Mechanics And The Message In Kentucky Route Zero

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You walk really god damn slow in Kentucky Route Zero. Conway, as close to a protagonist as you can get in that game, suffers a traumatic injury to his leg in the first act, reducing him to a limping mess. For the entire second act you find yourself shuffling around, resigned to slowly chasing the cursor.

In any other game, it would be infuriating. Adventure games are regularly panned for their glacial pace. and characters who take ten minutes to navigate a single screen only to find out they need to walk all the way back again. Here though, I don’t seem to mind it as much. It almost feels like a subtle message from the developer. Luxuriate in all of this, Conway’s heavy, plodding steps seem to say, let the setting and the characters and all the wonderful things we’ve crafted sink in before rushing off to the next thing. It’s part of the game; a way for it to communicate with me.

This is not the kind of feature that sells games. You wouldn’t see a bullet list on the non-existent cover of the game that lists “Intense limping action! Realistic hallucinatory exploration! Dog in a hat!” In an era where videogames are precisely crafted to sell, sell, sell based on a laundry list of necessary features, it’s refreshing to see a game whose mechanics exists in service of the story, rather than the other way around.

It’s the reason why the “indie scene” is so exciting. Freed from the shackles of sales figures and publisher demands, auteurship is given the freedom to bloom.

Take the way the story of Kentucky Route Zero unfolds. I don’t think it matters who you side with in the game, Conway’s shuffling interest in the stories behind the stories or his companion Shannon’s cold pragmatism; the game still constantly provides you with both options. There are no points or pop-ups, and no The Walking Dead-esque wrap-up at the end of each Act that plots each choice on a graph. Right now it isn’t even clear if they have any bearing on the spinning compass guiding the story.

But that’s the beauty of being Kentucky Route Zero. It doesn’t need to.

It’s the videogame equivalent of one of Steinbeck’s interchapters, or King’s sprawling descriptions of seemingly simple settings. It’s the chapter in Salem’s Lot that’s just about the town quietly resting. It’s beautiful and indulgent and what makes Kentucky Route Zero feel more like a novel with moving parts than a videogame with a good story.

Who cares if the system in place is dirty and underdeveloped? Its job isn’t to be gripping or exciting. Its job is to tell you a story. You wouldn’t put down Old Man and the Sea because Hemingway’s simplistic prose doesn’t have an efficient cadence, or reject Ulysses because the background knowledge required to understand it is unreasonable for a casual reader. Each element is part of a whole, something conveyed both through the message and the medium.

Papo & Yo feels much the same way to me, a game whose mechanical simplicity exists in service of the story rather than in opposition to it. The platforming-lite and simplistic puzzles weren’t Minority flexing their design muscles, but instead a way of capturing the blissful wonder of its child protagonist, the dreams of flying and building that underpin the fantasies of the powerless. Sure, it’s easy. That’s the point.

It’s the kind of indulgence you’d only be able to see in a game that isn’t made to sell copies or entrap players with elaborate advancement systems and increasingly tantalizing carrots. It’s the beautiful gem at the core of so-called “indies”; a willingness to sign on for whatever craziness the developer has in store for us, no matter the cost, and a trust in the players to support even the most bizarre forms of artistic expression, because god dammit art is great!

If there’s anything to be learned from the shaky controls and plodding pacing of games like Kentucky Route Zero and Papo & Yo, it’s that it’s impossible to separate the medium from the message, especially in videogames. If we want videogames to become more than Mario, we need to stop judging them based on antiquated standards like replayability and the fluidity of their control schemes but instead on how the various pieces come together and form a cohesive whole.

Shit, did I just agree with Jonathan Blow?