Kentucky Route Zero: Watching a Book, Playing a Play

by Michael Tucker

A game is a cool thing. It’s a program that outputs images and reacts to player input. It’s just software when you look at it, but just because software is artistic and interactive doesn’t mean it is a game. In truth, video games and games are not the same thing. A lot of software might be what we colloquially call a “video game,” but if there’s no game being played, no winning or losing conditions programmed, no mechanics with stakes, then it is instead simply narrative; though narrative with the joy of interactivity.

There’s miraculous frontiers to be explored in telling stories in video games. Not just by injecting narrative similar to what can already be found on film, but by considering what experiences people would be willing to have for longer periods of time on their computers. From my personal experience, I would not watch a film or cartoon written or paced like most videogames. I would not read a book with a narrative as loose as Kentucky Route Zero. In fact, it is only within the medium of the video game that I would follow this strange story. It simply wouldn’t make sense if it were told as it is in any other way. Hell, it’s nearly beyond my literary comprehension as it is.

KRZ is often hailed as being a highly literary adventure, or cited for it’s cinematic levels of atmosphere, but it is not either of these things any more than you would say a great film or book has “videogamic qualities”. To celebrate it truly, you should celebrate it for what it is and not what it’s supposedly like.

I am not typically a fan of “non-games”, more commonly/annoyingly known as “serious games.” My rationalizing of this is due to their purpose. Serious games are often made as statement pieces – they have no motive to entertain. These kinds of games are not expected to meet a standard of quality that a consumer would expect from a traditional retail release and they nearly always do not attempt to meet that standard as a result. Kentucky Route Zero, contrary to the trend, is polished at the level of its commercial counterparts. It’s art house, but it has got appeal with reach. It is not an equivalent of cinema for the cinephile–it’s not a game just for gamers–it is a game which has instead found an audience far beyond the traditional videogame player.

I’ve watched people who have never been able to enjoy a video game in their life become fascinated with KRZ. I’ve seen gamers become mystified and enthralled by it. I’ve seen people hate it because assholes like me have spoken very enthusiastically about it and created expectations for something very unlike the slow and quiet experience that it is.

Kentucky Route Zero absolutely falls under the umbrella term of video game, but it is not a game. Video game is, in a way, a punk term to me: it has been adopted to mean any interactive software that is not explicitly a tool or simulation. Being neither those things nor a book or film, Kentucky Route Zero is a video game not a game.

The fact that the term we use to describe it basically makes no sense is a clear indicator that the terminology we use is getting antiquated. When developers start making things that the industry doesn’t even have the words for, I can’t help but be excited.

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