Played Reflected

Games of 2020: Kentucky Route Zero

In a year without travel, a game about the road.

I’m not sure what triggered the original thought that the best way to end the year was to try and write about video games. I’m not sure why I continue to try.

When I was a younger and higher energy blogger, staging twenty-five sequential posts to run throughout December was fairly effortless. Now, even with just five titles on my list this year, I’ve stretched the exercise into the second month of 2021.

In 2013, as I rushed to wrap my thoughts, I gave all of a half-paragraph on the first chapter of an episodic game I had spent a quiet evening with:

And, in an experience that isn’t over yet, Kentucky Route Zero (PC/Mac) helped re-invent the point and click adventure. (The way to best enjoy KRZ: pour a glass of iced tea, add a shot of whiskey, turn out the lights, and let the game take it from there.)

I would not play much more of KRZ after 2013. I have a vague memory of getting a little into Act II and deciding that, perhaps I’d just wait for the release to finish.

KRZ was meant to release at a fairly regular clip, with five planned acts. But the road stretched longer than I anticipated: Act V would not emerge until January 28th, 2020.

This blog first formed when I was 19 years old. Dropping the big “WELCOME TO MY VERY MOODY HOMEPAGE” energy of my teenage years for a date-organized format seemed the most efficient way to communicate about my college experience.

From there, the path has meandered. The tone shifts gradually but sometimes abruptly, steering into absurdity or surreal moments.

Characters drift in and out – most remain familiar, though some I haven’t spoken to in years. Some names don’t ring a bell without staring at them for a while.

Framing devices change; a few posts are written as a play, while another (about an attempt to get tech support) is written as a text adventure.

There’s a routine deference to the power of music at poignant moments. Music has always helped me say the things I can’t find the words for.

There is love and there is loss.

Kentucky Route Zero started in 2013 with a man named Conway trying to make a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive. He stops at a gas station to ask for directions, because he is lost.

Over five acts and four intermissions, the story has meandered. The tone shifts gradually but sometimes abruptly, steering into absurdity (I recall bears in a conference room?) and dream logic (the titular road must be uniquely navigated).

Yup. Bears in a conference room.

Characters drift in and out, some being completely skippable and others leaving the core group with little notice.

Framing devices change: one intermission is a play with audience, while a middle portion of Act III plays out as a text adventure.

There’s a routine deference to the power of music at poignant moments: the performance at the Lower Depths bar; the funeral in Act V.

There is love and there is loss.

What makes Kentucky Route Zero stand out – even after a nine year lifecycle (the Kickstarter campaign was in 2011!) – is that you will catch reflections of your life in it. At the risk of imbuing it with a level of magical thinking, you will see what it wants to show you.

Alex Navarro wrote that it “radiates a kind of sympathy that isn’t like much else I’ve played“. That sympathy makes its moments, big and small, resonate and form into their own constellation of personal meaning. Austin Walker connected his reflections to a story about his tooth. Scott Benson connected his reflections to the passing of his cat.

I have been through a lot of life since I started this very self-indulgent blog. (My hair has gone to what I have been told is a very tasteful shade of grey; “salt and pepper”, they say.) I am over twice the age I was when this site came together. My photo archives stretch back nearly as long as the site, and I’ve been looking at both a lot lately.

I consider my two decades of adult life and I feel, well, old. I can still feel every quiet moment of togetherness with friends I can no longer regularly see. I can taste the pain of loss in every post I chose to lead with “This is the latest in the continuing series of me saying goodbye to the things I love.”

And I see the thread of pressing on, to rebuild when facing adversity, to find 5 Dogwood Drive. I don’t quite know where the path forward is going to take me. But I know I must keep going.

Kentucky Route Zero is about the roads we travel and the journeys we take together. Get a drink, turn down the lights, and let the game take it from there. I hope you love it as much as I did.

Kentucky Route Zero is available on PC, Mac, Switch, Playstation, and Xbox One. I spent ten hours with it in 2020.


Games of 2020: Umurangi Generation

In a year of unrest, a game about documenting it.

Umurangi Generation is a first person game where you explore a near-future world through the lens of a camera. There are gameplay elements, but they are secondary to the act of trying to understand the world around you.

When I first moved to NYC, it was through the lens of a camera that I was able to contextualize the city’s shape and heartbeat. That sense of anxious discovery and witness comes across strong throughout Umurangi.

It is impossible to ignore the profound societal challenges of 2020. Umurangi – released in May, with an expansion released in November – may be the game that best reflects the state of the world in its release year.

Umurangi Generation (and the expansion Umurangi Generation Macro) is available on Steam, with a Switch release in the works. I logged around 6 hours.


Games of 2020: Fuser

In a year where live music fell silent, a game that kept the beat going.

BeatMania 6th Mix + Core Remix (Japan) PSX ISO - CDRomance
(This is not Fuser.)

If I were to rewind back to early 2002, there’s a scene I’d be able to point out where my outlook on music games was planted.

I would’ve been in front of my Playstation 1, trying out five key Beatmania for the first time. Already deeply familiar with DDR, the gameplay mechanics of doing something to the beat were not new. But pushing a button to trigger a “keysound” – some small sample, sequenced into the notechart – was very different. Properly following the game’s instructions got you better sounding music, rather than solely higher score. That clicked something inside my head.

I am the first to admit that, on average, I am not good at music games. Even though much of my “gaming legacy” is around being a “Bemani veteran”, I grew tired of the grind long ago. I am not going to regain whatever marginal skill I previously had in beatmania IIDX, or start a quest to grind out the hardest DDR songs. Yet I still love the games where I can fumble my way through “playing” a track.

This outlook change happened again when Harmonix’s Rock Band first hit the market. Now, it wasn’t merely making music play, but doing it together. Playing at a part was a thousand times more interesting than chasing gold stars on Expert.

Fuser’s primary game screen.

Harmonix’s Fuser, released this November, has pushed my music game views forward once more. Here, we’ve moved past keysounds entirely, and in a world where stems – the individual instrumentation or vocals – from any song can be stacked on top of each other. The work that Harmonix did to automate beat-matching, pitch, and tempo in Dropmix migrates to Fuser and integrates so well it feels magical. Almost any combination of tracks can sound good.

The gameplay elements of Fuser are effectively secondary. Sure, you can quest through some sort of music festival narrative fulfilling requests from the producers and fans in the crowds. But it is less interesting and more tutorial-ish than the two modes I have spent the most time in: social mix making, and co-op freestyle.

Social mix making happens weekly, where based on some given criteria, you can put together a mix and unleash it into a queue-based voting system. The game’s traditional scoring mechanics go out the window. Here, you’re only going to place well for the week if you put together something that sounds good.

Here was my submission for a competition around building an “entrance theme”:

Separately, co-op freestyle has you and up to three people switching off at the virtual turntables, putting down what you think sounds good. You can cheer for each other, and there’s some algorithmic determination of the “hottest moment”. Those elements are ignorable; just getting to noodle around with friends trying to re-assemble old songs in new ways is a blast.

Harmonix has already built a pipeline of DLC releases and is making changes in light of community feedback, so there’s no doubt I’ll be coming back to Fuser again and again in 2021. Music gamers looking for thrills beyond AAA hunting should check it out.

Fuser is available on Steam, PS4, Switch, and Xbox. I’ve spent 17 hours in it as of writing this.