I started replaying Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) recently to capture some images for an upcoming project, and I was inspired to make this post. The opening of a game is very important – it has to not only set up the tone and narrative of the game, but also teach the player how to play.
It can be strange to think about, but when a game is targeted at a non-niche audience the designer can’t assume anything about the player. Even though 90% of players will instinctively position their hands (left WSAD, right mouse), the game still needs to cater to those who have no idea.
Tutorial design is an art that’s often taken for granted, so I thought I’d spend the time to celebrate the first act of Kentucky Route Zero a little bit: it deserves it.
The game opens with a title card; white text on a black background. This sets the tone of the game: the writing is stark and unadorned, reflecting the minimalist art style. The text, ‘Act 1, Scene 1’ brings to mind an old movie, reinforcing the game’s tendency towards the cinematic. Then, cut to black.
A second card comes up, reading ‘Equus Oils’. This poses a mystery to the player. It’s the game’s first unknown.
Suddenly we get a burst of color, spiking our attention and pulling us towards the center of the screen. We have an immediate impression of the time (dusk or dawn) and further reinforcement of the tone: take out the red and this image would nearly be in black and white.
After a couple frames of holding, to allow our attention to relax, the camera begins to pan down. The eye is immediately drawn to the left side of the screen, where the almost black object in the foreground (a rock outcropping?) stands against the pastels of the background.
The lines on object draw the viewer’s eye back to the center of the screen, where we see a sign, also in black; Equus Oils. We get an answer to our first mystery, and a sense of location; we are at Equus Oils, and Equus Oils is a place.
Just before the pan down ends, the viewer’s eye is called over to the right side of the screen, where the stark white lights of the moving van contrast so strongly with the blue-grey pastels of the ground. Combined with the movement of the vehicle, it engages our reflexive attention. The truck stops, and two figures get out.
As the silhouette comes to rest in front of the truck, the camera angle changes. This does two things. Firstly camera starts in a wide shot – this is both aesthetic and practical. Aesthetically, it allows for the wide-shot imagery we’ve already seen. Practically, it shows that there is a world off the left side of the screen. When we gain control of the character, we know that there is something new off the left side of the screen – and that is the direction we must explore. Think about it; did you try to go right or left at first?
The second aspect of the camera pan has to do with the end. The camera ‘rubber bands’ to the figure, and we see non-ludic UI for the first time -two text bubbles and a pointer. This indicates to us that we are in control, and that the figure will follow our commands.
Player’s who don’t feel this instinctually are still given two UI elements with eyes on them – a universal symbol for looking. Moving the mouse moves the pointer, which is placed on a dark part of scenery so that it will stand out.
Clicking the eye (a natural action for a player that’s managed to boot up the game) causes our protagonist to turn around. This comparatively large movement indicates that our commands effect this character, difinitively indicating our Avatar.
The options for looking are non-interactive; the first boxes are only observational. It exposes us to the writing of the game, without forcing us to interpret – we can just let the words wash over us, or even ignore them altogether. If we look at the passages multiple times, they don’t change – the thirst for discovery is heightened.
The player now tries their new learned skill – clicking, attempting to explore the right side of the screen. When they do, a glowing indicator marks the position, and a light turns on, drawing our focus to a new character – the attendant.
The Attendant is given two options for interaction – the familiar eye, and an unfamiliar box (to us, it may signify writing, but it’s never good to assume). When we click on the eye or the text, the camera zooms into the scene, highlighting the interaction and reinforcing the connection between the main character and their avatar.
The conversation is fairly straightforward, and the player is asked to click to continue, both preventing slower readers from becoming overwhelmed, and showing that we are meant to engage with this text, not just observe it like the eyes. At the end we are given the first choice of the game. The player’s first interaction with the world forever marks it – the dog will continue to have the name chosen for the rest of the game. This also tells us our main character’s name; CONWAY is spelled out in all capitals, just like JOSEPH.
I’m about a two and a half minutes into the game, and this post is already 900 words, so I’m going to leave it at that for now. What do you guys think? Was this a good tutorial? What could have been better? Did it need to be like this? I want to hear what you think in the comments!