, class, corporatized healthcare, and technology that I’m interested to see play out, but I don’t yet know how those themes will pay off. To some degree, we know where we’re going: early in the narrative we’re told how it will end, but KRZ insistently calls attention to the process of journey—perhaps another argument about the pleasure experience of stories and games. We know the how the story, the game, (and probably the arguments and social critique) must end, we know this plot structure, how the dramatic curve of games should go, but seeing how we get there is really the fun.
Alongside—and perhaps inextricable from—its focus on journey is an exploration of space. Or more to the point, an exploration of the non-space of virtuality. Each time we traverse the titular highway, we find ourselves lost in hyper-dimensional space. A virtual art gallery in the auxiliarytransmediamaterials calls attention to the impossibility of the installations—despite the fact that an exhibition did, in fact, happen in real space too. This is the non-space of post-modern theater, and indeed maybe all games occupy such space. Maybe the virtual is synonymous with such space.
KRZ was also the first game in our stream series, and its rich layers of meaning make it a perfect fit for such criticism, the difficulties of which deserve their own post. Despite flailing a bit with the logistics of getting a new stream up, this kind of real-time analysis is a lot of fun, and I hope to talk about it more soon.
Live crit is even more fun with healthy audience discussion, so do follow on Twitch for reminders if you’d like to participate—it would be great to have you!
Stacey Mason is a writer, critic, and researcher of interactive narrative. She currently holds the Eugene Cota-Robles Fellowship at UC Santa Cruz, where she is working toward her Ph.D. in Computer Science with the Expressive Intelligence Studio. Follow her @stcymsn.