In thinking about spectacle and spectatorship in videogames, there’s certainly no want of games with extravagant, thrilling displays of special effects. Look no further than the latest big-budget shooter game for frenzied action heroics and showy bravura. Moreover, there are games about spectacle, recognizing how passivity can be employed as a crucial element of gameplay to underscore our relationship with what lies before us. The third act of Cardboard Computer’s opus Kentucky Route Zero and the accompanying entr’acte The Entertainment centralize the act of spectating in gameplay, introducing atypical modes of play to reorient how we experience spectacle. If most games are primarily concerned with exhibiting thrilling blockbuster setpieces, then moments like the musical performance in Kentucky Route Zero Act III and the stage performance of The Entertainment present a kind of spectacle altogether different and worth distinguishing from how it’s normally discussed.
Before we get to those games, let’s identify the common way videogames depict spectacle. When done well, conventional videogames wed expressive visual schema and technical wizardry with setpieces that underscore the player’s role in executing herculean, fantastical acts. Any number of tight, action-heavy setpieces in a Call of Duty game warrants attention as a celebration of pulp thrills and intricate action choreography, tipping the entire affair into nonstop climax. Think of the explosive nightclub shootout set to propulsive dubstep drops in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, an on-rails sequence that pops in and out of slow motion to accentuate the scene’s wonderful sense of tactility. Awash in textural flourishes, we’re treated to nightclub strobe lights, ricocheting shell casings, exploding glass bottles, fluttering coasters and papers, gun smoke, and sparks all vying for visual attention. It’s chaotic to watch unfold, and we’re roped right into the action.
What games like the Call of Duty series deliver in terms of spectacle are violently purgative scenes of wild visual and ludic display. For instance, a sprawling battle in Advanced Warfare saw a moment where I threw an enemy soldier off a building onto an incoming helicopter’s blades, only for me to then zip-line inside the helicopter, shoot everyone inside, and jump out as it came crashing down—all within a matter of seconds. Like a Hollywood blockbuster projected onto an IMAX screen, we’re offered big budget, bombastic thrills of superhuman bodies and machinery in motion not unlike a fight scene in The Avengers or a car chase in the Fast & Furious movies. Call of Duty works as spectacle because these games are quick and linear, funneling players through setpiece after setpiece rather than mistaking openness as a catalyst for activity.
Prevailing tastes and trends in big tent-pole games favor expansive open worlds that compel us to create our own spectacle with assets in the environment rather than provide authored ones directly. Games like Grand Theft Auto V or Just Cause 3 certainly have scripted sequences in the single-player campaign mode, but much of the game is spent roaming around on our own and creating havoc haphazardly. Rather than experience tight, carefully crafted sequences from writers who aim to surprise and wow the player, we’re expected to play around with the tools of the game. We thus serve as the directors of our own spectacle, instigating car chases and fueling extended shootouts out of thin air. There’s certainly some fun in that freedom, but such power undermines spectacle’s role in letting us simply sit back and enjoy the ride: passivity has value as well.
A few months ago, I indulged in the exuberant coming-of-age film Girlhood by French director Céline Sciamma, and it highlights the joy in simple, human moments as effective spectacle. Roughly thirty minutes into the movie, our protagonist joins her spirited crew of young female friends as they dance and sing along to a Rihanna ballad. The scene swims in lush blue lighting, and though the moment doesn’t profoundly move forward the storyline, it communicates to us an instant of intimate, personal victory. The two minutes transcend the familial and professional dejections experienced by the characters, and we share in their exhilaration. With videogames, spectacle is often tied into violent narratives and infrequently locates human celebration as a source of joy.
With all this in mind, Cardboard Computer supplies the closest parallel by successfully identifying how small things can be spectacle and how such moments represent a remedy to prevailing ways we think about videogame setpieces. To convey the allure and awe of spectacle, Kentucky Route Zero Act III and The Entertainment depict actual spectatorial displays, thus aligning players with the characters watching a performance on stage. We join in their act of seeing, sharing in their desire to witness action unfold. Thus, our passive role as spectators becomes interactive; watching and looking around are valuable forms of gameplay.
In Act III, our characters Conway, his dog, Shannon, and Ezra travel to The Lower Depths bar, accompanied by the pair of lovers-on-the-road Junebug and Johnny. This duo radiates a bohemian cool and conveys a free spirited, casual attitude that represents a change of tone for the game. They promise a musical performance, and midway through Act III, we’re treated to the soaring centerpiece of Kentucky Route Zero. The characters seat themselves around a stage, and the scene settles to a moody darkness, with the stage lights isolating Junebug and Johnny in the center of the frame. The performers are suddenly dressed differently, with Johnny donning a red outfit and keytar and Junebug clothed in a lustrous blue gown like country singer Loretta Lynn. These tiny changes suggest the game’s understated magical realism seeping through, and indeed, this sequence lifts the mundane realities of the bar setting to cosmic heights.
We spectate as players alongside the videogame characters also seated and spectating. Conway and the few bar patrons are silhouetted, their sight glued to the spectacle of song and dance on stage. Junebug sings the song “Too Late to Love You,” and Kentucky Route Zero’s composer Ben Babbitt pens the track as lush and ethereal synthpop with a hypnotizing bossa nova drum pattern and ghostly reverb, described as “whisperwave” by Junebug in an earlier scene. Here, Cardboard Computer achieves the feat of transforming a peaceful, emotive display as a form of spectacle just as worthy of our excitement as a massive shootout or high-speed car chase. The game marks the moment as transcendent when the ceiling of The Lower Depths levitates and disappears altogether, opening the space to the night sky. The sway of Junebug’s hips mirrors the zigzagging dance of the moon and the panning camera that gently undulates left and right, injecting the scene with a sense of movement and restless energy.
Nevertheless, we remain primarily passive during this sequence, and Kentucky Route Zero emphasizes the simple act of watching and feeling time’s duration so that we may be better appreciative of the quiet, beautiful simplicity of the moment. The only direct interaction players have with this scene is to choose the next line of lyrics to be sung, allowing players to subtly shape the mood of the song. We are not distracted by superfluous gameplay, thus allowing our eyes to remain locked on Junebug and Johnny just like the characters affixed to their seats.
Cardboard Computer takes this emphasis on passivity a step further with The Entertainment, their short interlude for Kentucky Route Zero released between Act II and Act III. Just like Junebug’s performance, The Entertainment involves watching staged spectacle from a distance, but our role as an audience is thematized here. Publicized as a play on the website, the playbill informs us that The Entertainment was “first presented at the Buffalo Street Student Theatre” some time in the fall of 1973. The game itself takes place in the first-person perspective within one room, and all players can do is sit, look, and listen. Interaction is limited to simply moving one’s head around, choosing what to concentrate eyesight on. Players essentially inhabit the role of a typical NPC, a non-player character or an unimportant bystander. This character has no major role in the progression of the story, nor do they have any spoken lines. In perhaps one of the first examples in videogame history, we play not as a main character but as a periphery character in a story that has little use for us.
The Entertainment is a fairly straightforward piece of dramatic fiction rendered complex and metaphysically odd by way of its presentation. We’re seated as a patron of The Lower Depths, eavesdropping on a mundane conversation at the bar in front of us. Only upon moving the camera up, down, and behind do we realize that this bar is merely a simulacrum for the purposes of theatrical spectacle. Above us are stage lights, and behind our seat is an audience shrouded in darkness, accompanied by the stage crew directing the play. In consequence, we realize that we embody the role of an actor within the play, but only a minor one. We play an “actor” but don’t “act” per se; we merely observe, serving as a spectator within the play while simultaneously being watched by the audience in the back. The Entertainment is a game about roleplaying as an actor and as a spectator, acknowledging how videogames bridge both interactivity through gameplay and passivity through spectatorship. This dichotomy is the central theme of the game, abstracting what it means to be a videogame subject and complicating the demands of traditional gameplay.
These points are just one of the many ways in which Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt’s work for Kentucky Route Zero and The Entertainment effectively deepen how we experience videogame art and how the medium can better express human themes. Such works broaden the parameters for videogame spectacle beyond explosive blockbuster action, pinpointing how human drama can be just as electrifying and affecting. The meaning of these games continue to shift and develop with each passing release and the more one spends time with it, since the world of Kentucky Route Zero is itself a living, breathing entity comprised of the people behind it and the people who continue to enjoy it. Even if we never fully understand the complexities of these games—indeed, truly masterful works of art often take several years to do so—they are still worthwhile because their setpieces are so magnificent.
Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. He is also a contributing editor and columnist for Haywire Magazine and a columnist for Thumbsticks. His complete written offerings are archived here, but can also be found at Kill Screen, PopMatters, First Person Scholar, Playboy, Unwinnable, etc.