The Entertainment (Thoughts)

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Shirayuri

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Edited By Shirayuri

The Entertainment

The Entertainment takes place at the end of Act II and is a fitting warm-up to Act III (No Act III spoilers will be mentioned here). In many ways, The Entertainment is one of the purest forms Kentucky Route Zero takes -- perspective has dramatically changed and the player is situated in first person within the play. As you look around you might immediately think you are in the audience, but the gaze of the faceless bartender, Harry, frequently engages the player. The uncredited bar-fly is surely referring to the player here.

Whilst the overt theme of this play is debt, there is an underlying commentary on some recurring themes from the game as a whole; drama, poetry, stage and set design, class and more. All of these serve to reinforce Kentucky Route Zero as an 'assemblage' or 'rhizome', in a Deleuzian sense. The view of Kentucky Route Zero I would argue for is that each act and intermission can be seen as an assemblage within the rhizome, or haecceity that is "Kentucky Route Zero". And we need not stop there - in many ways the individual character of KRZ as a type of haecceity is possible thanks to it inviting the player to make choices that tint and colour the world - however The Entertainment offers no such choice, so we can park that discussion for another day. As such, we can go on to untangle and re-entangle some of the ways it is representative of an assemblage, and the challenges it can provide to those engaging with it.

'A Reckoning & A Bar Fly'

When exploring the surroundings we uncover reviews and writers notes explaining the history of 'The Entertainment'. We are told that originally these were two separate plays; 'A Reckoning' and 'A Bar Fly', but the director (Joseph Wheatree, the gas station poet from Equus Oils in Act I) has adapted them to be played simultaneously on top of each other. Immediately, we can think of films such as La femme du Ganges - an experimental piece where the audio track and image are of two entirely separate stories, but once merged together produce an enthralling new piece (notably - it could be argued as "greater than the sum of their parts" - just as we might over-simplify the concept of an assemblage).

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Through the writer's notes we also have it revealed that Joseph never wrote explicit descriptions of sets - as our first encounter with Joseph in Act I where the password to his PC is "a poem that really sums it all up" - we are told that his set descriptions were all written in poems, and that it caused the director a lot of trouble when trying to design the set. Through this, The Entertainment as an assemblage gains its next dimension - and why we might push to describe it as a haecceity in some regards - the design of the set itself is an interpretation of a poem; to outline the dimensions we might call it Art (poem) informing art (set design) complementing art (two simultaneous scripts) to be interpreted (by the viewer). The reviews reveal and forewarn us that for many it may not be successful - many describe it as a dull play with only a few rewarding performances!

So what is to be taken from this? Without examining any of the content of The Entertainment, in form alone we can see it is challenging the player. The challenge is here to not only "be creative", but to absorb and experiment and 'transversally' connect distinct elements to create a new assemblage - a new whole. When looking at the content of the play we can draw more transversal connections, but even when reviewing the play (or KRZ as a whole) it is an open invitation to do so in a transversal way connecting elements from our own lives and experiences to it -- it is not just to be "enjoyed" as an object -- we are implicated within this assemblage/haecceity itself.

Debt & The Morally Right Thing

So with the structure of the play out of the way - what is there to draw from the content? Two overt themes throughout the play are those of Debt and "The Morally Right Thing" (hereon "the Good"), but in the background (transversally?) connecting the two is the question of Truth and how much it matters. With our three main 'sets' of characters (Harry/Bartender, Slade Family, Evelyn/Patron) the role of truth can be underpinned (in broad strokes) in the following;

  • Where Harry went on holiday
  • Whether Evelyn's lover is cheating on her
  • Whether Rosa Slade will get a promotion
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In the first, questions on whether Harry went to a pool or a beach is drawn, and ultimately concluded to be largely meaningless (until it is revealed he didn't go anywhere and stayed home depressed). In the second, whether Evelyn's lover is actually cheating on her is ancillary to the fact that she is just miserable at the financial situation of the family - it almost seems like she wants him to be cheating on her in places, the truth of the matter hardly mattering. Finally, there is the interpretation of Rosa being told "maybe someday" she might become "management material" - as the dialogue unfolds it becomes clear she will never be a manager but the family continues to celebrate. All indications are - the truth doesn't really matter at all, and is entirely less important than the material conditions each character is restricted by.

When looking at said material conditions, the common theme running between all parties is debt; we start with Rosa. Financial difficulties leave her partner selling hammers whilst she racks up a bar tab. We meet the Slade family who are perpetually in debt and relying on their daughter (who works for a pawn shop offering secured loans, primarily it is implied to the working class black community) keeping them afloat, and finally the bartender who is in debt to the distillery supplying his whiskey. The metaphor is not lost here - Harry is only serving Hard Times whiskey, a distillery in which they "put debt in the whiskey itself".

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In parallel to the slow revealing of debt, we see the struggle with the Good each character is going through to keep them there. Whilst Evenlyn is not discussed directly, her mourning and family worries reveal her sensitivity around the Good. Within the Slade family however, we see a deeper look at it. Pearl Slade's proposal that leaving her parents in debt to the bar will teach them a lesson rings ironically of a parental generation - a generation of "tough love". Her family on the other hand hold on to traditional family values - that families look out for each other and that Pearl would not let them sink into debt - and above all the hope and joy tied to Rosa's potential promotion deserves to celebrated.

Harry's battle with the Good sees the play end, and ultimately one of the key messages that will permeate many of Kentucky Route Zero's best moments -- despite being a business owner Harry's humanity led to him giving away too many free drinks to the patrons. The hope that was tied to the Good from all these characters collapses into tragedy as he reveals he was forced to sell their debt to the distillery, and that "A Reckoning" was coming for them. With this we hear a loud buzzing and the skeleton worker from Hard Times is revealed into curtain close.

A deeper discussion of religion in Kentucky Route Zero would let us examine this more, and the text is rife with it - from abandoned churches in Act I and the Bureau in Act II - but the frequent references to Christianity within The Entertainment and the fact that debt collection is referred to as 'A Reckoning' can be no coincidence.

The Entertainer wants us to see financial capitalism for what it is - a reckoning on the working class called in by those skeletons from HQ.

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Humanity

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The Entertainment was what made me put down KRZ for a while as I found it a little too self indulgent. I wouldn’t mind seeing it play out like a long cutscene but the entire segment forced you to continuously swing the camera left to right, panning from speaker to speaker, buttoning through single lines of dialog. The message for me got drowned out in the tedium of this segment. Unless you are really, REALLY bought in to what KRZ is trying to get across and you’re hanging on every word to the point where you can look past the mechanical shortcomings then this can backfire.

I haven’t had the nerve to fire the game back up since getting through that part, mostly in fear that large portions of the, so far, intriguing story would carry on in that direction.

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#3  Edited By Nodima

Thematically, The Entertainment was what really hooked me into KRZ. I was enthralled with its discussions of class, of self-image vs. self-actualization, and the debt economy. In terms of what lore KRZ offers players, I think (and my career as a bartender certainly informs this) the concept of debt as an enclosed loop and allegory for both alcoholism and small business - as a thing you can literally consume in order to perpetuate - was awesome.

But...I agree with a lot of @humanity complains about above. It felt like this segment took way too long to wrap itself up, and a lot of that had to do with its lack of direction or propulsion. While initially charming and even intoxicating, as I slowly realized each segment of the play was going to pause unless I was looking in the direction of it, the less I felt a part of it and more apart of it. It implies the possibility for roleplay but in reality this intermission is the most on rails portion of the entire game.

There were other moments in the game, primarily Act IV, where I had wished there was voice acting and a little more of a determined, authored pace to everything (in part fueled by how fucking good what little audio design there is in this game is immaculate) but nowhere did the lack of VO feel more of a hinderance to KRZ than this play's desperate need for the player to see everything because there was no way for you to actually be a Bar Fly and hear everything, letting it wash over you as you will while you mind your own.

Edit: Inserting a small bit here also addressed to Humanity to say: the Acts themselves remain constrained to the first Act's point-and-click roots with very minor deviations. In other words, the core game has little to do with the Intermissions and I think the game could easily be played while skipping them. But the Intermissions do continue down an abstract path; Here and There Along the Echo, the third intermission, is a dangerous game to play buzzed/drunk because there is only one way to end it, which is given to you only at the very beginning, and then you are dared by curiosity to dig deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of an automated customer service system to the point I personally worried I was never going to escape it.

Which was really effective/powerful in how shitty that made me feel until I Googled the exit number, for what that's worth. It was probably my favorite interlude of the four with the best blend between The Entertainment and Limits & Demonstrations. It's also full of audio, which makes it more propulsive by default than anything else in KRZ. But it's also the most abstract bit in the game, so, as with everything else KRZ, your mileage may vary.

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@nodima: So far I would say the Intermissions have been tying into the main narrative in a meaningful way so I would not want to skip them. At first your get a glimpse into the team you later meat in the Hall of the Mountain King as you wander through the exhibits. The second intermission introduces you to characters that you later see below the church on their orientation that had their debt sold to the whiskey company. I think it helps the story feeling connected in a non-linear way as you're constantly introduced to bits and pieces of information that only becomes meaningful and clear at a later time.

I just finished Act 3 and I do think the problem with certain elements dragging past their merit is a constantly recurring issue. For instance during the Hall of the Mountain King segment where you're walking around the area to get to the Xanadu computer there is a point where you have to go talk to one of the characters all the way at the end of the screen, and all you do is sit and watch as it takes what seems like a full two minutes or so for your character to walk back up to them - and then you have to walk back. This would be fine if there was something happening. A song. Exposition. Background graphics. But nothing does. It's just a prolonged animation for the sake of the animation. The computer sequence similarly goes down a rabbit hole of adding assistants and going through the motions until the game finally lets you move on and I can't say I'm all that richer for it.

I'm enjoying the "magic realism" aspect of it all. I don't think the themes are nearly as deep as described above, or at least I'm no longer a person that can so easily wax poetic about it like that, but I am curious and intrigued to dig deeper, to find out what makes these characters tick and see what is surely some tragedy of their past unfold. My primary issue is that I'm constantly brushing up against things that get in the way of the story, that are tedious without any real justification for the tedium. Elements where the story tries to hammer home a point, saying "look how bad bureaucracy is huh? Well how about you ride this elevator up and down a few times just in case you didn't get it." It's like, I get it, I got it the first two times but you're making me repeat the motion 4 more times after that.

There are powerful moments that I enjoy. Just at the end of Act 3 the way Conway is presented with a shot of whiskey and suddenly control is stripped away from your cursor as it slowly but inevitably drifts towards the glass and clicks on it - that is a great moment that only a game can pull of through it's unique properties of gameplay. Other times, and unfortunately thus far more often than not, it's just busywork.

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Shirayuri

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@nodima: I really love the that debt -- alcholism as a closed loop point you drew there. I had not put those two together!

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MagnetPhonics

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@humanity: It's important to remember that at release The Entertainment was a short interlude between two separate games, released a year apart from each other... and it was a VR game. It definitely didn't feel self-indulgent compared to the rest of KR0 at that point.

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@magnetphonics: I can only tell you how I experienced it now, in the year of our lord 2021, with no prior knowledge of how it was made or for what. It makes sense if it was a VR novelty made apart from the game and I can see how in that sense it would work a lot better since you can swivel your head naturally from narrator to narrator.

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Shirayuri

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@humanity:Hiya, you mentioned you aren't sure whether things were as deep as above and I wasn't sure if that was directed at the blog post or the other commenter. If I am pretentious and assume its at me, I'll just try and loosely outline my motivation and thought process for the post.

Part of rhizome/assemblage (although you shouldn't conflate the two) theory is the idea that any given rhizome/assemblage has a series of potentialities. KRZ as a whole fits a conception of a rhizome but I also felt that in a 'fractal' manner The Entertainment did, too. Being only 30-40 minutes long the hope was that (given it is fairly standalone) people could experience it and try to apply rhizome/assemblage theory to it themselves. The interaction between the traditional 'subject' (us, in this case) and 'object' (game, in this case) is also part of that "assemblage". So through that lens I wanted to see what The Entertainment could tell us - a big part of which takes part (quite literally) at the periphery (something that the theorist I am drawing on here, Felix Guattari encourages us to do is actively search in the peripheries). In those "peripheral" comments from the director etc we had it emphasized that this is the two plays being performed ontop of each other -- so I pursed that idea of two separate stories being put on top of each other and remembered La femme du Ganges being exactly that. With a little bit of liberty I wanted to frame that as a challenge to artists not just to write - but take what already exists and experiment with it.

If it is okay with you - I would like to lightly challenge you though - specifically;

"I do think the problem with certain elements dragging past their merit is a constantly recurring issue."

In my time in KRZ I actually found a lot of these moments to be quite effective. Often, the game presents us with a big topic, or theme, and then sort of encourages you to think about it. Those periods of slowness came across to me as fully utilizing the medium - they make the player keep holding and using the controller (stopping you checking twitter), but also keep interaction to a minimal level so as to provoke thought. Travelling around the maps (to mixed results for sure - even I had a tough time with Act II at times - but they did foresee that and give you the chance to let the game handle driving for you) often did this, as well as those long plodding walks.

By no means though am I suggesting that you should enjoy this or that you should give over your time to it if it doesn't do it for you. Just for me I definitely had nights in my pyjamas where dealing with people was too much, and some sort of action game to distract me wasn't enough. At times like that KRZ was there to suck me in, give me things to think about, and re-orientate feelings of loneliness.

Thanks for reading the blog post all the same :)

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