Last week, quietly beneath the mania of the Xbox One launch, developer Cardboard Computer surreptitiously released an entre’acte, of sorts, to their highly praised video game series, Kentucky Route Zero.
The Entertainment, free to download, features you as an actor in a 1973 student production of two plays performed simultaneously; Lem Doolittle’s A Reckoning and A Bar-fly. Set in the world of Kentucky Route Zero, it enigmatically features a non-appearance of Lulu Chamberlain as set-designer for the production. It seems to becoming ever more clear that Chamberlain, who appears in Act II of the series as well as demo/prelude Limits And Demonstrations, may well play a yet unveiled pivotal role in the game’s world…or not.
Presumptions about the direction of the main game aside, what’s significant about this small diversion is that Cardboard Computer are continuing their dedication to being pioneers in experimenting with ideas of gameplay and narrative.
A “Static” Narrative
There are full essays that can be written on this short piece of freeware: the themes and the satires on modern theatre, and the metaphysical ironies that run from it. In fact, there’s so much going on in what otherwise looks like a very sedate piece of playwriting and a simple video game, that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
“Like The Stanley Parable, it mocks the very concept of what constitutes a video game; just more cerebrally and not as sardonically as in Davey Wreden’s piece.”
But the most interesting thing about this, is the very static, passive, and contradictory role of the player. Whilst you’re technically an actor, therefore supposedly a very active person in the show, your character’s role is actually that of observer (-ish. You’re technically part of an altogether difference play, as an observer in that one). You actually end up being an audience within the play as much as the audience watching it, whilst they’re watching you. You, yourself, are furthermore an audience to all of this.
To add oddity to irony, you are completely fixed to the spot, powerless to do anything else but look around 360 degrees from where you’re sat. Like The Stanley Parable, it mocks the very concept of what constitutes a video game; just more cerebrally and not as sardonically as in Davey Wreden’s piece.
But there are things to do within your role as a poor player struting (well, not actually) their hour upon the stage. Whilst you can simply watch A Reckoning from your view from A Bar-fly, you can also read your own stage directions, watch the sound cues on the jukebox, or pan round to read critic reviews of the production and commentaries from the director and Chamberlain.
To add further levels of intelligence and brilliance to this, is that the play you observe, A Reckoning – a loving poke at modern American theatre in the direction of the likes of Eugene O’Neil, with hints of Russian subversion of melodrama by way of Anton Chekhov – starts off incredibly boring and uninteresting as you watch Evelyn and Harry gabble on inanely about nothing that seems like much importance.
But before you know it, you’re suddenly hooked. Small escalations in the plot expose deeper and darker themes within the play. And when you spin round in your chair during the play’s finale, it (and the game) ends unexpectedly and shockingly.
Despite the snail’s pace the action moves at, and the fact that you’re completely incapable of any impact or interaction with the entire play, it’s an incredibly edifying experience, and is just as haunting as the rest of Kentuck Route Zero itself.
Hopefully, what The Entertainment is, is a herald that Act III of Kentucky Route Zero is imminent; something that we’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for since June!
But yet again, this is a stunning piece where the manner in which video games handle narratives is pushed to its outer limits. Yet it does so without ever losing its audience. It actually captivates you more than the usual fair. Even if you don’t end up being tractored into Conway and Shannon’s strange adventure into the extra-ordinary in Kentucky Route Zero, this is something anyone with a interest in video games as a storytelling mechanic, or just a lust for the experimental, should play.
The Entertainment is available to download for FREE at http://kentuckyroutezero.com/the-entertainment.