Agency in Kentucky Route Zero

I want to create a placeholder for something, and thus is born the new category “Ideas for Later.” What I want to return to later, when I have time for a deeper more critical analysis, is the issue of narrative agency in Kentucky Route Zero.

First, let me clarify what I mean by narrative agency. Narrative agency is the ability, in a game, for the player to alter the course of the narrative based on the choices they make in the game. Elsewhere, I have established a list of criteria that greatly enhance types of agency play in games. The criteria for narrative agency are these:

 

  • The user has an active role in the narrative whereby they influence events that occur as well as how the story ends, and as a result should not feel they are playing a role that forces them to reflect on how a character, rather than themselves, would react
  • The user should need to reflect critically upon and evaluate social contexts in order to envision and bring about narrative alternatives

In conjunction with the elements which help establish narrative agency are those elements which are crucial to the overall narrative experience of the game. In other words, the narrative agency must be complemented by a narrative system in which the following have been accounted for:

  • A different well-formed/artistically whole, dramatic, and narratively coherent story, complete with a relevant resolution, occurs smoothly each play through and should support replayability.
  • Narrative should be clear enough to help user understand what to do and why they should do it, upon their own critical reflection

 

So where does Kentucky Route Zero factor in? Well, against these criteria, Kentucky Route Zero could be said to offer a high level of narrative agency supported by a well-constructed narrative experience. But it also introduces a new element that no previous digital interactive narrative game I have encountered has presented: rather than embodying a single role in the game (in which the player acts as the lead or central protagonist in the story), the player is active in multiple roles in the game simultaneously. In any given conversation, Kentucky Route Zero willingly hands over the reigns to the player allowing them to select dialogue responses for multiple people, thereby constructing each side of the conversation. Rather than simply playing as Shepard in Mass Effect or as Bigby in The Wolf Among Us (or a plethora of other examples from Catherine, The Walking Dead, Red Dead Redemption, Deus Ex, Dishonored, etc. etc…) in Kentucky Route Zero the player’s narrative agency is enhanced simply through the act of allowing them to embody multiple narrative roles.

What Kentucky Route Zero seems to have done is built an elaborate and beautiful dollhouse whose foundation is cemented in a concrete narrative, but within which the player gets to play with all the dolls. So I need to think on this further, but Kentucky Route Zero seems to be a game changer in the research criteria I had previously established, and it forces me to question if the best way to offer narrative agency doesn’t have something to do with the ability to control more of the pieces on the proverbial game board. While I think on this more, I certainly welcome your input on the matter too!

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