[21 May 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
The most powerful scene in the recently released Act III of Kentucky Route Zero is the performance of the song “Too Late to Love You Now” by a character named Junebug. The performance is reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and more specifically the performance of “Falling” by Julie Cruise on the show. In Twin Peaks, Cruise’s ethereal voice transforms an otherwise rundown roadhouse into a location seemingly as equally ethereal and otherworldly as the music that fills it. Likewise, when Junebug and her accompanist Johnny take the stage of the dive bar that they perform in in the game, the roof slowly blows off revealing a starlit sky and Junebug herself transforms into some sort of angelic being possessed by a haunting voice.
Unlike that moment in Lynch’s television show, though, this is a performance that is not merely witnessed by the audience. The audience participates in the construction of the song itself. As each new verse is about to begin, the player of Kentucky Route Zero is given an option of one of three opening lines for each verse. Junebug then sings in response to the player’s input.
This is not the first time that I have participated in “playing” a song in a video game. Like many of you, I have simulated my own rock star experience by pushing the appropriate buttons in games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Simulated though they may be, and despite the false impression that they create of the ease of being a “part of the band,” nevertheless, these games create a powerfully authentic feeling of being a part of something like expressing yourself through a musical instrument. That being said, authentic though it might feel, clearly I am guided when I play Rock Band or Guitar Hero by the boundaries of the song itself and the note progressions created by the developers for me to follow.
There is something that feels less dictatorial about the player’s “performance” of “Too Late to Love You Now” and something that seems importantly so in regards to the thematic interests of Kentucky Route Zero. Throughout the episodes of the game, the player has been offered the opportunity to shape the memories of the game’s characters and the history of the game’s world itself through moments much like these. The player “learns” the history of the game’s protagonist Conway through dialogue options that allow the player to choose how Conway describes his past even though the player is as unfamiliar with Conway’s history as the people he speaks with are. In essence, Conway’s history for the player of Kentucky Route Zero always becomes that player’s version of his history.
Additionally, the game has been concerned with how memory is constructed and reconstructed through simulations and media throughout all three acts and in its additions, the free-to-play demo Limits and Demonstrations and the interlude The Entertainment. In Act III, for instance, Conway and crew track down individuals working on a machine called Xanadu. Xanadu is something like an old school adventure game, in which the “player” of the machine inputs text that determines how he or she will explore the machine’s simulated world. Xanadu more specifically is a simulation of the creation of Xanadu itself by those same individuals years ago in a cavern located off the highway known as the Zero. Xanadu is a memory machine built to record its own creation, but not by acting as a mere recorder, since the player determines much of the history of the machine’s own creation by playing it, by deciding, as it were, how it was created.
This is a strangely parallel situation to the experience of “playing” The Entertainment, a simulation of a play in which the player is seated between the audience and the other actors on the stage. At once, the player of The Entertainment is a participant, playing the role of a voiceless barfly who is a part of the performance itself, but at the same time, the player is just like the audience of the play themselves, witnessing the actions of the other actors while also fully aware of the audience watching both player and actors.
This, then, is one of the chief concerns of Kentucky Route Zero, the strangeness of the Postmodern condition within the context of a mediated reality, a reality perceived by us, but then reshaped by those perceptions. While we talk about immersion in video games and the moments in games that disrupt that immersion, the truth is that this is a medium that always makes its viewer hyper-aware of both the fictional world that has been created for us to view and hyper-aware of reality itself, in which we must concern ourselves with inputting responses to the game world on our controller or on our keyboard in the real world. A film allows the viewer to forget the theater that that viewer is seated in and get lost in the experience of fictionalized others, but video games are insistent on showing the relationship between our real selves as controllers of the game and the false reality that we attempt to immerse ourselves in.
In video games, then, the player is always made self aware and in doing so, a slippage is constantly created between the fictive space and the real one. The fascinating thing about this moment, though, in Kentucky Route Zero, is what is suggested by the fact that I am being reminded of the fact that I am both viewing fictional lives and performing a role outside the game world as well.
The beautiful thing about the experience of (in part) crafting “Too Late to Love You Now” alongside Junebug is that the song is as much about the game and the characters in it as it is about me, as much, then, as about fiction as it is reality. Yes, the song speaks to the bleak and broken world of Kentucky Route Zero, in which people feel alienated from one another, incapable of maintaining anything, a relationship or otherwise, in a crumbling and decaying reality. However, each verse is selected by me, and when doing so, I chose the words that seemed to me to best express this sense of longing and loss.
Indeed, the game alludes to the idea that Conway has heard this song sung in a bar like this before, so the idea that he and I can create and recreate memory alongside Junebug is embedded in the act of selecting verses for the song. What is, meaning what is present and significant in reality, is the manner in which we describe it, not the actual details themselves. Like Xanadu, Kentucky Route Zero itself is less concerned with recording reality but recognizing the ways in which we shape our own reality through the kinds of media that allow us to express our perspective on reality itself.