This post contains spoilers for Limits and Demonstrations and Act I of Kentucky Route Zero. You’ve been warned!
I’ve always enjoyed visiting museums, wandering their halls to discover slices of history or to admire fascinating works of art. Limits and Demonstrations, a free, downloadable title released by Cardboard Computer to fill the gap between Acts I and II of Kentucky Route Zero, gave me the chance to enter a virtual museum and experience the works of fictional artist Lula Chamberlain. It’s an interesting experiment for a video game, and I have some thoughts about it after the jump.
At first glance, the only things Limits and Demonstrations and Kentucky Route Zero seemed to have in common were their distinctive visual style and their minimalist user interface. But as I clicked through the former’s virtual museum, I discovered a series of audio logs by Lula Chamberlain that referenced the mysterious Route Zero. After those audio logs, there were a couple more unrelated exhibits, and then the experience was over. Limits and Demonstrations is brief. It says what it has to say in just under fifteen minutes and then ends before it can overstay its welcome.
But despite its brevity, Limits still manages to be frustrating. It’s an interesting experiment, sure, but it’s one that doesn’t quite work. Part of what made the first act of Kentucky Route Zero such a stellar, one-of-a-kind piece of interactive fiction was that it didn’t just use text and sound to tell a story; it also relied on its gorgeous visuals and its stark, almost papercraft-esque aesthetic. Limits, on the other hand, pushes the balance too far towards text and sound, and the end result feels like reading the script for a play that has been broken up into chunks. It doesn’t evoke any emotions in the player; it’s inert – almost clinical – in its detachment.
I wonder, though, if that was the point. Perhaps Cardboard Computer wanted to put the player in the shoes of a typical museum-goer, one for whom the Zero is merely some hypothetical highway on which he or she has never driven. If that’s true, then Limits never had any hope of appealing to me, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve already played the first act of Kentucky Route Zero, so I’ve already attached some importance to the Zero in my mind. Secondly and more importantly, in my view, museums aren’t places to be visited, but rather, spaces to be explored, to become immersed in. Limits is quite literally a guided tour of a virtual place, not a journey through a virtual space.
That distinction between place and space is key to understanding what makes Kentucky Route Zero a far richer experience than its free companion. Zero has distinctive locations, but they’re also spaces where clicking around can reveal fascinating new secrets; they feel kinetic, full of life. They’re areas where things change – where cars drive, rocks fall, and lights blink on and off. Limits’ museum is a static place, with no vibrancy or immediacy; it merely exists as a location unchanged and unaffected by my presence.
Complaints aside, though, Limits and Demonstrations raises some interesting questions, the most salient of which is what Lula Chamberlain had to do with Route Zero. Did she know Weaver Márquez? If so, did they go searching for the Zero together? Or maybe that’s not the right line of inquiry. Perhaps generations of people have gone looking for the Zero; Lula did many years ago, and now it’s Conway’s turn. Another thought that crossed my mind after playing Limits was that its museum could be the same museum that Conway and Shannon could visit in Act I of Kentucky Route Zero. Or maybe Cardboard Computer just has a thing for museums.
I know it seems weird to harp on the faults of a free downloadable title, but Limits and Demonstrations’ link to Kentucky Route Zero gave me high hopes that were unfortunately met with disappointment. For what it’s worth, Limits is an oddity, a unique experiment in interactive fiction that not only raises thought-provoking narrative questions, but also posits a relationship between a player and the digital space he or she navigates. If only that conjectured relationship reflected my own life experience.