Just finished Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero.
I don’t have much interesting to say about it, though I think that fact in and of itself is what’s compelling me to post now: the experience is kind of washing over me and I don’t really get why it’s not sticking.
When I played the first five minutes of this a year ago I thought, Buddy, here is a game with dialogue choices which don’t present a series of obnoxiously polar level paths and instead simply flesh out the characters; writing which treats the player like an adult; graphics which aren’t trying to be too flashy," etc. etc. etc. I extrapolated a lot from those first 5-10 minutes, and what I expected is mostly what I got—I just happened to get some other stuff too. All that I had noticed was just a package of formal qualities, the game’s aesthetic wrapper—of course I couldn’t tell what the real meat of it was from that brief taste.
It is less like a game and more like a book I’m not gelling with. I wade through the prose and kind of get what it’s doing but I’m not feeling a whole lot of it, especially when it goes off on these throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall stream-of-consciousness tangents where disembodied unnamed voices describe fragments of experiences which are, in the end, supposed to paint the mood these people feel and the milieu they and their living spaces generate. The people are not really whole personalities as much as cells in a social body, they talk the same and don’t stick around long enough to distinguish themselves. That’s all fine, I’m not trying to say it’s bad, but it isn’t for me, at least in this specific context.
I appreciate that the dialogue choices, again, are not forks in the road of the plot and instead allow you to define who you want these characters to be. It’s a vision of open-ended dialogue design which was really underemphasized in the Xbox 360 era, at least in console video games [released in the US]. But it does, perhaps predictably, fall into the trap of there being so many choices that the characters can’t do anything too surprising or make any dramatically consequential choices. I think it might have been more interesting to allow the player steer the way the characters think about certain things or how they respond to certain questions some of the time, but they went for most of the time instead and playing KRZ feels like answering a hugely elaborate and abstract personality test or something.
The musical sequence in Act III was cool insofar as it let you choose the lyrics, seeming to make good on a dream suggested by the FFVI opera scene, but as with the dialogue choices the lyrics feel a bit hamstrung by open-endedness… poetically uncommitted to any clear feeling or idea. Also felt like a lesser version of Twin Peaks, though I will at least give it credit for coming out before TP The Return.
I admire that it’s able to sustain the melancholy tone it strikes, it’s not something I come across a whole lot in my game-playing, but playing this is making me sad. It’s not a sadness I myself find interesting or fruitful to swim around in either—it’s this pit-of-my-stomach emptiness, hard to explain. It’s not the only feeling it inspires—the Act II-III interlude “The Entertainment” generates real pathos I think; the end of Act IV made me remember watching the first half of The Place Promised in Our Early Days when I was 12 or 13 (not to get too far off course here but those early Shinkai movies, or at least my memory of them, boast a much richer atmosphere than anything he made after 5 Centimeters…, and this particular part of KRZ with its screen-filling restaurant on stilts and its big diving bell sitting under a black sky evoked that atmosphere for me). But a deep sadness pervades most of the game and just makes me want to stop. I won’t now, as I have one act and two interludes left, but that’s the sense I’m left with. I doubt this is what the makers would want me to take away, as when I look at KRZ from more of a distance it seems like it’s supposed to be optimistic, a celebration of people (particularly Americans) living a certain kind of life under corporate oppression. But as I play it, it doesn’t seem to be about people struggling to live, but instead about people with one foot out the door. Now I’m getting too poetical—guess it’s rubbing off on me.