Kentucky Route Zero and Play as Theatrical Performance

November 2015
Kentucky Route Zero, a game in five acts, is a rare combination of qualities; it's at the same time both experimental and adept. It's totally at home in terrain that other games haven't yet explored, which makes it a great resource to mine for innovative game concepts. Many concepts in KRZ involve relocating the player, which in turn changes the goal of the game. Unlike many games, KRZ is not about becoming empowered. It's not about solving problems. It's not even about exploring a possiblity space. KRZ is about something fairly unique. KRZ is about participating in a joint effort to make something interesting happen.
The player is not the character
We often think of the relationship between a player and his or her character as an identity relation: the player is the character. Consider the Halo games. In Halo, outside of cutscenes, Master Chief, the main character, doesn't speak, doesn't take off his full-body armor, and hardly ever asserts a personality. Master Chief could be anyone, so the player is encouraged to think that he is Master Chief. On the other hand, Conway, the main character from KRZ, is a sometimes foggy-brained recovered alcoholic with a stooped posture who works as a driver for an antique truck. Conway is too specific for all but the rare player to fully identify with him. More uniquely, Conway will sometimes speak without any player input.

In most video games there is a one-to-one mapping between player and character. The player's means of controlling the game (her locus of control) and her perspective (her point of view) remain fixed to one character. At first, KRZ appears to be no exception. The player begins the game by controlling what Conway does and says, but eventually there is a scene in which Conway meets Shannon, a younger Appalachian woman. In this scene, the player is suddenly given control over what this new character, Shannon, will say to Conway. Then, midway through the scene, control shifts again, and the player is choosing what Conway says to Shannon. Point of view is played with as well. One scene is told in the past tense. Other scenes construct scenes within scenes. Along the way, KRZ presents a play, an art gallery showing, a musical performance, and a game within the game. These moments take the player's point of view away from the main fiction of KRZ and into these deeper, nested fictions.

These shifts in control and perspective throw the player off guard. One effect of this is that it subverts the expectations of the rational mind, forcing the player to engage on a more emotional level.
The player has more than one job
Given what we've considered so far, the player's experience is like that of an actor playing many roles. But the experience goes beyond that. The player is not just an actor. The player is an actor when she speaks or acts. The player is a spectator when she watches a performance within the game. The player is a writer when she chooses one dialogue option over another. The player is a director when she chooses her next travel destination or scene. The player is of course the audience as well.

The fact that the player is a writer and director makes it so the player shoulders some of the responsibility for putting on a good show. A person is going to invest more into something if they have partial ownership over it. In KRZ, these investments pay off.
Choices don't change the future, but they matter
Game critics and players often talk about wanting narrative games to offer branching narratives, narratives that change course depending on what choices a player makes. Many of us want player choice to matter. We want player choices to have ramifications. In KRZ, player choices don't have ramifications so much as they have implications. Player choices don't affect the plot, but they change the meaning of the plot. Many of the dialogue choices the player has in KRZ actually determine details such as what a character remembers, or what makes her afraid, or why he's so hell-bent on delivering a package. These choices don't significantly affect the plot, but they do inform a character and her motivations.
KRZ represents a new take on what the player's role is in a game, and in turn what is valuable within a game. While many games are player-centric or at least offer the illusion of being player-centric, KRZ feels more like a collaboration between player and creator. Playing many games is like being the star of the show, but playing KRZ is like helping put on a theatrical play. It's a group effort. You might wear many hats. And if you put enough care and time into it, the performance can become something memorable.