There’s a point in the second season of Twin Peaks where it all starts to feel a bit ridiculous. The network-induced foibles of its later episodes don’t really detract from Twin Peaks’all-around greatness, but once Laura Palmer’s murder is resolved, the show does lose its central drive and intentionality. The characters’ relationships and the supernatural elements begin to feel aimless; the iconic conclusion of the show is as compelling as it is comically over the top.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game that treads dangerously close to that territory. The first of five episodes was released in January and it’s shit hot, to tell the truth, but it’s also sometimes on the verge of directionless waffle. It opens on a sunset over a rural petrol station, a deliveryman looking for an address that’s not on the map. The game presents itself as a point-and-click adventure but, while the interface works that way, the underlying mechanics aren’t particularly game-like. The puzzles are barely puzzles at all, they’re certainly not difficult. Most of the gameplay consists of interactive dialogue, but your options aren’t really about achievement or progression. In the opening, the blind petrol station attendant describes the sunset he’s feeling on his neck, and included in your choices for a response are both asking for directions for your delivery and ‘Do you like poetry?’
After a few conversations you get the feeling that it doesn’t really matter what you say or choose, that these conversations are rhizomatic paths with no influence on what you get to see and do in the game. It’s never a matter of finding the right thing to say in order to progress, so your choices never matter in the logic of conventional games. But the game does remember what you’ve said: the name you give a dog, the questions you ask of people, the past you explain for yourself. It’s a game about becoming rather than being.
While the game hinges upon player input in that way, it’s also determined to decentralise the player. One of the prototypical examples of bad writing is characters responding directly to each other’s questions, failing to capture the way people really talk, and it’s that same over-simplification Kentucky Route Zero refuses. The game gives oblique responses to your input, it never really tells you what it’s thinking. It hides away its own obsessions for you to worry and wonder about.
David Lynch is clearly a touchstone. The story is about the strangeness that lies beneath the world, about the opaque and inscrutable relationships that seem to hold a small community together. Much of the first episode takes place literally underground. There’s the preoccupation with TV and with watching (complete with owls), as well as the politics of a community-sustaining industry – in this case a mine instead of a sawmill. Plus the whole thing aspires, pretty successfully, to being filmic. The game is explicitly broken up into acts and scenes, tracking shots linger on the beautiful landscapes and light is used tremendously throughout.
It’s a quiet game. You are made to go slow and look at everything properly. In some ways it’s a game simply about exploring a world, a trope that runs from recent indie darlings Proteus and Dear Esther all the way to 1993’s far more puzzle-centric Myst. Kentucky Route Zero is similarly about figuring out the nature of the world you’re in, but it’s also about the implications of being in that world and how you should act in it. One of the freshest moments comes when you control the dialogue on both sides of a conversation. Calmly schizophrenic, that brief moment decentres the presumed protagonist, happily fracturing the story and the game as a whole.
The games industry often celebrates non-linear games, full of choices and alternative outcomes to stories, but problematising teleology itself has seldom been on the cards. The danger of something this ambitious is that the pose of being meaningful overrides actual meaning. That gestures towards mystery and pathos turn out to be empty: that they never crystallise into a full story and the implied depth turns out to be all surface.
The episodic releases are betting on cliffhangers and intrigue creating the sort of dedicated following some TV shows do. It’s not going to descend into the pseudo-philosophical stoner-fodder of The Matrix or the endless theorising of Lost – the game’s magic realism reaches more for your heart than your head – but it’s sort of in that ballpark, and those franchises fell apart because they couldn’t deliver anything rewarding from their initial premise.
What grounds the game, and hopefully makes it fulfilling, is how you choose to participate in it. It demands that you do a lot of the work of creating meaning yourself, both within the game’s mechanics and in your thinking about it. If, like the first instalment, the next four episodes can provide enough substance and reward to make that work worthwhile for players, Kentucky Route Zero is going to be a big deal.