old visions

by ibull

Today Kentucky Route Zero released chapter 4 in a long-awaited installment of the series. This inspired me to think back on an analysis I wrote for class on the first chapter of this game 2 years ago. IIRC, the theme was to write about a game and apply J.P. Gee’s learning principles to design principles or aspects embodied in the game or gameplay experience. I’m still meditating about what I’ve written—definitely some style issues that I would like to think I’ve let go of over the years. Still, there’s some work here that I think others would enjoy, so I’m publishing the essay without revisions at this time. I may write more following my replay of the game.

Kentucky Route Zero

Bull | 2014
Game Analysis
P574 – Games & Learning

Games sew together contexts for playful simulation; in the case of Kentucky Route Zero (cf. Cardboard Computer, 2013) (henceforth referred to as KR0), designers Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy configure a strange and beautiful domain from which to draw conclusions about the characters, setting, and circumstances inscribed therein. The plot of KR0 is styled as a point-and-click adventure, and the story draws heavily from the visual aesthetic, musical and literary genre of Americana. Following around main characters Conway, Shannon Marquez, and Homer[1], players orchestrate gameplay that inscribes meaning between embedded and distributed narratological and ludological elements. Events are the consequence of particular configurations of space/time that represent the interactions between different textual and subtextual representations of language, space, and identity. Time is not just a mechanic or dimension in the game that players manipulate; time also exists as a separate context from which players organize their experience with the game interface. Herein, both the designers of KR0 and the player rely on two dimensions of time to help thread contexts together “meaningfully” in a networked organization of information that might resemble symbols, themes, and/or ideology. How anyone discursively talks about what they know as a consequence of playing is not a particularly well-developed facet of this essay, but knowing how to move through, with, and against this multidimensional system is not something that comes from intuition. KR0 scaffolds a player’s education by applying a number of learning principles that we can understand through J.P. Gee’s ontological framework for learning, generally (cf. 2003). In particular, I wish to highlight how KR0 stages learning for players through the application of four principles, numbered according to Gee’s organizational scheme:

8. Identity Principle
“Learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones. There is a tripartite play of identities as learners relate, and reflect on, their multiple real-world identities, a virtual identity, and a projective identity” (2003, pg. 208).

15. Probing Principle
“Learning is a cycle of probing the world (doing something); reflecting in and on this action and, on this basis, forming a hypothesis; re-probing the world to test this hypothesis; and then accepting or rethinking the hypothesis” (2003, pg. 209).

20. Multimodal Principle
“Meaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound, etc.), not just words” (2003, pg. 210).

28. Discovery Principle
“Overt telling is kept to a well-thought-out minimum, allowing ample opportunity for the learner to experiment and make discoveries” (2003, pg. 211).

The application of these learning principles is subtle, but distributed to help mediate the relationship players form with the game. To understand how, it’s useful to revisit Jenkins’s application of Kristen Thompson’s work on narrative, wherein plot and story are designed separately for a combined effect (cf. 2006). Jenkins describes the construction of narrative in videogames as “embedded narrative,” wherein players construct hypotheses about the context, and move through space and time in an process of acting upon the game to test their interpretation of the game as a context (2006, pg. 126). I argue that it is in a deconstruction of the relationship between story and plot that designers can understand KR0 as educational context.

From very early on in the game, KR0 reinforces a player’s agential relationship to the game by allowing players to make choices about the conversations they have with non-playable characters. The facilitation of communication with non-playable characters affects the content and context of the messages they exchange, which tends to reinforce a range of possible relationships non-playable characters form with the player character. Herein, Gee’s Identity Principle describes how the structure of KR0 encourages players to relate to their characters (cf. 2003). The Identity Principle is a premise for learning; by encouraging players/learners to organize and mediate their understanding of the virtual world through the process of making choices, player and non-player interactions sum the facets of a player’s identity in-game. Relating a player’s choices to a player’s relationship to non-playable characters encourages players to think about the text and subtext inherent to KR0, and it also facilitates a relationship between the kinds of questions a player asks and the information non-playable characters circulate back to the player. Naming Conway’s dog is the first instance wherein dialogue tree choices facilitate different outcomes that affect some facet of the game’s environment throughout the story. Exercising naming as a rhetorical tool at the very beginning of the game helps players recognize this mechanic almost immediately. This dynamic is also predominant when the player has a choice of facilitating interactions with a non-playable character with either Conway or Shannon; each character asks different kinds of questions, which open up different dialogue trees for the player. These dialogue trees may not serve as more than an aesthetic fixture, but they do serve to reinforce what kinds of words, phrases, questions, and interpretations serve as facets of Americana myth and folklore. These dialogue trees also reveal different kinds of information that describe facets of a character’s identity and history, while also articulating a subtextual commentary on class, economic instability, and corporate oppression. What subtext players recognize as a commentary on social issues or topics is reliant, to some degree, on a particularly configured player, someone who knows how to relate particular contexts together. Conway’s reflective commentary on alcohol might not come across to all players as a subtextual rhetoric indicative of a recovering alcoholic; and yet, for those players who would recognize the carefully patterned phrasing Conway relies on to avoid talking about addiction, that recognition comes from relating identities from the game world to the real world, across various time/space configurations. Herein, identities serve as tools for learners to understand a variety of contexts and how they might relate together. Further, utilizing identity as a tool compliments how players exercise probing as an exploratory process that confirms or denies how players understand KR0 as a singular context.

Gee describes the Probing Principle as a circulatory investigation of a context, as a process of doing, reflecting, and doing again to configure some facet of the world as a system (cf. 2003). Encouraging players to speculate about the world that circumscribes KR0 is one way Elliott and Kemenczy provoke players to relate what they know about the real world to this imaginary one. To do this, Elliott and Kemenczy predicate early gameplay on a player’s development of an exploratory ethic. After Conway arrives at the gas station, Equus Oils, in Act 1 and is asked to go into the basement in order to turn the power on at the station, the player is forced to navigate in the dark with a flashlight. Control of the flashlight precipitates the first clickable button that players see on their screen, and this symbol immediately suggests that the flashlight is a tool, not a rudimentary embellishment. After descending into the basement, Conway comes across a card table around which a handful of people are playing a game. The player is encouraged to try talking to the card table players, but engaging with them doesn’t produce the desired effect—no matter how many times Conway tries to directly communicate to the card table players, they don’t seem to notice. In trying to talk with the card table players, the player is instead forced to listen to their conversation, wherein the dialogue hints that the player is supposed to locate a missing piece of their puzzle. Herein, the player meets a dead-end barrier when they try to navigate to the right of the side-scrolling screen, and so the player navigates to the left. For people who have played side-scrolling platformer games before, the significance of having to navigate left is hopefully not lost on anyone: secrets, if any exist, always exist to the left of the screen—in the direction opposite that players should expect to travel. For players who haven’t played side-scrolling platformer games before, the same conclusion is reached by process of elimination. After traveling to the left, players descend down a stairwell into a dark space and quickly reach another dead-end. Here, the game cannot continue until players try turning off the flashlight, without being cued to do so. Turning off the light illuminates a small, lost game piece that sits hidden on the floor at Conway’s feet, and picking up the game piece substantiates the rhetorical possibility that players are responsible for exploring many possible ways to move forward; the “correct” way may not always be the most obvious. In retrospect, this series of events serves as an embodied metaphor through which the player can anticipate part of their experience producing gameplay, but this interpretation is not necessarily one that players need to immediately recognize in order to continue along in the plot. Rather, this series of tasks initially scaffolds an ethic for the player that will serve them throughout their time in the world that makes KR0 possible. By distributing a limited number of gameplay elements in the scene, and narrowly confining the space wherein players are asked to network contexts together, Elliott and Kemenczy scaffold for players an application of the Probing Principle that exemplifies how players should approach experimentation—as both a process of layering contexts, and as a mechanic inherent to exploration. Elliott and Kemenczy reward this behavior by inscribing a wide variety of strange contexts that may not obviously relate explicitly. This is to say, sometimes players are given explicit directions that guide their transition from place/event to place/event, but this style of communication doesn’t preclude all that players do or learn in KR0.

Players know that to progress through the story they have to eventually intersect their player character with a particular space at a particular time in order to progress through the plot; however, players also know that they are free to explore the space in a non-linear fashion in order to discover information about the story. Within this scheme, players may expose themselves to images, texts, symbols, interactions, or sounds that are only rendered as a consequence of tangential exploration. This information doesn’t necessarily inform how events inscribed in the story are told, but it does circumscribe the world in which the characters and events of KR0 are possible. In this way, Elliott and Kemenczy exercise the Multimodal Principle, by nesting a variety of patterned scenes and elements that reinforce particular subtexts (cf. Gee, 2003). The contextualization of Americana, for example, is evidenced by artifacts of the past—Conway’s job is to deliver antiques, the gas station is occupied by ghosts, and many interior settings are dirty, decrepit, or in disrepair. The dominant color palette is shadowy (blues, grays), but contrasted by dusty oranges and yellows—both are reminiscent of color schemes that defined the American West. The musical soundtrack blends together contemporary, ambient organ or synth music with somber, melancholy bluegrass tunes about home, endurance, or sacrifice. The repeated inscription of supernatural or unexplainable phenomena further evokes Americana myth and folklore, especially those stories predicated on the existence of ghosts or walking dead. Elliott and Kemenczy also contrast decrepit settings with corporate offices, staging the “corporate takeover” in what was (in-game, at one time) a popular and well-trafficked church. In one striking example of their resistance to “death of the west” rhetoric, Elliott and Kemenczy position an unclothed and seemingly homeless organ player on the roof of the church—well, on the roof of The Bureau, as circumstances would have it. From most vantage points, the organ player is completely obstructed from view. A player needs to journey outside of the explicit path in order to glimpse at the last surviving artifact of spiritual life still part of this spiritual place. To hear the organ player perform, the player needs to walk past a conference room full of non-playable characters who work for The Bureau and stand on an unassuming balcony. After correctly positioning the player character, a button appears: “Organ.” When you click, the camera swings away from the player character and focuses on the organ player, who slowly turns away from a miniature, smoking grill (presumably it keeps this person warm? or is this person grilling food?) and settles into a performance of “Work and Need,” a grim, tense and dissonant melody. By relating visual, spacial, audible elements in the simulation, this event contextualizes artifacts of Americana folklore with hallmarks of social value to reinforce feelings of grief and nostalgia. Here, players learn (if they didn’t already know) about a particular configuration of modalities that signify a relationship between Corporate America and the people who are sewn into the constitution of Kentucky. Elliott and Kemenczy don’t need to overtly communicate what they think the relationship is; that conclusion is one they hope players need no more help in determining for themselves.

To an extent, players are afforded liberty to self-determine activities and interpretations in ways that are meaningful to them. Unlike a labyrinth, routes between events in space time in KR0 are variable, and some events can be accessed irrespective of plot order. In this way, KR0 relies on the Discovery Principle to negotiate whether or not a player will experience various aspects of the story or context (cf. Gee, 2003). Elliott and Kemenczy scaffold this experience for players in a few ways to ensure that players don’t find themselves inextricably lost. First, if players find themselves without an idea of what they’re supposed to be doing or where they’re supposed be, players can access the option menu and navigate to the Notes section. Notes archives information that Conway needs to remember in order to experience the next plot event. This is especially helpful when driving because it is relatively easy to lose oneself driving around the backroads in Act 1. It is also incredibly easy to distract oneself with the driving aesthetic in Act 2, and therein it’s possible for Shannon to take over driving responsibilities as a chauffeur if the player loses their sense of direction. Driving around whimsically typically allows for players to come across eclectic road-side attractions that don’t relate significantly—if at all—to the plot, but that do inform various aspects of the story. In Act 1, for example, the player might find themselves at an airfield where they can get out of the truck and watch ghostly figures push an airplane along a runway—although the game is still currently in development, I have yet to understand the significance of this scene. In Act 2 there are several museums that the player can “visit,” although not overtly see—Conway and Shannon don’t ever get out of the car, but the player still learns something about them from choosing to stop the truck. The boundaries of discovery are almost explicitly in the narratological elements of the game—the player relies on the same point-and-click mechanic throughout, even when controlling the flight path of a giant bird. This is, perhaps, because the embedded narrative elements stand alone as rich elements for identification, manipulation, synthesis, and exchange. While KR0 is a single-player game, there is a substantive fan base of players online who maintain a wiki, and chat over social media platforms, and write blogs about their experiences in the game. Players online tend to share observations and walkthroughs of the game; a cursory survey of the discourse notes that at least some players are challenged by the by the task of textual interpretation, one noting:

“Playing this game makes me wish I had better reading comprehension skills. It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life, but this game in particular makes me wish I could process prose more completely. I’m absolutely certain that there are subtleties in the writing that I’m missing, but that doesn’t make the game any less enjoyable” (Freddicus 2014, Oct. 1).

Others hunger for amateur analyses of different in-game events, although few comments on the Steam Forum for KR0 provoked back-and-forth discussion about different interpretations of the setting, aesthetic, or characters. Although the Steam Forum for KR0 serves as an affinity space for players to learn from each other’s experiences, it does not appear to be the case that players are sufficiently puzzled enough to problem solve in a collaborative context (the significance of this practice surveyed and articulated in Duncan, 2013). Open-ended questions to the community—“What the flying fish? Help me understand the greatness of this game!” (himmatsj, 2014) for example—reveal differently-faceted KR0 players; some who readily struggle with reasoning through aspects of their play experience—“I honestly feel I played a completely empty, soulless game” (Ibid). Other members may dismiss various interpretations by predicating their critique on the vicious relativistic argument that, “art is entirely-subjective [sic] based upon intelligence [sic] and we ascribe the meaning” (Anonymous Bosch, 2014). Some players seem to benefit from the practice of textual analysis, sometimes writing long responses—which they commonly preface with an apology—in search for feedback or validation about their experience. And still, others exhibit minimal amounts of engagement with both the material inscribed in the game and the posts published, sometimes contributing comments along the lines of, “In short [sic] this is a game for some of the people who liked analysing [sic] the meanings of To kill [sic] a Mockingbird in highschool [sic] (I was one of them)” (Notaclue, 2013). These engagements seem to evidence that interpretations of KR0 are predicated on some existing familiarity with textual analysis, art critique, or Americana myth and folklore; from this we might infer that players are equipped with different strategies for interpreting contexts inscribed in the game, and may struggle to enjoy the game in a way that literature students might struggle with The Odyssey in a typical high-school classroom setting. The game itself does not scaffold different analytic strategies that would help to facilitate cross-cultural discursive practices. To better understand what players do discover from playing KR0, Duncan suggests interrogating how players contest notions of “well-played” in the affinity spaces they share (cf. 2013). In the case of KR0, it would seem that the game is well-received or hated for reasons that would be irreconcilable to someone who didn’t agree with some other player’s interpretation of the game. In particular, many players lauded KR0 for its methodological approach to storytelling, while others found the story to be frustratingly boring. Here, it’s likely that different identity-related contexts inform how players interface with relate to the simulation of setting, characters, and language—in particular, it might be difficult for people to relate to Conway or understand the setting of KR0 if they haven’t experienced facets of those contexts personally. At best, the simulacra networked in KR0 might serve as breadcrumbs that lead players to draw new or different conclusions about what they know about the world, but the game does not sufficiently model for players techniques for understanding radically new or different kinds of phenomena.

Games are hallmarked for their “ability” to teach players facets of an abstract concept and techniques for accomplishing rudimentary tasks. Good games provide feedback to players that allows for a discursive understanding of how and why to accomplish abstracted tasks. In this essay, I’ve related the design of KR0 to explain how the game scaffolds an education for players in an attempt to model aspects of the game that facilitate play. I’ve demonstrated how KR0 exemplifies the application of four of Gee’s learning principles—Identity Principle, Probing Principle, Multimodal Principle, and Discovery Principle—in the design of the game (cf. 2003). The ways in which these principles inform the production of gameplay is difficult to tease out; many of them functionally overlap with each other and reinforce particular strategies for contextualizing information. In particular, the prototypical KR0 player—if one exists—seems to be someone who has some familiarity with identifying American folklore and myth, or experience of interpreting textual and/or critical cultural analyses. Is this a facet of player subjectivity that designers should account for differently? I think this is where affinity spaces can make a significant impact on player experience. Scaffolding access of relevant contexts that relate to KR0 might serve as sufficient breadcrumb trail for players who want to understand the ideological functions and attributes of Americana. This kind of outer-shell would also rely on the Discovery Principle, but it’s a technique for facilitation that liberates players from the form and pacing instituted by a formal instructor. What’s particularly noteworthy about this approach, though, is that it does not readily compliment the structure of most classroom environments wherein time is strictly policed and mediated for learners. In a classroom, learning is kept to a strict schedule; with KR0, players can take breaks at their leisure, revisit the material ad nauseam, and experiment with different gameplay configurations. Here, educational contexts have something to learn from the constitutional framework of KR0—when learners are equipped with strategies for reconciling what they know with what they experience moment to moment, players find ways for themselves of expressing what they learned. Does KR0 try to appeal to a diverse set of players? Perhaps not, and therein classroom facilitators have a much more difficult time of modeling those information processing strategies for players.

Notes:

[1]  While Conway’s dog is a character that follows them throughout the story, the player character has the option, at the beginning of the game to name the dog Blue, Homer, or [nameless]. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll refer to the dog as Homer because that is how I named the dog in my playthrough of the game.

Bibliography

Anonymous Bosch. (2014, Mar. 6). [Steam Forum Comment]. Retrieved from http://steamcommunity.com/app/231200/discussions/0/558747287623132735/#c558749824491146832.

Cardboard Computer. (2013). Kentucky Route Zero [Videogame]. Online: Steam [Distribution Platform].

Duncan, S. C. (2013). Well-played and well-debated: Understanding perspective in contested affinity spaces. Well Played, 2(2), 37-58.

Freddicus. (2014, Oct. 1). Recommended [Steam Review]. Retrieved from http://steamcommunity.com/id/freddicus/recommended/231200/.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about literacy and learning. New York: Palgraw Macmillan.

Jenkins, H. (2003). Game Design as Narrative Architecture. In N. Wardrip-Fruin and P. Harrigan (Eds.), First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game (118-130). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Notaclue (2013, Aug. 18). [Steam Forum Comment]. Retrieved from http://steamcommunity.com/app/231200/discussions/0/864969953442180123/#c864976115448551768

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