The Indifference of 'Kentucky Route Zero' to the Platonic Ideal of Video Games

by Eric Swain

17 December 2013

Kentucky Route Zero creates non-Euclidean spaces that cannot exist, not as an expression of the possibilities of video game space when unshackled by the constraints of the real world, but as an outright rejection of the common standard of video game spaces.

The Platonic Ideal is a concept that suggests that all things that exist are imperfect representations of some true perfect, ethereal concept. In The Republic, Plato expounds upon his particular take on metaphysics in a way categorically designed to make one go cross-eyed. The main thrust of it is that what we see and interact with in the real world are mere shades of what is really there. Any chair that you see is not really a chair, but a reflection of the Platonic Ideal of “chairness.” The ideal presupposes the material. As a thought experiment and in meeting Plato’s larger goal of getting people to doubt what they know and truly learn, it’s great. However, as a metaphysical idea unto itself, it breaks down.
As soon as you being talking about chairs, you don’t think of the ideal concept of chairness. You think of a chair. Perhaps the one that you are sitting in right now. The concept presupposes that the ideal comes before form, when in practice, form is always a manifestation of the attempt to achieve perfection. It also presupposes that an item’s ideal form determines an item’s utility, when really it is the item’s utility that dictates its ideal nature. A chair is a poor chair if it fails the test of sitting in it, and a chair with armrests and ergonomic bottom and back is of better utility than a wooden box, though they functionally serve the same purpose of chairness.

The reason that I bring this up is that video games are blinded by a non-existent Platonic ideal of “video gameness.”

Now this is true of a variety of issues relating to video games, but the ideal that I want to zero in on how the video game is supposed to look. Disregarding the tech fetishism of real time photorealistic renderings and an emphasis on graphics above all else, what I’m talking about is the narrow definition of presentation that the entire industry’s collective unconscious has agreed upon. To varying degrees, all video games seem to see themselves as mere shades of the Platonic ideal of the video game: the holodeck.

The holodeck is not an alternate reality. It is a room through which visual tricks and subtle programming could make people believe that they exist in another place, that another world surrounds them. As shown on the various Star Trek TV series that incorporated it, the same programming limits exist for it as they do for contemporary video games. While a holodeck can present activities or scenarios that are intended to be acted out, very often the TV show regulars would speak out of character in that space, and the program wouldn’t recognize that language or its holographic characters would ignore the trappings of the real world that the actors within it exhibited. The ideal was the idea of presence within a virtual world. and many video games achieve this through our human ability to project ourselves into that with which we engage.

We connect our own spatial awareness into the screen and into the place shown to us. We are not there physically, but we are aware of the virtual world around us, as if those spaces really existed and as if we were the character that we control. This isn’t just true for first person shooters or third person action games. It is likewise true for collaborative experiences like playing MMOs and whatever it is that Second Life is categorized as.

Even games like the traditional point-and-click adventure, in which the player is one step removed from direct control over an avatar, also allows for a sense of presence of this type. The screens may look like a stage in such games, and the presentation is such that we are looking into a fully realized space from a static vantage point. However, even without direct control of the character, we still feel the space as that character moves through it, though in a way that is somewhat removed from the proceedings. Our decisions, when we are engaged with the game, are determined by our understanding of the physical space represented.

Now we need a certain degree of spatial awareness to be able to play a video game at all. The connection needed to translate button presses or mouse movements into desirable actions on the screen requires a certain cognitive awareness of self and the ability to translate that to the action on screen. The holodeck ideal refers to the idea of feeling as if present in the world depicted on screen. It’s about what we call getting sucked into the game and is now hyped as “immersion,” special type of spatial recognition regarding one’s place in a virtual world.

Seemingly all video games are subject to this line of understanding, an understanding held hostage by the Platonic Ideal. Some video games accept the limitations of technology or the inability to full realize the creator’s desires, while others push forward that extra inch to make the surrounding world and our place in it seem much more real . Some do so through fidelity, some through density, and others through emotional resonance. Video games as a whole can be understood through the incorporation of this ideal into the foundational DNA of understanding of what a video game is.

Then, we have games like Kentucky Route Zero, which don’t.

And while Kentucky Route Zero does ostensibly exist within a video game space, it is more interested in the function of spaces within that space. It is based on the expressive forms of experimental theater, installation art and modernist literature, not on the ideal of the holodeck. It creates non-Euclidean spaces that cannot exist, not as an expression of the possibilities of video game space when unshackled by the constraints of the real world, but as an outright rejection of the common standard of video game spaces.

At the end of Episode 1, Conway and Shannon are trapped in a mine following a cave-in. They have to use a rail cart to find the exit at the end of the tracks. From here, Conway controls their direction and movement along a one dimensional line. At the center of that track is a switch that allows the player to switch between two other tracks that all intersect at this point. Conway and Shannon on the cart stay motionless and the scenery shifts around them. Shifting and continuing on the line in either direction will get them to different locations in the mine. Yet, it is still a one dimensional track. Only the two artifacts that shift into view in front of and behind the two denote which track you are currently on.

In any other game, the player’s mind would compensate in such a way to build a mental map of the mine and the existence of three tracks. Two things stop that from happening in Kentucky Route Zero. First is the presentation of the space in the mine. It isn’t Conway that moves or the camera that changes position. Both are presented as motionless to the player, and it is the world instead that moves around the two characters. Lo and behold, when the cart moves down the tracks, it ends up in a completely different place without any direct cues that the spatial geography has indeed changed. The presentation could still be compensated for as our brains as very spatially wired—were it not for the rest of the game.

The second issue with conceiving of this space in familiar way is that the mine section happens at the end of Episode 1 and the preceding scenes have been built on a variety of spatial presentations. We begin at a gas station, whose presentation could be from that of any point-and-click adventure game. It is a 2D space viewed from a single vantage point; though the camera moves slightly to follow Conway. Later, when on the road in the game, we view the world as an overhead “road map” of Kentucky and move a wheel icon along its roads. While we are traveling, points of interest appear on the side of the road, and we can explore them. Some are locations like the gas station that the game starts at, Equis Oil, but most are spaces defined by text only. We understand spaces like the church, the bait shop, the museum, or the two former power company offices as white text on a black background. We travel through doors and down hallways we are told exist, but do not see for ourselves. There is no presence to these parts of the world beyond what is described. The rest is up to us.

Then we come to the mine, the only one dimensionally represented space in the entire episode. Conway can travel back and forth in the mine, but he can also move further away from the camera or towards it. Underground, we view the scene from a 2D vantage point like we are used to in games like platformers, but Conway has no ability to move vertically. The presentation of the track change is hidden from our sight, and his movement remains one dimensional. The game has switched presentation and delivery so often that, within the realm of this one game, we are trained to understand space only as we see it and not as how we would nominally “feel it” through projection.

Such changes are even more pronounced in Episode 2. Once on the titular highway, the Zero, Conway, Shannon and Blue find that the road is an impossible moebius strip composed of three lines (at least) that connect differently to new sets of strips at every intersection.  The illusion is only maintained by presenting only a portion of the track to the player at a time. At the Museum of Inhabited Spaces, the vantage point remains the same, but the camera follows the characters in a full circle. Upon entering some of the houses there, we are granted a text description of what is inside, including a child’s description of the impossible space of Zork, which are like the caverns below. We are greeted with a new presentation of a road map by way of an eagle that not only changes the view from a pure top down perspective to an isometric view, but that also rotates the map as the eagle circles. Finally, the forest montage at the close of the episode features people and backgrounds that disappear and reappear between the trees in the foreground as we move forward along the path and in time. The virtual space itself becomes a montage that the camera will not fully show, as it remains fixed as a single shot.

These spaces do not and cannot exist as presented. Creating a coherent connected space in this holodeck is not on the game’s mind. It isn’t Anti-Chamber, which creates imaginary geometric spaces in an effort to instill a new style of spatial reasoning and logic in the player. Anti-Chamber is doing in the virtual world what cannot be done in the real world—by hiding its changes outside of the first person perspective. Even though we cannot see it, once we understand the logic of it our spatial sense tells us what has happened even when we do not see it. We know that the hallway behind us as we look at two staircases has vanished, replaced by another one even though we do not see it. Our sense of presence remains.

Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t hide what is just out of view. There is nothing out of view. Only the portion of The Zero that you can see at any one time exists. The rest is not there until you decide which direction you want to travel in. The house that vanishes reappears and vanishes again between the lines in the trees exists only in the parts that we can see. Kentucky Route Zero is a rejection of the holodeck ideal, not because it goes out of its way to create spaces that are not real, that do not and cannot exist, it never subscribes to the holodeck ideal in the first place. The creators come from a very different background and aren’t subject to the cultural indoctrination of its allure. Some video games if given the choice would follow the same values in presentation, but doing so would be a choice. Video games are held to this ideal and judged against it. The imagination is limited by striving for “video gameness” as understood as a whole universe that you feel like you are existing in through sensory presence—the ideal known as immersion. Cardboard Computer didn’t try and fit their vision within the confines of collective understandings of space or ill defined concepts of immersion. They followed the path that they needed to for their work be what they wanted it to be.

The problem isn’t the existence or the desire for the facsimile of the holodeck. The problem is the ever present pervasiveness of it to the detriment of art in the medium, including its creation, its recognition, and its acceptance.


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