May 22, 2015

Kentucky Route Zero and Magical Realism


I recently got around to finishing the third act of Kentucky Route Zero. It's one of the most fantastic point-and-clicks I've ever played (made much, much better by using my 360 controller) and I'm on the edge of my seat in excitement for the next acts to come out. Cardboard Computer has made a gem of a game that will inspire and excite me for a long time coming.

Over time, I started to get accustomed to the odd workings of the world in the game. Every character seemed to have some sort of oddity to them, and the same strain was easily observable in the world around them. However, the last thing I expected after driving around, having long, poetic conversations, and doing the lion's share of running was a giant eagle - a small child's brother, at that - swooping down and taking Conway and Shannon to a secret civilization.

One word: Whoa.

An Amazing Normal

The genre of magical realism is a term that can be loosely applied to many genres. In the Young Adult fiction world, it can be applied to things like Harry Potter quickly, considering the muggle influence within the pages, or to series like The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, where characters mingle with both magical and mundane universes in very big ways. In Kentucky Route Zero, fantasy elements are cleverly placed throughout to add to the effect and mood of a situation. In the above case, Julian the eagle swooped in, giving Conway a free ride to a doctor to mend his injured leg. But that's not the only instance: Nestled at the end of Act 3, an odd corporation of skeletons lay beneath a church and wanted Conway to take a job. Musicians' clothes turned from road-tainted and worn-out to flashy and more accustomed to the hit that players chose the lyrics of. Not to mention, a hulking WOOLY MAMMOTH sat on the ferry which the now crew of characters are to board, acting as the horn for the vessel.

I mean, look at that thing.



Goodness.

What really did impress me the most was how Kentucky Route Zero has so far made these oddities nearly insignificant in the grand scheme of things - in fact, they were simply accessory to the plot. While these interesting, fantastical moments add so greatly to the richness of Kentucky Route Zero as well as its high level of intrigue, players are soon constantly reminded that the characters have little reaction to things like this, being more focused on their emotions and interactions. It soon became apparent that these odd happenings could have been done away with. Conway and Shannon could have only seen a creepy church. Enough wandering down the Zero, and one could likely have found anything. Junebug and Johnny would have sounded exactly the same without the roof fading into the sky and a rapid costume change. The important thing, though, is that these beautiful additions not only made the game a little more complex, but it gave it more definition besides a long delivery. It turned a drive into a journey worth writing a game about.

The Most Important Thing



Ultimately, a conclusion is obtainable from the fact that the abnormalities in Kentucky Route Zero when juxtaposed to the real world, and it's the ultimate purpose of the game. While we use odd, moss-covered computers to aid in our understanding of a secret, confusing route of travel while being overseen by a giant eagle and who-knows-what-else, the things that make the most difference in the game are the relationships between the characters. The eccentricity of Weaver leading Conway to the Zero, Junebug and Johnny's constant bickering giving some comfort to the frustrating breakdown of Conway's truck, and Shannon's fascination with her cousin Weaver within the Hall of the Mountain King are all what make the game move forward, even more so than the things that make the players glance again. I think that this is what makes Kentucky Route Zero a beautiful, unique game above all else.

While there are interesting, fantasy elements within the confines of the story, the core of the game is the one thing that we as players can relate to the most - interaction. While it's a game with marvelous elements of the weird, it is most predominantly about the characters themselves.


What does this mean for Acts 4 and 5? Knowing how KR0 has been able to influence its players into one direction only to push them in another, or simply surprise them entirely without base (impressive thing to do), I'm thinking that in time, the oddities seen along the way may begin to meld with the plot itself more than they already have, having more importance than they have. Besides, can't the bears in the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces have some purpose besides existence? I'd love to see them come into play. And what about Julian? Will he give Conway another flight? Of course, the bits of fantasy mixed into the plot will promote the character relationships, allowing for even more complex metaphors and poetic license. Kentucky Route Zero is one of few games that I've seen so seamlessly work with fantasy and realistic elements in such a way as to make things seem completely normal, and it's fascinating on its own.

Soultamer? Definitely.

I commend Cardboard Computer for so well having established the importance of the sheer power of human relation in a game where nothing is quite how it should be, driving the game more than anything. What's even greater is providing not only a balance of the fantasy elements that set this game apart from others, but focusing on the opposite end of the scheme to make an adventure worth remembering as something that touched the heart and not just the imagination.

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