Writing can sometimes be an act of contrition, an admission of failure. In an effort at theory building — that is, at writing beyond the functional and/or instructive —, we pretty much always encounter a wall, but don’t often say so. This is me saying so. Games writing is now necessarily diverse, because games have become both more numerous and more complex, across a variety of planes, and so have the people writing about them. And yet, what we’re “doing” has no ready-made language, no coherent analytical frameworks, no map. We’re somewhere between academia and a diary.
Eventually, every genre, every media, has its Ulysses. I don’t know if Kentucky Route Zero is Ulysses. It’s certainly allusive: a structurally complex, confusing, the brilliant and beautiful episodic point and click game by Cardboard Computer in which a host of characters embark on a seemingly meaningless and mythical journey through the finance and poverty ravaged landscapes of rural Kentucky. Regardless, writing about KRZ is not “easy”. Partly because of its episodic nature, and partly — I think — because of its dense and almost Beckettian allusiveness, its semantic density, KRZ seems to escape ready comprehension and understanding. Its mechanics (the word we often descend on to describe a technical process) are both simple (literally, “point and click”) and alarmingly diffuse (navigating, by symbols, the Zero itself). Meanwhile, its ‘story’ – the fabula itself – is slippery, and the formal framework around which it is arranged is complex. It’s perhaps the hardest ‘text’ – not simply ‘game’, but text, product, artefact (see? Even finding the right category word is tough) – that I’ve ever tried to write about. I need a break.
These are temporary notes; spirals of thought that have emerged from months of writing on and about KRZ. I have generated almost one hundred pages of notes, screen grabs, titles for potential pieces, abandoned drafts. Out of all of this labour – an incomplete labour – has stemmed a single and probably incoherent article that’s currently in the process of editing (my apologies to those editors, by the way). During this time I have revisited Beckett, trawled through 18th century Italian engravings, studied David Lynch, learnt about 19th century classical music, and examined theatrical staging, the design of theatrical production. I’ve also gone back to early radical union and labour politics in the States, the company store, Pinkertons, and the economics of debt and foreclosure. It’s one thing to have connections, references, linkages, and another to attempt to snow-ball those into a coherent and identifiable, critical framework. After all, what we’re doing at Ontological Geek and a host of other, comparable sites, is not “review” writing, but nor is it “academic criticism”. They’re “thoughts” — structured, hopefully articulate. So what we’re doing is necessarily partial, an evasion of critique in favour of – what? — something like critique, something like an attempt at creating a conversation around a form of cultural production (games) which cannot be reduced to a particular form or reading. For theorists Deleuze & Guattari, there’s a good concept for this; the rhizome.
The rhizome could be summarised as that which “connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible to neither the One or the multiple […] It is comprised not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion”, and “the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entranceways and exits and its own lines of flight”.1 A “recombinant poetics”, as someone else put it. So you have a form of theory building that actually is at home with the idea of an object that is diffuse and dynamic, which requires a map, albeit a map which might fail, or will get us lost.
Maybe we’re not properly equipped to write long-form about video games — especially those games which excel in their own obscurity and strangeness — and are not used to it, or are standing in the primordial sludge of it. But that’s not to say that the ground isn’t being prepared, and in fact we’ve become much more used to the close and sustained textual analysis of games (beyond the academy, even). It’s just that the “text” is strange, and we can actually change it. We can change its state. And, perhaps unlike a book, it can glitch. Burn a book and it’s unreadable. Damage a computer game, corrupt its base files, and you get a new product entirely, one that is unexpected. But even when uncorrupted KRZ remains a consciously “difficult” game —intellectually, visually, poetically — that’s also its beauty. Its form, play, and content throw up surprising events and imaginations. To write about it, as if it were simply a “game”, is fantastically hard. But it also still is a game. For KRZ, and games like it, it might be best to think with the rhizome in mind. You build your theory as you go. I promise that those articles on KRZ are coming.
- Deleuze, C. & Guattari, F. 2004. Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. A&C Black. p. 23 [↩]