Kentucky Route Zero and Narratology

This podcast focuses on the game Kentucky Route Zero in light of Marie Laur-Ryan’s “Avatars of Story.” In “Avatars of Story,” Laur-Ryan introduces the idea of narratology – a study of narratives. She defines a narrative as adhering to 7 specific characteristics, umbrella’d under four “dimensions.” These are the spacial, the temporal, the mental, and the formal & pragmatic dimensions. While traditional videogames operate heavily in the spacial and formal & pragmatic dimensions, Kentucky Route Zero spends most of its time in the mental one, and also interacts to a lesser extent with the temporal one. While this may at first seem unusual for video games, when we examine the genre of narrative-driven games that Kentucky Route Zero belongs to, we find this to be a common trait of these games. These narrative-driven games also seem to be more popular in the recent past, and we can expect that new genres of games that interact heavily with the mental and temporal dimensions of narrative to begin to crop up as well.

A scene from Kentucky Route Zero.

The mental dimensions have been an object of fascination for narrative driven gaming, and Kentucky Route Zero is no different. Particularly, the focus of the game in the mental dimension helps it to stand out as a unique experience. As well as how it de-emphasizes the pragmatic and spatial dimensions. Marie Laur-Ryan stipulates that narratives with a mental dimension must have two things:

Some of the participants in the events must be intelligent agents who have a mental life and react emotionally to the states of the world.
Some of the events must be purposeful actions by these agents, motivated by identifiable goals and plans.

Thus, we have the newfound focus in gaming brought about by companies like Bioware and Obsidian Entertainment through their emphasis on the mental dimension, the idea of the “character-driven” game. Games which feature strong personalities with depth to their behavior and their interactions with the game world. Cardboard Computer offers a distinct experience in that, unlike the games made by these other company, Kentucky Route Zero specifically de-emphasizes the more traditional dimensions of gaming (that is, the spatial and the pragmatic) to put the focus on this mental dimension. Kentucky Route Zero explores it via Conway’s dialogue choices, which while they don’t always do much to effect spatial or pragmatic dimensions, they help create the background and context for the other characters he encounters. This gameplay focus is in contrast with their de-emphasis of the classical dimensions, and is rather atypical as far as video game narratives go.

Mass Effect represents a very different take on the narrative-driven game genre, but still interacts in the same dimensions as Kentucky Route Zero.

An example of Kentucky Route Zero’s emphasis on mental and interpersonal exploration versus spatial exploration is the juxtaposition of artstyle between the main “scenes” and the overworld exploration. Though minimalist across the board, the moody pastel-pixel shading of the bulk of the game stands in stark contrast to the monochromatic vectors of the overworld map. While still very visually appealing, the simplicity of design, coupled with the paucity of things to do in the overworld and the general lack of incentives for exploration highlights how little emphasis and interest Kentucky Route Zero displays in regard to spatiality.

Kentucky Route Zero’s simple overworld map.

From a more thematic standpoint, the ethereality of the “Zero” itself corroborates this notion, the nonsensical traversal methods and spatial impossibility of the route a clear gentle chiding of spatial exploration. Mechanically, the game highlights this criticism of spatial exploration the most when Conway and company must use the Xanadu computer in the game’s third act to play a text adventure with a graphical interface. The exploration of the crude graphical world is deliberately tedious and unpleasant from a sensory perspective, the audio grating and the visuals a messy jumble.

In conclusion, Kentucky Route Zero de-emphasizes the typical narrative dimensional focus of games to illustrate the versatility of narrative in interactive mediums.

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