I played Kentucky Route Zero feverishly, which is to say I consumed its content wholly driven by a need to consume it entirely. With many games I play nowadays, particularly those with hulking, pendulous narratives, I feel a fatigue set in a bit sooner than I used to when tracking down all the story has to tell me, and sooner still if the gameplay between me and story isn’t all it could be. Not so with KRZ—I played the first act three times through to be sure I saw every last bit it had to show. It helped there was little to no gameplay to get in the way of it, which I didn’t mind in the least.
I had resolved not to braindump on the game ‘til at least one more of the game’s four remaining acts were released and I had further explored its vector map of blue highways and hushed vignettes, and seen the results of KRZ’s unique presentation of dialogue and characterization, or specifically, the choices I made within that framework. Then a Wired piece on the game picked it apart in a way I found—I don’t want to say irritating, so let’s say inspiring, at least in as much as I now feel like I must, must crap out a bazillion words about the game as hastily as possible.
I’m not going to say anything that hasn’t already been stated a hundred times by folks much more capable, qualified and eloquent than I am, but I nonetheless want to quantify exactly why KRZ makes me so excited about the future of interactive narrative. If you haven’t played the game, play it right the fuck now, and come on back so we can chat further.
Maxis’ SimCity was besieged with server problems when it launched last week. Those have been largely remedied. Now free to play the game for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a go, players are digging deeper into the game and returning with woeful tales of AI corner-cutting.
What follows isn’t intended as a pile-on. When I began writing it, it was a love letter to what I presumed was a quirk of simulation extrapolated by extreme circumstances. Now, the mystery of its behavior is a little less mysterious, not quite as beguiling—on the other hand, the pictures are still pretty goddamned weird, so this is worth posting, I suppose.
Anyway, let’s kick this off with a question: what would inspire a person to protest their own house?
What kind of a game is Mother? Even now, it’s difficult to give a real answer.
If some kids took some dolls out of a toy box, plates no longer used from the kitchen, found some nuts and bolts from a tool box, some leaves and flowers from the garden, lined them up on the carpet while singing a nonsense song, it would begin to describe that world. It’s with that kind of feeling that Mother was made.
Well, I am an adult, so I’d add a few angles here, hide a few secrets there, and unabashedly add some really hard parts.
At that point, I’d have a bunch of friends come over to play, and with all their ways of having fun, I’d make them into the simple roots and base of a story, decorating it with twigs and leaves and flowers.
I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about systems, those little gems of potentiality serving as the foundation of every game you’ve ever played, no matter how simple. Input and output, action and reaction, choice and consequence: systems give rise to interactivity. And we, as humans, strapped with meaty brains, love that shit. We’re pattern recognition machines. Give us a system, and our immediate impulse—even if we don’t act on that impulse—is to understand how it works.
Systems literacy isn’t just useful for game designers, though. As far as cognitive capacities go, it’s as vital for meaty-brained humans bouncing about in a global civilization as critical thinking, if not virtually indistinguishable. One’s capability to understand not just how a system works but to recognize the presence of systems in the first place. That’s why I’m a big advocate for utilizing video games—which, again, are nothing more than big piles of interacting systems, players among them—as tools in educational environments, and that’s why this story about a Stockholm school mandating Minecraft as part of its curriculum for 13-year-old students makes me so goddamned happy.
Teachers at the school say that Minecraft can serve as an instructive tool for learning about “city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future.”
Minecraft as a stand-in platform to demonstrate city planning and environmental issues is a great selling point for games in schools, because kids and video games and making learning accessible, et cetera. But what excites me most about their potential for creating a generation of kids better equipped to solve the wicked-ass problems of the future is this quote from a student, Amanda Hillström: “You get to learn how things work because you’re actually trying to build something.”
“Edutainment” is a dirty word because 90% of educational games are trying to teach kids what they’d otherwise read in textbooks, and suck as a result. Any kid can smell a lesson masquerading as a game from miles away. Teaching kids to think better is different—games often offer such lessons without even being designed to do so. Critical thinking, exploration, experimentation, collaboration. When one imagines those moments in history which prompt an uncontrollable “fuck yiss” from one’s mouth, those values and skills likely had something to do with it.
So, more of that, please.