Kentucky Route Zero And The Case for Pure Interactive Narrative

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Kentucky Route Zero in some ways more than any other, is a game that seems to have been made with some of my specific desires in mind. It’s almost scary how much of this game I’ve wanted to see attempted for a while now.

If I had to summarize Zero, I’d say it’s an adventure game about travel, about journeys. You should know it’s totally within the mechanics of point n’ click adventure games, but in principle it’s actually a sort of western visual novel, with almost no puzzles to speak of. The most important part though is that it’s a game about travel, and methods of travel.

Zero was already an interesting game from the get-go when it immediately rooted its appeal in pure, good quality writing. The point where I really got sucked in however was when I asked a character for directions and he told me to, specifically, “drive northwest on the 65, take a left at the burning bush, and you should see a barn on your right,” and I exited the area to be greeted by an actual overhead road map.

World maps are commonly the point at which I get sucked into a role-playing game because it’s my first glimpse at just how much content there is to explore. Zero seems to take the mechanic and purpose it specifically for a story, even using pure dialogue as the player’s direction where most modern games would just throw you waypoints.

You see, I’m usually terrible at remembering the names and especially numbers of roads when driving. I’ve always been much better with landmarks when finding my way around. Zero plays directly into this at one part during Act II when you travel a road that only makes sense through the use of landmarks.  All in all, it’s an ingenious use of an old game design trope I love in conjunction with storytelling.

In that area, Zero really is more interactive narrative than video game, but it’s very well-written interactive narrative, taking the time to really give depth to each character. It’s impressive how much the game let’s this stand on its own too.

When you’re exploring the map, most of the locations you visit aren’t even rendered in the game, they’re just described through text. Zero basically turns into a text adventure at this point with some dialogue and action choices strewn about. The only companion to these novel-like locations is some really great use of sound design, and that’s enough.

It’s the “Take a book and turn it into an explorable world and don’t add unnecessary combat or other ‘challenges,’” concept I’ve wanted to see for a long time — a game where you just walk around and talk to people, and that’s done well enough to be stimulating for the player by itself. I fear it’ll still be a long time before we see this happen outside of visually abstract indie games though.

BULLETS:

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