What Makes Kentucky Route Zero’s Dialogue So Good?

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the inner workings of their games. This time, Kentucky Route Zero [official site].

I haven’t a lot of patience for dialogue in games. Weighted by exposition and lumpen characterisation, it tends to lumber, but I love the dialogue in Kentucky Route Zero. Telling a story which balances the bizarre with the everyday, it communicates so much with so few words. And the technology that lies behind them is ancient, wielded by games pretty much since their advent. But Kentucky Route Zero employs a twist of design that makes a world of difference:

THE MECHANIC: Multiple choice

When Kentucky Route Zero presents you with a set of options for how its characters will respond to a prompt, it seems simple. They look just like those of any LucasArts classic.

But you soon realise there’s more going on, and yet with less. Unlike those of LucasArts, most conversations don’t branch and come back on themselves, so you can’t wring every last bit of drama from them by exploring every option. Instead, what’s said is said and you have to leave it behind you.

For all their simplicity, these conversations play out far more naturalistically than anything by LucasArts, or indeed BioWare, and through the subtlety of both the design and writing. That’s because the power of the design lies in the fact that the choices themselves give you insight into the interior and exterior lives on the screen. So when Conway talks to his dog about Equus Oils you know his take on the place, simply through the list of choices, regardless of which you ultimately choose.

We’re more observers than participants in Kentucky Route Zero. Its players aren’t fully under our control, and our perspective constantly shifts between them as the game requires. “Our surface level treatment of dialogue was to show it as though you are maybe watching a play from a distance, maybe too far to hear the actors speaking, so you’re reading along with the script or something like that,” its writer and programmer, Jake Elliott, tells me.

But the choices you’re given are still meaningful. Perhaps we’re also directors of this story, because I have my own Conway. He’s a gentle and uncomplicated man; he speaks as he sees, and doesn’t see very much. But he could be more insightful or more assertive if I chose other options. You know they won’t really shift the narrative but they have a knack of letting the characters breathe, and you get a greater idea of who they are, and who they could be.

This particular form of influence over the characters’ inner lives also lends Kentucky Route Zero much of its economy, where lives are suggested in just a few lines. Elliott was inspired by films like Peter Greenaway’s A Walk Through H, in which a narrator tells the story of a journey as the camera slowly pans over a series of hand-drawn maps. “It has this really engaging story about a metaphysical journey but it’s so economical. That stuff really speaks to me as an artist.” In Kentucky Route Zero, letting the player take a part in how a character reacts emotionally doesn’t require animation or voice work, just text. “I think Dark Souls also is really good at being very economical with the way it uses lore. They put some text in there that’s just hints and most of it is just happening in the minds of players and on forum threads. It’s just so effective and powerful.”

While the overall narrative won’t shift, choices can quietly change future details, giving Kentucky Route Zero a subtle dynamism. “Some lines that people speak are weird cutups of these different options, the sentences rearranged at the word level in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do if we had to record everything with actors,” says Elliott. The game retains a database of what you’ve seen and what you chose, which Elliott describes as ‘haphazard’ because it’s rather less than exhaustive. “We’ve been planning some things that we’d capture and use later, but a lot of things is just, ‘Ah, it might be interesting to know what they said about that,’ and not really know how we’d use it later.”

The effect can be poetic, though you often don’t even notice it. That’s a strength, by the way, because Kentucky Route Zero avoids that portentous sense you get in many games with narrative choices, where every action feels weighted with the threat it might lead to the “bad ending”. The effect is that you play naturally rather than self-consciously or with some plan in mind. “This is not a story about strategising, or knowing where you’re going, or having a certain goal that you can accomplish in a certain way,” says Elliott. “The characters respond to it, they’re trying to make this delivery but they don’t really seem that urgent about it. They mostly want to talk to people. I think we were thinking about telling a story about people who aren’t necessarily in the position to strategise. They are responding to their conditions, and they are people who are, in their nature, more curious than aggressive or forceful. We want the player to be in a state where they’re asking characters questions about themselves, just inquisitive and curious.”

Players can therefore get very different experiences. “All three of us really love that aspect of it,” says Elliott. To the extent that they’ve invested huge resources in things that only a proportion of players will ever see. For example, in Act II, there’s a sequence in which an organist plays some specially written music which was recorded in a church. But only if you walk out far enough on a balcony in the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces. Yet it was major production for the three-person team. “It gives the project an interesting lop-sided shape that makes it feel really alive and strange and interesting, where the value isn’t represented by being in the main walkthrough,” says Elliott. “That’s a value in itself.”

As Kentucky Route Zero’s writer, Elliott’s challenge is keeping in his head players’ differing experiences, and the fact that so much of these experiences is simply down to suggestion. Though he can test sequences in the engine, he usually finds himself only fully playing them once they’re finally incorporated into the scene towards the end of production. “I can kind of model it in my head most of the time, or I think I can, but I can usually tell if it doesn’t flow right,” he says.

Still, his process has changed over the course of the game’s development. He started out using a more or less lightweight markup language he devised himself, so that he could quickly write and throw things out. But then he used Twine to make a playable mockup of a conversation for artist and co-programmer Tamas Kemenczy and sound designer Ben Babbit. “I was looking at Twine’s actual text code and it was way better and more terse than this language I’d evolved independently, so I just switched to working in it.” So today he writes in its native language, Twee, and has a script which exports it into the game. “It’s gotten really slim and the goal of all of that is so I can write quickly and not have to plan ahead too much.”

The pleasure of playing Kentucky Route Zero is due in part to the way its text is presented. The beautifully aliased letters (based on the font Inconsolata, font-nerds) is one aspect, but the way they spool out one at a time also reflects the fact that text here is being wielded in a realtime medium. If you’ve played Japanese visual novels like Phoenix Wright and Danganronpa, you’ll know it feels very similar, where care is taken in how text is broken up between cards, how it’s paced, briefly pausing for semi-colons, longer for full-stops, and how it might trigger sound effects or animation. In Kentucky Route Zero these are pretty sparingly used in the first three Acts, but you can expect more gestures from characters in the forthcoming Act IV.

Kentucky Route Zero is also playful with its dialogue and the choices it offers. You get to write poetry and lines of a song, and to compose a side of a phone conversation that you can’t hear. You decide your dog’s name and gender and play text-based games on computer terminals. The most inventive of these sequences is – note that spoilers lie ahead if you haven’t yet played Act III – when you use the computer Xanadu.

On this old machine, the group of characters play a version of Colossal Cave Adventure, the proto-text adventure game made for university mainframes in 1976. “It’s one of the most important works that we refer back to in Kentucky Route Zero and that scene was really going deep with it,” says Elliott. “We took the actual code for Colossal Cave Adventure and pulled out the original text so it was exactly right to start with, and then edited it and treated it as though we were doing a playthrough of that game with this weird stuff added, so it was kind of a remix.”

The choices you get are suggestions for things to type in from different characters, one of them a young boy called Ezra, who cheerfully suggest silly things to type in, the kind that you do when you were a kid playing a text adventure. For me, it evokes fond memories of one-finger typing KILL THORIN into The Hobbit on our BBC. “Climb a tree!” Ezra says. “Eat the lamp!” he says later.

“Actually, I was maybe five or six years old and my dad was a graduate student studying computer science and we had a home terminal that dialled into the university he was studying at,” Elliott says. “I would play Colossal Cave Adventure over this terminal and it was really, really hard, especially for a five or six-year-old. I couldn’t work out how to quit the game before we disconnected so we were thinking we had to figure out how to die, and I couldn’t find a hole to fall down, even though there are a lot in Colossal Cave Adventure. So he told me, ‘Why don’t you try eating the lamp?’ So I typed in EAT LAMP, and the computer responded, “Don’t be ridiculous”. I was mortified! My dad had humiliated me in front of this computer and I’ve never forgotten that early encounter with videogames, so that’s why that’s in there.”

Xanadu represents much of why Kentucky Route Zero’s dialogue works so well, balancing deft characterisation with surreal imagery, and layering a game over it which seems to suggest possibilities – some fearsome, some funny, all mysterious – that live far outside the bounds of simple branching choices. It turns out that text hasn’t lost the power to create worlds. Who knew?

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45 Comments

  1. FrenchTart says:

    Hmm…. l2extract?

  2. carewolf says:

    Good?? What do you mean good?? It was terrible.

    • jabbywocky says:

      Well, you know, that’s just like, your opinion, man.

      • Geebs says:

        Having played all three parts of KR0 and achieved nothing but a mounting sense of being dicked around Lost-style, I’m afraid I agree with carewolf. Are we quorate yet?

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          alison says:

          I never watched Lost, but from what I understand it was some kind of epic twisting conspiracy-fest that upset some people because in the end none of it made sense. If that’s what I get out of Kentucky Route Zero I will be pleased. I don’t know the plot. I don’t know why certain things happened or how or if any of it is tied together. I don’t care. It’s a fun journey. It’s a train-wreck of hillbilly culture and arty pretentiousness and Googie signs and coal mines and amusing non sequiturs. The characters are quirky and the dialog is absurd and the whole thing feels like a peculiar memory of an America that isn’t. I can definitely see why it doesn’t appeal to people who are looking for a traditional narrative or a game with clear signposts or goals. But if you are into walking sims or art games then it is a thoroughly entertaining experience.

          • christmas duck says:

            I’m not sure KR0 even has a plot, which isn’t to its detriment in any way, it tips its hat to One Hundred Years Of Solitude more than once and I don’t recall that having much in the way of a plot either. It’s a journey, and maybe the destination will matter but I’m completely ok with the chance that it wont.

        • carewolf says:

          Exactly. The game has great athmosphere, especially from visuals and sound track, and occationally from dialog. But if you analyse more than the surface of the dialog, it falls apart. It is empty and hollow. Just artzy, but without any deeper meaning.

          • yhancik says:

            It’s funny how two people can perceive/experience the same game (/film/book/etc) in such a radically different way ;)
            To me, KRZ is one of the few games that actually has enough depth to tell things (a story, questions, themes) on different layers.
            I do find most games stories shallow because they’re usually too happy to accumulate a series of tropes without the slightest afterthought. Even brilliant games have stories and characters that are a bit awkward, because of Hollywood-envy, the need to keep the action going, the danger of world-building, etc.
            I think KRZ works succeeds because it has freed itself from that.

          • dethtoll says:

            Your words hurt me on a personal level because KRZ seems to be a love letter to my teenage years of being lost and alone with only already-ancient computer culture to sustain me.

          • ROMhack2 says:

            I disagree that the game doesn’t have deeper themes and I think it’s very layered experience that puts the characters in focus. Let me be a massive nerd for a second and explain:

            Firstly, the story plays out in the vein of Southern Gothic Fiction. Like the works of William Faulkner, Flannery O’ Connor or even Cormac McCarthy, the magical/surreal themes are used for the purpose of creating a strange, almost desolate atmosphere. It insists on moving us away from reality in order to re-frame ordinary problems and the game becomes about musing on life and death.

            The most obvious theme is that of personal regret. This crops up a lot throughout the game and is demonstrated best by the main character, Conway, who demonstrates a sultry essence of just trying to get by throughout. Notice his stoic attitude to everything, which is highlighted really well throughout the dialogue. It gives him a removed persona away from the suggested happy-go-lucky guy he once suggests himself to have been.

            Similarly, the people he meets throughout the game all reflect a suggestion of strife and having lived through difficulty times. It’s a theme that ties into the deeper theme of disrepair which is reflected by the game’s topsy-turvy falling-down a lot world. Ultimately, this is what allows for the game’s strange and surreal motifs to work and leads into another major theme: of the game: debt.

            Conway’s personality indicates a debt to his past which has affected his self. The bar owner tells of a major debt to the Whiskey company which forces him to sell the bar. The dramatist, Lula Chamberlain finds her working as an office stiff in the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces just because she can’t make ends meet. The mine workers were forced to work at the Elkhorn Mines because the local economy gave them little alternative meaning they drowned when there was a big flood. Conway gets into massive debt to Doctor Truman when he mends his leg leaving, quite literally, a glowing orange skeletal reminder of that debt. There’s also that weird factory in Act III where everybody is a skeleton. Of course, one of the game’s best songs has a great line that goes something along the lines of, ‘lost all my money but a two dollar bill’.

            It’s quite broad but I think this reflects a significant part of the history of the Southern States, which is that local mining economies in the mid-20th century? were stripped away leaving personal lives torn apart. I can’t find the link right now but there’s a great analysis where somebody takes images of real abandoned buildings and highlights their similarity to buildings inside Kentucky Route Zero. To me, it shows that the game’s intention is to talk broadly about the sense of personal loss that comes with changing economic times and ties them firmly into both the personal and social worlds that its characters inhabit.

            There’s also aspects relating to poetry, architecture, theatre and human-computer interaction (the whole Xanadu thing) but I’ve gone on a bit longer than I expected so I’ll let you get on with your life.

        • KevinLew says:

          I will be honest and there’s few games that made me think about the characters as much as Kentucky Route Zero, but at the same time, I can tell this game isn’t for everyone.

          Trying to explain why it’s a good game in the comments section is like asking “Why is Citizen Kane a good movie?” in five sentences. I’ll just write this: Ask yourself why was Conway driving that truck for Lysette’s Antiques. The game will show Conway’s past and how it’s filled with broken dreams and lost love, and he becomes obsessed with making that final delivery. It’s up to the player interpretation, but I think that he just wants to finish something that he started, because he’s not sure if his life has any meaning otherwise.

          • Geebs says:

            This sort of mystery-for-the-sake-of-mystery relies heavily on another level of suspension of disbelief by the player, though. I honestly don’t care about the plot, but I do need to have a sense that the author actually knows what they’re doing – why should I waste my time on random noise? To use an admittedly overplayed and pretentious example: in Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a clear sense that Pynchon is going somewhere with this. Without that, you end up with something that’s merely either wacky or banal.

            I can’t help internally applying Lee and Herring’s “consider the lily of the valley” test. For me, KR0 is not an “ah” situation.

          • yhancik says:

            The mystery-for-the-sake-of-it and writers-not-knowing-where-they’re-going are also pet peeves of mine, but I think it’s mitigated by how much the plot-plot is really important. I think it’s a matter or whether the “facts” of the story are an end in themselves, or just the ingredients of something else. I think it’s (part of) what makes a book/game/film where the journey matters more than the destination.
            I haven’t seen Lost, but my perception from the outside is that people got eventually annoyed by the lack of resolution because of the constant cliffhangers structure of the episodes? And that there was almost this requirement to introduce *more* mystery to keep people hooked?
            I don’t get that feeling from KRZ at all; if there’s mystery, it’s more about the uncanny feeling of being in an alien place and the strangeness of life than WHODUNIT? And I think they definitely have an idea of where they’re going, although it’s also definitely changing along the way, as they’re growing together with this project.

      • Stevostin says:

        Indeed. But the original article doesn’t seem to consider that maybe to some ppl KRZ was mainly boring and as a result hardly qualify for having “dialog that are so good”. If dialog were that good just reading them would be reward enough for the game not to be boring. So yeah, the RPS GOTY diserves that entirely. Very nice looking, admirable, boring, ultimately unimportant game if you ask me.

        • yhancik says:

          “What Makes Kentucky Route Zero’s Dialogue So Good To Me (but not to people who find it boring)?”
          (…)
          but I love the dialogue in Kentucky Route Zero, although some people find it boring. Telling a story which balances the bizarre with the everyday, it communicates so much with so few words to the risk of boring out some people.
          (…)

          While I value balanced opinions, it’s kinda difficult to write pieces that encompass both your opinions and the opposite ones. Especially if you’re investigating why you did enjoy so much the particular feature of a game ;)
          But fair enough, I guess we all get annoyed at what we regard as overrated :p

  3. Harvey says:

    I’m dying to play this game, but I can’t buy it until all the episodes are out. Unless someone here has played it and can tell me the story is satisfying at 3 episodes that is.

    I would go especially crazy if they never managed to finish. Hasn’t it been a year or more since the last release?

    • yhancik says:

      The story is satisfying at every episode. It’s not the kind of writing you find in TV series designed for binge watching :)

      And they’re working on it.. I mean, even if the last news I got was like 6 months ago link to kentuckyroutezero.com

    • supercakman says:

      Yeah, it’s totally worth playing right now. I was actually just spreaking to the developer on twitter today about the sound mixing of the games. He’s got basically 1.5 scenes left to scour for bugs, and then the new episode will be out. Judging by how incredible the first three episodes are, I’m assuming it’ll be well-worth the wait.

    • Person of Interest says:

      Try one of the free in-between episodes: link to kentuckyroutezero.com (under “see also”). They tie into the game world but are also fine standalone experiences.

      If you like the feel of the in-between episode and aren’t bothered by the lack of conclusive “ending”, then you’ll for sure like the main game as it stands, even though there are more Acts to come.

      • Harvey says:

        Thaanks for the link! I enjoyed “Limits and Demonstrations”, but was exhausted by “The Entertainment”. I think it was about the way it drip-fed sentences three words at a time.

        I found myself clicking through the dialogue just to get to the end, to see what happens, but doing so broke the flow, the immersion or something, and I am ashamed to say I just quit in frustration and boredom. I’ll check on the other links once I’ve calmed myself.

        I think both vignettes I tried are pointing towards the surreal world of the actual game, piquing my interest in it (for example, where exactly did the the bartender go on his “vacation”?). But! The presentation of “The Entertainment” got my jimmies rustled for sure.

        thanks again.

        • Zekiel says:

          Happily, Limits is more like the actual game than The Entertainment is. I too found myself frustrated by the pace of the latter, even though it is otherwise pretty great.

    • DrMcCoy says:

      Same. Well, except that I did buy it already. Quite early after its release, too.

      Then I played the first epsiode. Or part of it? I don’t even remember anymore how far I played. In either case, I saw that I really, really, really want to get into this game when all parts are out. And now it’s been three years. :(

      Same thing with Dreamfall Chapters. I backed it and played the first chapter. Then I haven’t touched it at all, still waiting for the final one to come out. I’ll have to repeat the first chapter because by now, my memory is hazy.

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      alison says:

      I have found it a wonderful experience so far. I bought it after two instalments had been released, then played the third instalment some time later. It was perfectly enjoyable. There are several other games I own that appear to have been abandoned somewhere along the way, but what I did get to play of them was solidly entertaining too.

      If you are the kind of person who feels upset when 5 widgets exist in the world and you only own 3 of them, then you will probably not be happy unless you own all 5 widgets. But if the idea of a melancholic and surreal journey through America sounds good to you, a journey where you can take the backroads, talk to strangers, listen to bluegrass and watch the moon, then what exists of Kentucky Route Zero right now is pretty damn great.

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      caff says:

      It is totally playable, but I’m a stickler for having something I can complete. I’d maybe advise waiting until it is fully done so you can experience the full thing. I kind of regret ducking in early to play episodes 1 and 2, because I got totally sucked into the world of KR0 and wanted more.

      I don’t agree with those calling the dialogue shallow – it had the effect of a hazy Twin Peaks episode to me, slightly abstract and otherworldly.

  4. Jac says:

    “Perhaps we’re also directors of this story, because I have my own Conway.”

    That’s definitely how I view it. The perspective switches where you are essentially conversing with yourself certainly amount to directing a cast. Can’t wait for the next part, had almost forgotten about it.

  5. JOJOFACE says:

    Great read! I absolutely adored the writing in this game and The Entertainment. Really looking forward to the rest.

  6. Zekiel says:

    The economy in characterisation is really, really impressive. KR0 is such a strange, haunting game, and that is due in no small part to how well it is written and what you learn from dialogue choices you don’t take.

    Incidentally this is one of my favourite things about Knights of the Old Republic 2: there is a fantastic conversation (with Atris) where you (the player) find out things that your character already knows just by reading the dialogue choices you’re offered.

  7. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I can’t wait for part 4, KRZ is one of the greatest works of our time. As a developer, it’s great to get some insight into how they develop it, Thanks.

    • Person of Interest says:

      I link this in every KR0 discussion, but in case you haven’t seen it yet, Kentucky Fried Zero is a series of articles about the literary, cultural, and architectural influences of the game. Here’s the first article: link to superlevel.de

      Or maybe your interest in the game’s development is more in their development tools, and not in their artistic inspirations. It’s a good read either way, I think.

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        alison says:

        Thanks for that link, it’s excellent. After reading the articles I think this might be the most high-brow game I have ever played. Literally every single reference bar ELIZA and Colossal Cave Adventure went over my head. I approached the game as a walking sim devoid of any particular meaning and loved every minute of it. I guess that’s how I enjoy museums too – wandering about like a knuckle dragger looking at art I don’t understand, enjoying the colors and themes and little jaunt outside my everyday world.

        In any case I hope that by recognizing the references it doesn’t make the game less enjoyable. One thing I hate in a lot of indie games is when they shoehorn a video arcade or game console into their point and click adventure and then blatantly reference a bunch of games the developers thought were cool when they were kids. It’s about as subtle as a brick to the face, and often does not even fit the world they have created. I don’t get that feeling from Kentucky Route Zero, but perhaps that’s because I don’t know shit about architecture, theatre or literature.

        • yhancik says:

          No, there definitely is a difference; it’s the difference between name-dropping and influence (with occasional tributes to it). The references to Colossal Cave is not gratuitous, Jake & Tamas did a text adventure game with jonCates that was already exploring their fascination with it and the character of William Crowther.

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        caff says:

        Oh yeah that is cool! I remember reading this before. It’s an article that complements the game that complements the article, if that makes any sense.

  8. bill says:

    Might be a long drive. I hope the truck can hold up.

    CONWAY: What makes you think so?

    Er.. isn’t that a weird response, grammatically speaking? Is that intentional?

    • Zekiel says:

      Dialogue is quite naturalistic in this game, so it’s not always grammatically correct, like real conversations. Having said that, Conway’s reply follows perfectly from the first sentence you quoted.

  9. ROMhack2 says:

    The creators (or maybe just one of them) released a great little free game called Hummingbird Mind before KR0. It really shows their talent for extracting the other worldly qualities of otherwise simple stories.

    link to cardboardcomputer.com

  10. EkoAzarak says:

    Great article. And spot on. Kentucky Route Zero has a perfectly sparse, vague context, possibly weird, somewhat unnatural dialogue. Really enjoy the game – if game is what it is. The music, the art style, the dialogue…. just a perfect mix. Really cant wait for the next chapter.

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  11. mouseclicker says:

    I’ve seen a few people here say that don’t think Kentucky Route Zero has much in the way of deeper meaning or themes. I sorta thought that at first, too, but then I realized it was alluding to things I wasn’t familiar with, and referencing philosophy I hadn’t learned.

    Read through these critiques and I think you’ll have a wonderful new appreciation of this astounding game, which I think may be the best written video game yet:

    link to superlevel.de

  12. blainestereo says:

    The first thing that I’m going to do when episode 4 comes out (if it comes out) is replay the first three ones because the only things I remember from them are 1) mammoth tugboat (or is it tugboat mammoth), 2) glowy leg thing, 3) there were some bears I think?