This story is over 5 years old.


Notes from GDC: Kentucky Route Zero and the Theatre of Games

Turns out gaming could have a lot to learn from the stage.

Motherboard's resident game designer and critic Colin Snyder is currently running around the Bay Area, eating many burritos and navigating the 2013 Game Developers Conference. Look out for his dispatches throughout the week.

Of everything I've checked out at GDC these past few days, a talk by Cardboard Computer's Jake Elliott seemed to set the stage for gaming's near-future. Elliott and his Chicago-based team, of course, just released the first episode for Kentucky Route Zero, a new take on classic adventure games.


So during the event, he detailed some of those influences, inlcuding many pulled straight from the stage, that have certainly avoided mass adaptation by most game developers--Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967) and experimental cinematography, as well as American tragic theatre, especially the work of Arthur Miller, have both lent their atmosphere and framing to what could easily have been a flat, common-rendered space.

KRZ trailer

What I'm trying to say is that I'm very excited to hear more about the potential parallels to theatre and gaming.

These have always seemed to be two disparate fields of interest. But it turns out gaming could have a lot to learn from the stage; this point seemed to resonate with Shigeru Miyamoto and other devs in the early 90s, with both Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 alluding to such theatric elements as backdrop sets, lighting, "backstage" areas, and of course, show curtains. You can also see elements of this mise-en-scène in games like Treasure's Dynamite Headdy. None of these games took this concept very deep, but to not have revisited this idea in the last 20 years seems odd, if not somewhat of a shame. This lack of representation, of course, is a non-issue for action movies, sci-fi, and high fantasy.

Elliott spoke about linearity and pacing in both his work and across the gaming medium writ large. Kentucky Route Zero isn't fast paced. It follows the exploits of several disempowered characters, and to maintain the games thematic consistency, Elliott and Cardboard Computer designed the gameplay to be rather anti-strategic.

This isn't a puzzle, nor is it a challenge. It's a story, and as such your limited agency in the game is tonally appropriate. More episodes of Kentucky Route Zero are coming soon, and it's about (show)time.

Top: Still from Ketucky Route Zero (via)

Follow Colin at @scallopdelion