Kentucky Route Zero done

Well, that took only a year and a half.  Waiting for Act V, the conclusion, I mean. And that’s if you discovered KRZ when I did.  If you got it when Act I released, it’s been seven years.  Still faster than Black Mesa!


[Reassuring meow]

As ever, the storytelling is innovative. It’s a full 3-D environment this time… well, it mostly always was, but in earlier acts it generally posed as 2-D. After the beginning cutscene, you can wander around… as a cat. When you come upon people, you can stop and listen, and occasionally contribute a meaningful meow.

The clever bit is that as you wander around, things happen that you don’t see. So you keep going (the map is basically circular), and projects advance, people intermix, things happen.

Now, the last episodes got somewhat dark, so I was curious what they’d do for the finale. So, besides the death of–

Oh, yeah. Spoilers.  I won’t give away any story elements, but I will talk about the overall feel of the last act, so if even that’s too much, come back after you’ve played it all.

Also, I didn’t replay Acts I-IV, but maybe you should. I was forgetting a few of the characters and what their previous dilemma was.

Anyway, they didn’t go grimdark; they chose a low-key, reflective ending, with an air of elegiac melancholy. They basically leave it up to you to seek closure or not. That is, the little choices you get in the dialog can imply either a sad and dissipating ending, or a more hopeful one. I really like this… the events you witness go the same no matter how you choose, but you give them the meaning you want to. And what I wanted was to give this little band of misfits a chance at community.

I will say that it’s not as weird as some of the previous acts. The surrealistic elements are muted.  They do open up the story a bit– there are new characters with their own implied stories. But it was probably a wise decision, and fits with the overall character of the game, which has a keen sense of the quotidian.  These characters bond– if you let them– doing mostly ordinary things.

The political themes are muted too, though as with the surrealism they don’t go entirely away. The place you’re in has basically been ruined by the evil corporation that’s been dogging the characters all along. There’s no resolution to that. But it’s background noise by now, and there’s a hint of escape.

Anyway, if for some reason you read all this and haven’t played it and were wondering if you should: yes, please do. It’s not quite like anything else in games, and if you’re interested at all in game design, it’s a rich vein of techniques and ideas. Yet it doesn’t leave me with a list of regretful complaints as some experimental games do. It does things in its own deliberate way, but once you’ve adapted to that it’s very satisfying.


The Langmaker book

I’m about to order the proof copy of Langmaker: Celebrating Conlangs, by Jeffrey Henning. But I’m not Jeffrey Henning!  What’s going on?

Well, Jeffrey decided (and it’s about time) to put out his material from Langmaker as a book. He asked me to edit and design the book, and it’s almost done.

Back in the early 2000s, there were two websites that the aspiring conlanger certainly had bookmarked: mine and  Jeffrey was interested in all kinds of conlangs, and there were all sorts of ways to get involved: get your conlang listed, translate the Babel Text, submit a neologism, etc.  And then, around 2008, the database got corrupted, and no one knew how to fix it, and the site sadly perished.

The book contains most of the essays and reviews Jeffrey wrote for the site, plus a bunch of his conlangs.  (Except for the lexicons.  They’re one of his specialties, really, and worth a close look… but they’d make the book 2000 pages long.  I will host them a bit later.) (We tried to buy the Langmaker domain back for that, but it wasn’t available.)

We also included the “Conlangs at a Glance” section of the site, a list of historical and contemporary conlangs compiled by Jeffrey or submitted by readers. I spruced this section up to make it more informative.  I think it’s a useful snapshot of conlanging as of 2005 or so, and if that means it includes a lot of people’s first conlangs, that’s just how it was.

Edit: Oh! While I was adding the book page, I got rid of the Google ads on my home page. They are bringing in so pitifully little that they’re not worth the annoyance. I’m hoping to get up a Patreon instead.




I picked this up because it’s made by Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy, which I loved. You can definitely feel it’s made by the same person– it’s cute, unusual, and full of a certain goofy benevolence. And wonky controls.


On the whole, unlike every review I’ve seen, I mostly didn’t like it.

First, what is it? You start as the Mayor, a green cube who’s unhappy because he’s all alone. Soon he discovers a rock, so he’s not alone. This is only the first in a large collection of objects. There is an underlying story about how they all got separated long ago.

You can control any of them; most of them can only walk around, jump, and hold hands, but some have special powers– e.g. the Mouth eats other objects and turns them into poop; the Mayor can remove his hat and cause a small explosion that throws him and anyone nearby up in the air.

Very roughly, the game is like an extended play session with a one-year-old. The objects all sound like babies or toddlers. They’re either giggly and happy, or wailing in tears, which means that one of the objects has a problem you have to solve. The sushi above, for instance, has lost their fish roe, and you have to find them.

Now, this could have been a whimsical romp like Katamari Damacy or Untitled Goose Game. There’s two reasons it wasn’t, for me. One, it is so overbearing, like a pushy kindergarten teacher who bellows, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE FUN NOW. The game is highly linear: you have to do something, and you’re rewarded with a cutscene, a few new objects, and a new goal.

You can, I suppose, ignore the prompts and play with the characters. But the tools you have are so limited.  It’s really not a deep model of friendship to allow you to make two objects hold hands.  Plus, if you ignore the current puzzle the soundtrack is going to be dominated by the object who’s wailing inconsolably.

The other problem is the wonky controls. There’s one task that’s about as annoying as anything else in video games: a doll has lost her facial features and is freaking out. You have to chase after her as the Mayor and beat her with a plastic sword. (I don’t think the subtext there was very well thought out.) While she’s stunned, you find one of the facial features, click on it to switch to it, run to the doll and up her face to get into position. There’s a short timer, the characters are slow, and climbing things is extremely awkward. It’s no Dark Souls, you’ll do it in a few minutes, but there’s a lot more failure than there ought to be. That and a few other tasks would probably be hard for children.

Plus, the game doesn’t tell you how to use the sword.  Or rather, it tells you once, but the keyboard tips screen doesn’t mention it. I figured it out but I’ve forgotten again– all I remember is that it’s the same key as one of the Mayor’s other actions.

Sometimes you need a particular object, and it’s on another island. Some objects are large boatlike things than can swim between islands. So you hit Tab to find the object, maneuver it onto a boatlike thing, zoom out, swim to the island you have to get to, zoom in, click the target object again.  You’ll be tired of all this the second time you have to do it. You can make a game where moving from point A to point B is an interesting challenge (Mirror’s Edge, Dishonored), but this isn’t it.

I often think about whether a game would be better as a movie. When a director mostly wants to tell a story and doesn’t trust the players to come up with one, they might be better off going the movie route. I think Wattam comes close. Actually playing it does not really add much to it; it might have done quite well as an anime along the lines of Kemono Friends.

Alternatively, I think the comparison to Goose Game suggests approaches that would make it more of a game. Basically: less handholding, more toolbox. More objects with strange powers; more ways to solve a problem; a little more mild mischief.

Against all that, the game is colorful and nicely animated, and I respect it for trying something different.  It definitely has its moments– the bit where the Mayor turns into a noir detective, for instance.