Sequels ache for an imaginative way to reengage the player. With familiarity comes boredom, and with boredom comes the nightmare of every game designer. An appreciative audience wants to be entertained, but not far enough from the core idea to drive them away.
For normal sequels, this is a challenge. For episodic gaming, this is near impossible. The first act establishes the blueprint, and following acts are challenged with deviating from and sticking to it.
I’ve yet to play an episodic game that manages this quite as well as Act II of Kentucky Route Zero.
In Act I, you point and click your way across a linear map of select locations on Kentucky’s fictional highways while your rickety delivery truck sputters at your command. Act II does this as well, but it twists its perspective after you’ve encountered the titular secret highway. You move through a circular tube where progression is no a longer linear concept.
Forward and backward are now the same directions, separated by surreal wire-frame landmarks. Directions to specific places aren’t A-to-B, but rather “go clockwise until you reach the Talon, then turn around until you reach the Jaws.” Haunting and contextually suggestive imagery aside, it’s a standout way to retain the core idea of travel and exploration, but augment it with a completely new way of parsing that information.
And then, without warning, Act II changes its game again. Toward its conclusion you’re outfitted with the ability to fly anywhere over the game’s interpretation of Kentucky. The 2D highway map is shifts into 3D space, complete with a giant bird as a new vessel of transportation. Doing a stop-and-pop over existing landmarks is an option, as is going literally off the grid and discovering brand new places. Kentucky Route Zero, a vaguely linear point-and-click adventure game, briefly goes full Aladdin and opens a whole new world for the player to explore.
This was the first time since BioShock where I didn’t immediately pick up a controller because I thought I was watching a cut-scene. Watching that bird soar — complete with pitch-shifting ambiance and soothing beat of its flapping wings — brought my brain closer to Panzer Dragoon Saga than anything in the last seventeen years. Reaching out and touching that part of my gaming adolescence is an awesome anecdote, but the vivid grace with which it operates its assumed means of interaction should invoke a sense of wonder in any prospective player.
Kentucky Route Zero deserves admiration for a myriad of its decisions, but respecting the player’s time — perfectly managing expectations and slowly lifting the veil behind its surprises — is one of its best.