Earlier today we named Kentucky Route Zero Act III our favorite game of 2014 so far. Now Ansh Patel explores how the game’s musical centerpiece exploits the relationship between player choice and a game’s narrative.
In the third act of Kentucky Route Zero, when Conway and his ragtag group of companions enter the Lower Depths tavern, it’s supposed to be a simple detour—one borne more out of necessity than by choice. But if there’s any recurring theme throughout the three acts of Cardboard Computer’s seminal and increasingly significant game it’s that sometimes the most important moments—the revelations you search desperately for—come where you least expect them, trapped in a haunted mine or a desolate dive bar under the quiet of the open night sky.
Junebug and Johnny’s performance of “Too Late to Love You” to an almost empty tavern forms the musical centerpiece of Kentucky Route Zero’s latest act. The ambient piece with its minimal beat, swirling orchestral flourishes and emotive vocals encapsulates the ethereal beauty that lies at the heart of this game. It is here that the magical realist adventure finally lays bare the opaque heart filled with vague, amorphous intentions, giving the clearest hints of how its internal machinations work.
In more than a few ways, taking a left-of-center detour from the main plot that concludes with a musical set-piece puts this scene in direct comparison with Final Fantasy VI’s famous opera scene. Both narrow their focus onto the aesthetic elements and reduce player interaction to purely text-based choices, capturing a microcosm of a larger truth through a magical musical performance. The larger truth here, at least from the game’s context, is how differently each treats player choice within the context of their linear narratives.
In the opera scene, the player has to rehearse lines from a script before performing them on-stage as Celes. The choices are reduced to simple right or wrong—where much like the rest of the series, the games aren’t interested in the motivation or intention of the player who made them. In Final Fantasy, players embody these characters who are essentially chained to the script themselves, the game too absorbed with its own narration to bother inviting the player into that process.
Kentucky Route Zero’s musical centerpiece is similarly linear albeit with a key difference—the three choices you are offered at specific points in the song are of subtly different tones and moods.
Ranging from despondent, bitter to hopeful, each choice holds a mirror to the player, asking them a basic question that games rarely if ever bother asking: “How do you feel?”
By doing so, Kentucky Route Zero is able to achieve something important: It includes the player in its narrative process even though the narrative is linear. Every choice you make in the game affects your experience of it and how you contextualize the characters within it more than the actual plot itself.
By offering enough blank space on its canvas, it allows the player to paint their own personality and mood onto the game’s narrative, essentially personalizing it. Kentucky Route Zero’s narrative bypasses traditional pitfalls associated with the obsession of the outcome and encourages the player to introspect on their own basic intentions behind making a choice.Kentucky Route Zero’s choices embody its layered and intentionally vague narrative of magical realism which allows immense room for interpretation.
The player’s participation in its linear narrative extends beyond that. Kentucky Route Zero also makes the player an invisible part of its cast, with each choice revealing not just more about the plot or characters but also about his or her own self. As a cast member, the player’s indirect interactions with other companions on this nocturnal journey are brought about by the game allowing the player to switch perspectives just once at frequent points of the story.
This results in selective exposition—where players only get to see an event or a location from a specific character’s eyes and in turn end up finding out more about the characters as they spend more time playing as them.
This can be seen in essence as the player interacting with that character and getting to know them better, but it also indirectly puts distance between the player and the rest of the cast.
At a certain point in Act 3, I realized just how little I knew about Ezra as a character. That was primarily because whenever the game offered to see its world from different perspectives, I had always chosen to switch to Conway or Shannon’s perspective. Kentucky Route Zero explores group dynamics where like in any group of people, each embodies a personality and you tend to gravitate towards a few and in the process of doing so isolate yourself from others.
Even if in the end, just like the overall narrative, all those choices in its musical centerpiece wound up around a common central verse with a sealed fate, “It’s too late to love you now”, how you arrived there is what defines those words and gives those choices meaning. It’s not the outcome, but the intention that drove you there, and with a single musical sequence, Kentucky Route Zero captures that element beautifully in a microcosm.
A song about the loss of a love eroded by the passage of time perfectly contextualizes its sequence where the choices, despite being bound to the length of a single verse, manage to have a voice in portraying how you deal with that loss. In a game where every character is searching for something that slowly slips between their fingers, an ode to the impermanence of that holiest emotion seems oddly fitting.
Music is said to capture the sense of communion the best. When the roof of Lower Depths disintegrates to reveal the open night sky as the music begins to play, you can almost feel the mixed feelings you have for these lonely souls. In that moment, by putting us inside that room as an invisible part of the cast, Kentucky Route Zero makes us consciously aware of how solitude and companionship coexist more often than we would like to believe.
As dawn approaches in Kentucky Route Zero, maybe the sun shall shine not just on the ever-evasive quandaries of the world that its characters seem to grapple with, but also on aspects of our own selves and who we really are when we interact with seemingly static choices in a world fated by its script.
Ansh Patel is a game developer and an occasional pop culture critic who tweets philosophical ruminations and angry political rants @lightnarcissus. His words and games can be found at lightnarcissus.com.