Unfortunately, being on hold is not a video game. I might have to postpone a pediatrician’s appointment or call the building insurance company. Mailing is not an option, contact forms are certainly not. There is no other way than picking up the phone. I dial the number and wait. Poorly looped music, intermingled with noise, pierces my ear. After an automated greeting that confirms I’m where I want to be, I still can’t reach a human ear. A kind of Microsoft SAM from 1992 tells me very slowly many irrelevant details. I can get information on the homepage. The office hours are from to. If I need a prescription, I can request it online at. If I want to be connected to a staff member, I should remain on the line. I always want to be connected to a staff member and so I always remain on the line.
If I have questions about my insurance, I shall press one. If I want to report a claim, I shall press two. If my child has contracted the coronavirus, I should press three. If I want to find out about tariffs or intend to sign a new contract, I hit the four. For compliments and criticism, I press five. The hash key takes me back to the main menu.
But before I can get really bugged, I think of dialogue trees in video games. In many point & click adventures, I willingly click through every option to extract everything I can from the game. Why don’t I extract everything out of this particular dialogue tree? I could find out what happens if I direct my request to the wrong address. Maybe I’ll get another funny line of text out of the employees I’m sure to be connected with soon. I wonder what will happen if I address the same person twice with the exact same request, Will their replay also repeat or has the building insurance company thrown in some Easter Eggs for when I choose outlandish combinations? What do you think happens if I press the six that wasn’t offered at all? Will there be an error message, will I return to the main menu, a secret extra menu or will the connection be cut? Fascinating possibilities open up. But then I remember that being on hold is not a video game and therefore I wait patiently until I’m connected to the next free employee.
This is where the text could end now. But Kentucky Route Zero is a video game, albeit one without challenges. A point & click without puzzles. Throughout the game, I am conditioned to explore various dialogue options. They are my reward for persistent clicking and attentive exploration. After three mysterious acts, I launch into the fourth. The curtain rises and I catch sight of a telephone and a slip of paper with a number. Of course, I try other numbers first, just as I run to the left first in every 2D platformer level, but it’ s no use.
There is no other way than picking up the phone. I dial the number and wait. Poorly looped music, intermingled with noise, pierces my ear. After an automated greeting, I am given options. My being-on-hold experience kicks in and I try to escape as quickly as possible, but then I remember I’m playing a video game and try to happily explore. I don’t succeed. The immersion pulls me into old familiar patterns of behavior. I can’t stand it. The slowness. I have to laugh at myself, how I am forced by this insane and wonderful game to endure a being-one-hold simulator. Finally, I reach a strange menu. If I want to learn about the flora and fauna of the river, I’m supposed to press two. If I want to identify an unfamiliar sound, three. If I’m holding a snake, I’m supposed to press four. It seems like I am still playing a video game after all. And it’s Kentucky Route Zero! Of course some magical stuff will happen, I just have to keep at it. I decide to try to identify an unknown sound. Now, among other things, I am offered to press a key if I am currently hearing organ music. I don’t. This seems like another good choice to me.
The voice on the other end, which doesn’t sound like Microsoft SAM at all, compliments me and asks me if the music sounds anything like this. Now I listen to minutes of organ music. That’s what I’m doing. In a video game. Or is it a video game? I suspect I’m just going insane and hammering away wildly on the keys. Nothing interrupts the organ music. Finally it is over. The voice asks me if the music I pretended to have heard sounded the same. I… truthfully!? answer “no” by pressing two.
With calm joy I am told, “But it’ s beautiful, isn’t it? Let’s listen to it again!” And the music restarts.
Regreattably, being on hold is not a video game.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game by Cardboard Computer published between 2013 and 2020 in a total of five acts and is distributed – of course – by the truffle pigs from Annapurna Interactive. The particular experience is actually best compared to the work of David Lynch and is now available as a complete package in the 2020 “TV Edition” also for the Switch, PS4 and Xbox ONE.
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