Saturday, March 16, 2013

Kentucky Route Zero, hybrid genres and hounds in hats

I've been waiting to play Ni No Kuni since I wrote about it for Destructoid in 2008. It took a considerable amount of time for that game to finally be released in the US, but I waited patiently. I thought an RPG with graphics by Studio Ghibli would be the best thing of all time, and I was sure Level 5 could deliver the kind of magical gaming experience that I idly fantasize losing myself in from time to time.

The game was boring. Pretty, but boring. 

The letdown you feel after waiting for a release that long is pretty major, but it just lent more weight something I was already feeling: that I just haven't felt any real urge to play games at all lately.

This disturbs me every time it happens, and I never seem to remember that eventually it passes. Every time, the phase is disturbed by some game that I never even saw coming. In this case, I was looking halfheartedly at an issue of Game Informer that had been stuffed into a container of unread magazines when the screenshot you see above caught my attention. I downloaded it before I watched half of the trailer. When you know you're going to like a game, you just know.

Kentucky Route Zero has good looks and an intriguing title to match. Route Zero sounds like an ominous place to be in general, like some forgotten highway that could lead to any number of unmapped destinations. Fortunately, that's very close to what Kentucky Route Zero actually is. A five part episodic adventure, you play the role of Conway, a delivery driver trying to locate an elusive address. After a five minute encounter at a gas station, things become very strange indeed, and it's pretty obvious from the get go that you can pretty much leave any idea of normalcy you may have at the door. This is not going to be that kind of gig.

I often find that the best games defy description. It's tough to explain to someone who asks what kind of game Journey is, for example. I typically end up saying, "Well, it's kind of like this, but.." and then trailing off as it becomes evident that words don't really do the experience justice. Kentucky Route Zero is kind of an adventure game, kind of a point and click, kind of like Twin Peaks, and a little unlike anything I've ever played. But it does feel a great deal like some dreams I've had -- some very uncomfortable dreams.

Playing a game like this got me thinking that in order to succeed in this oversaturated industry, you need to tell a story that can literally pull you into an absolutely unique world. Jaded designers will tell you that everything has been done, and that may be true if you rely on the typical genres to define that statement. But hybrid genres seem to pique the most interest for me these days, and I really appreciate the courage that these developers are exhibiting by putting out titles that clearly don't give a fuck about shelf sales appeal. Of course, physical games on the whole feel a bit archaic. I can't recall the last time I entered an actual store to buy a game, and I like it that way just fine. My life has been been overwhelmed by downloadable culture, and I've happily followed suit.

I thought a lot about the dog in the hat, which accompanies Conway through the entirety of act one. The dog does not talk or do cute things. In fact, the game describes it as a sad looking hound -- "the hat and the dog have seen better days"). This heavy headed creature's plodding footsteps beside you as ou navigate unknown highways has more unspoken narrative texture than almost every character I met in a game in 2012. 

A dog in a hat.

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