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Monday, May 12, 2014

On Kentucky Route Zero's third act

Opinion by Harvard L.

Much like the game itself, Kentucky Route Zero's rather delayed third act popped up without warning a few days ago, beckoning players back into the surrealist underground highway. As if a well kept secret, hidden to all but those who look for it, Act III is a delightful invitation into a brilliantly crafted fantasy world.

The story so far hasn't changed a whole deal - Conway's still looking to deliver his final package to the mysterious Dogwood Drive - but along the way he's picked up some interesting company, and continues to do so. Along with his dog (who you got to name back in Act I), Conway is accompanied by Shannon, an electronics technician run down on hard times, and Ezra, a displaced child with an active imagination. Act III sees them joined up with Johnny and Junebug, two travelling musicians with a muddled past and a carefree attitude.

The setting is as wondrous as ever, with bold yet minimalist environments bathed in warm lights. Kentucky Route Zero always had a penchant for playing around with cameras, light and perspective, making an impression as soon as Conway's truck pulls into the giant horse artifice outside Equus Oils. Act III continues to show off Cardboard Computer's eclectic vision, with locales which will have players admiring the intricacy of every little movement.

The visuals aren't the only unique offering either. At every turn, Cardboard Computer seems hell bent on turning every trope of gaming on its head. The free flowing dialogue trees which encourage alternate character interpretations are still running strong, but by now you'll probably have a firm idea of what kind of people the protagonists are. Act III also builds upon the text adventure segments in the first act, offering a staggering game-within-a-game-within-a-game, a bizarre construction which will leave you scratching your head while feeling decidedly impressed. This might be a reaction against the argument that Kentucky Route Zero is for whatever reason not a game - as if its narrative wasn't already bursting with interactivity, it also reappropriates gameplay elements to advance the narrative and set a tone.

Cardboard Computer clearly has a detailed plan as to how their story is going to unfold. The problem with episodic work in general is that continuity errors start to rear their ugly head, threatening to derail the overall scope of the project. That doesn't happen here, though. Instead of introducing more and more mysteries, Act III actually sheds light on a lot of the unexplained phenomena experienced in the first two acts. Johnny and Lula become much more fleshed out as characters. This is especially significant because they're both characters you don't control - their personalities are set in stone, unlike Conway and the ragtag party following him. We're also getting hints towards the nature of the Zero itself, and the plot is moving forwards briskly.

Thematically, Kentucky Route Zero dwells upon a distinct bleakness of middle American life. The story deals with themes of loss, loneliness, ennui and despair, with each character harbouring a tragedy which leaves them a wanderer, travelling through the mysterious tunnel running beneath Kentucky. Despite the grim subject matter, there is a strong vein of humour running through the game which alleviates the heavy tone. In addition to an abundance of visual puns, it's clear that the main characters resort to humour to make through each day. Between Ezra's musings about pirates and aliens to Conway's one sided conversations to his dog, the story becomes so much more humanistic as the player is led to empathise with the protagonists. This underpins the genius of Kentucky Route Zero so far - its absurdist premise allows it to jump between comedy and tragedy with ease, weaving a story which is both outlandishly farfetched and surprisingly genuine.

Just as with Acts I and II, I played Act III in one entire sitting while ignorant of everything around me. The world was just too captivating to let any outside distractions intrude. This is truly the mark of good game design, and it's something more players should experience. Kentucky Route Zero creates immersion through its story, visual design and sound in order to deliver a truly genuine experience quite unlike anything else available.

- Harvard L.
On Kentucky Route Zero's third act
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