It’s us again! We’re still kicking around, and still working on Exit/Corners, but I thought I’d take a break from our rather slow development schedule in order to share my thoughts on Kentucky Route Zero.
Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic adventure game that has been getting a lot of attention since it received an IGF nomination. That nomination sure was warranted – the game oozes polish and has excellent visual and audio design. The story is pretty engrossing, too, which helps when your game is an episodic adventure with a focus on narrative. From what I could tell from the (tragically short) first episode, they’re well on their way to completing a compelling adventure that just screams “cult classic”.
Something that I thought was unique about Kentucky Route Zero was the way the game handled emergent narrative. What is emergent narrative? In short, it’s a story that you, the player, interpret for yourself. This type of narrative usually emerges from the player’s actions; it is most common in games where there is a very loosely-defined story, such as Animal Crossing. The Terrible Secret of Animal Crossing is a good example on how open to interpretation emergent stories are and how fun they can be with a willing audience.
Kentucky Route Zero has an interesting take on this type of storytelling. As a dialogue-heavy game with a focused and somewhat-linear narrative, it wouldn’t seem like there would be that much room for the player to come up with his or her own interpretations of the story. Instead, the game defies genre conventions by not only encouraging, but actually mandating players to make these types of emergent decisions. Oftentimes, the game will ask the player to answer questions regarding their character’s back-story without knowing any context. What’s interesting about these decisions is that the player’s answer is (from what I played) always treated as the truth, meaning the characters’ motivations and circumstances could be radically different depending on the player.
The most commonly-cited example of this in Kentucky Route Zero is a decision at the very beginning of the game where the player is prompted to answer the question “What’s your dog’s name?”. Depending on your answer, the dog’s name, gender, and relation to the player character can change. The sheer number of choices such as these make Kentucky Route Zero’s story a very malleable one – every player will paint the story to his or her liking.
Not every story would benefit from using emergent narration, mind you. Games with hyper-focused plots might not be flexible enough to allow that level of player involvement and this level of vagueness might not be the right fit for some story genres. Still, in a game where immersion and personal involvement are key, emergent narration can be an extremely powerful tool.
While this certainly isn’t the first time this type of emergent narration has been done in games, I thought that Kentucky Route Zero’s execution was excellent. If you’ve got the funds, I’d recommend investing in a season pass.