IF Comp 2015: Kane County

kanecountyKane County (Michael Sterling & Tia Orisney) is a game about surviving in the high desert of southwestern Utah. Your car breaks down, and you have to get back to civilisation (or at least somewhere where rescue is a reasonable prospect).

This is a premise well-tailored to my tastes: I’m fond of wilderness-survival stories and of backcountry trips, and I have a childhood love of mountainous deserts. I’m a moderately competent backwoodsman, married to a park ranger, and this means that when we play backwoodsy games together, we spend a lot of time yelling in outrage at the options that are presented as sensible. In this respect, Kane County does pretty well; there are lots of options that I’d consider pretty dicey, but nothing that I’d reject out-of-hand in an extreme situation.

Like a lot of survivalism games (The Long Dark, NEO Scavenger), Kane County is centrally about resource-management. You have food and water counters that are reduced by exertion and exposure. Items aren’t generally unique, hand-crafted things, as is normal in IF; they’re tokens of a type. There are lots of places you can get Rope, for instance, and lots of ways to spend it. On the other hand, this is very much not an open-world game: there’s some simple branch-and-bottleneck, and a bit of a fork towards the end.

Like The Long Dark, Kane County is not really about wilderness in the truest sense. Humans have left plenty of marks on the land here, and to a grand extent you rely on the stuff they’ve left behind. I’m always fascinated by this as an element of wilderness-survival narratives, almost as though the author has tried to come to terms with the idea of wilderness, then flinched, twisted away, unable to imagine life without the support of other humans – even if absent or long-dead.

You kind of have to admire a game with a line this cheesy in its opening screen:

The air smells like ozone. You’d been desperately trying to outrun the storm overhead and the shadows of your past, but one of them was catching up.

Despite this (ahem) foreshadowing, the PC’s personality and history don’t really feature again. The writing tends to be utilitarian; this is not a piece about atmospherics or the beauty of the desert, or about its effects on your internal state. And… hm.

The thing about a lot of successful stories, I think, is that there’s more than one source of motivation or satisfaction. You want to advance your career, but also romance the love-interest. You want to save the world, but also gain power for yourself. You want to be a certain kind of person, but you also want to survive. This is true in most great survival stories, too! Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain are about survival, yes – but they’re also about the beauty and wonder of the woods, and about feeling conflicted about your relationship with your family.

The closest thing to this kind of conflict in Kane County is speed vs. resources: whether to waste time scouting around for gear, or hurry onwards despite dwindling food and water. (This is, not coincidentally, the basic dilemma of packing for a hike: packing light speeds you up and reduces fatigue and chances of injury, but means less insurance against unexpected trouble.) As a mechanical or tactical question, that’s modestly interesting (there’s a similar question in the navigation level of FTL, where you want to advance fast enough to outrun the pursuing fleet, but slow enough to have lots of encounters and resources to improve your ship). But narratively, it’s dead boring, because they’re not really about different motivations or different values: they’re just different approaches to the same objective.

So I enjoyed Kane County well enough, but felt as though it was only interested in one thing – which means that as fiction it’s pretty limited.

Score: 6

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