Kentucky Route Zero by Night: Act 1 (Lucid Dreams, Hysteria)

I’m not sure what time it is, exactly. I’m somewhere over the Atlantic, skipping from timezone to timezone without thought or consequence. If I could go to sleep right now, then I would wake up in Munich, Germany, all seven timezones traversed, and time would be fixed again.

So I try to sleep, but can’t, try again, still can’t. It’s hopeless.

I occurs to me that this could be the perfect time (the middle of the night) and the perfect place (no place in particular) to finally play the first act of Kentucky Route Zero. So I do. And you know, in my present state (blearily enraptured, half-awake and hypersentimental), I am probably this game’s ideal audience.

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Right now, it’s a fine replacement for sleep, this game. Playing it feels like a lucid dream, not least because my agency as a player is at once frighteningly limited and borderline-omniscient: my choices are surreal and abstruse, and they seem to be as much about making the world as moving through it.

A character asks me about a dog standing behind me, for example, and my chosen one-sentence answer pithily establishes the dog’s name and gender (her name is Blue), and my relationship to him/her (she’s a sweet old hound). The game remembers these things, takes my answers as canon, embracing dreamy improvisation—giving me a confident yes, and where so many adventure games, as Quentin Smith indelibly griped to Leigh Alexander, say “No, you can’t do that. No, that doesn’t work. No sir!”

And to take the connection a step further, that Smith/Alexander letter series centers on The Walking Dead and the kinda-sorta rebirth of adventure games—games that progress toward the outright abolition of rub this thing on that thing puzzles as a design crutch, focusing instead on atmosphere, characterization, and decisions.

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Both The Walking Dead and Kentucky Route Zero pull this off so successfully, I suspect, because of how they leverage Zižekean hysteria—that is, how well their gameplay mimics, simulates, and evokes psychological uncertainty. “The Freudian unconscious is very much like what one does in front of the computer screen,” Slavoj Žižek explains, “this helplessness, where you are talking to someone, but at the same time you do not even know at whom it is addressed exactly. You are radically not sure.”

Games are often hysterical without meaning to be. You tell Shepard to say one thing, and instead he says some other thing, subtly but significantly different in meaning. You tell Cole Phelps to accuse Mr. Suspect of lying, and Cole Phelps kicks Mr. Suspect’s chair out from under him in a sudden fit of near-murderous, quasi-psychotic rage. You’re never fully in control of how the machine will interpret you.

The difference here is that, to an even greater degree than The Witcher or Portal, The Walking Dead and Kentucky Route Zero are in complete control of how out-of-control they make you feel. These kinda-sorta adventure games know that their interfaces are unwieldy. They know that they’re asking you to make decisions without a thorough understanding of what’s at stake. These aspects are dissonant, and they’re meant to be. They’re not dissonant like an out-of-tune violin, but like an in-tune violin playing Shostakovich.

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When I land, I’ll take a look at these thoughts I’ve scribbled down. There’s a decent chance they’ll make some kind of sense, right?

I’ll say this, in any case: if at all possible, I’m going to play the next four episodes of Kentucky Route Zero on overnight flights. Noise canceling headphones at the ready, I’ll let you know where else this game takes me.

For now, though, I think I might be ready to get some sleep.

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