I am never completely sure how and why theater survives in the U.S. Indeed, in many ways it is thriving, despite the huge box office generated by films and the thousands of other competing ways that we Americans can spend our entertainment dollars. Still, it seems like a such an ancient medium in contrast to our ability to get our entertainment fixes a lot more quickly, and with a lot less work.
I wonder, then, if part of its survival comes from its function as a memorial of sorts. Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things prompted this response, especially when he writes that
Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open. (200)
His argument here is both joy and fear are prompted by the sudden appearance of cameras (and photographers) everywhere *and* the ways in which our existence becomes thoroughly documented, instantiating who we are while also putting us under constant surveillance. The “memorial impulses” that he identifies in photography refer as much to the function of simply remembering our lives as they do the public structures that incorporate cultural memories.
Theater, though, because it treats with these “memorial impulses” differently, functions as a meditation on how we incorporate memories into our lives, both individual and cultural. It can certainly provide moments as carefully framed as a good photograph, and its rootedness in sets that essentially barely change compared to films feels like a snapshot, but the ways in which plays can take risks with cultural conversations (Hamilton is an excellent example), repeating those risks in multiple performances that each demand their own way of dealing with unique situations (I’m thinking of Mike Pence’s appearance at a showing), provides another aspect of the memorial impulse – the desire to keep our memories intact through multiple iterations and replays.
What, then, does a video game that incorporates theater (and literature, but that is the subject of another post) have to say about memorial impulses? Kentucky Route Zero probably embraces the video game relation to the performative as well as any game I have played (it’s done in Acts and Scenes, fer crissakes), and in narrative alone it is full of memorial impulses. Among just a few of them:
- the antique store that starts the narrative is going out of business
- the Elkhorn Mine – flooded by corporate greed – is now full of the ghosts of miners
- Conway, one of our main characters, disappears in Act IV to work at a place (we think) that seems to be a deliberately hyper-active site of beehive industrial capitalism (producing what we assume is fine Kentucky bourbon)
- even the Echo River, the underground river that provides narrative momentum in Act IV, is chock full of memorials and art that speaks to a dead past, in a peculiarly Southern Gothic way
- there is even a King of the Mountain Hall, trying to find a missing software app while residing in a cave lit by a fire consuming dozens of pieces of old hardware
- both The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces and the Museum of Dwellings occupy game space, both driving the narrative forward and allowing the player to explore
- the Marquezes are in serious debt, debts caused by trying to sell antiques, repositories of both cultural memory and value
Clearly, memory provides a backdrop that the game routinely moves through and around and over and under…
So narratively this game considers the task of memorializing to be one that is appropriate in video games. I think it does so ludically, as well, even though that connection is not nearly as obvious (or compelling, in some ways) as the direct and clear connections the game makes to creating memorials. And yes, narratively the trope of memorializing fits neatly. Ludically, though, I think that point and click format may serve to close more possibilities than it opens, a necessity, perhaps in a game that is story-driven. However, being much smarter than me, the developers of Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer, problematize the occasionally static, snapshot-like moments of their game, as bluegrass bands appear in silhouette, floating either literally or pixelatedly along the Echo River, causing me to wonder if these closures are not yet another comment on the ways that memorial impulses fit into our lived experience.
Perhaps this breaking up of the static that occurs through these audio intrusions aren’t ludic features, necessarily, as players cannot affect them. Still, the larger effect feels ludic because it helps sink those scenes in my memory in ways that games don’t ordinarily do.
The other feature of this game that feels like a deliberately ludic way to affect its memorial impulses occurs in the dialogue choices. I do not know if the dialogue choices the player makes actually affects the plotline, but they sure feel like they do. In other games that sort of dialogic choice feels like a cut-off (or, in games like Dead Synchronicity or The Detail, the player quickly understands that different dialogue or even action choices make no difference in the way that the story unfolds), resulting in options that matter little. In Kentucky Route Zero, though, the choice feels like it matters. In homage perhaps to the road trip motif that undergirds the story, each choice not taken made me feel slightly sad, as if I had bypassed the chance to hear another wonderful narrative that would further help me understand why this game is so ridiculously attractive.
Our instantiation in to the game, though, is ultimately limited. The mise-en-scene rarely allows us to scroll beyond the limits of our screens, and the player is guided along in very specific paths. In some ways these controls might close down potential options, make what is hopefully an immersive experience both inside and outside the game one that becomes limited to what we see. As I will explore in another post, however, Kentucky Route Zero is never that obvious…