Monday, January 7, 2013

Kentucky Route Zero (Act 1), by Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy

The first act of Kentucky Route Zero is now available for purchase, conveniently on the same day as the news that it has more or less swept this year's IGF nominations. The praise is well-deserved. Cynically, you could sum it all up as Sword and Sworcery + Prairie Home Companion + the love child of a Jorge Luis Borges / David Lynch / Flannery O'Connor threesome (except, uh, less violent). It is a game consisting almost entirely of moods.

KRZ is also one of those few nostalgic games that is nostalgic about something other than 8-bit platformers: it's oozes a sort of folksy American mythology that is straightforward but inscrutable, polite but dark -- something very old in a very young country, blah blah blah. (I'll try to write about it again when more people have had a chance to play it.)

At the center of this paradox is the fact that it's essentially an indie text adventure but it has a strong chance of winning an "Excellence in Visual Art" award. The evocative imagery is part Kemenczy's stunning theatrical backdrops and compositions (those trees, man!), yes, but also partly Elliott's restrained prose that really trusts its reader to do some work. Both aspects are meticulously crafted, yet it doesn't feel designed to death. Every single detail, from the framerate of an animation to the fadeout distance of highway sounds, is carefully and precisely considered. It has a very specific voice and that voice is warm.

"It is late and it will only get later..."

Given KRZ's success, however, it's important to keep in mind how difficult it was to find this aesthetic and give it space. Their original Kickstarter launched exactly 2 years to this day. The concept changed drastically in that time, and it took very long for it to mature the way it did. Now, looking back, it's easy to say it was time well-spent, but I'm sure they had their doubts along the way. Let this project serve as encouragement to all of us, especially the masters, who have vision and struggle to realize it -- there's light at the end, and maybe there's even a bit of comfort in the darkness too.

(Disclosure: I beta-tested KRZ Act 1.)