Kathy Rain is Twin Peaks by way of Sue Grafton. There’s a lot to unpack there if you don’t immediately get the references, but it’s the best possible description that I have for the balance of styles and tone that Kathy Rain is going for.
Sue Grafton is the author of the series of mystery novels known as the Alphabet series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.). The series is known for its hardboiled neo-noir mysteries, starring private investigator Kinsey Millhone. She works not in the shady alleys of ’50s-era California, but in the bright, grimy, and plastic world of ’80s-era California. Such neo-noir has traded the crushing alienation and cynicism of modernism for its commercialization and commoditization. Things don’t end up completely hopeless or ruined in Grafton’s world, instead taking its talking points from the more positive attitudes of Reagan-era America and the police procedural.
Eventually, though, in Kathy Rain, the other half of my original description kicks in. While a number of the game’s characters are quirky enough to feel right at home in Twin Peaks, that’s not all that one thinks of when Twin Peaks is used as a reference point. One also thinks of mysterious figures from another dimension fading in and out of existence, obtuse sayings like “the Owls are not what they seem”, and the reality-bending otherworldliness of the show’s quasi-introspectiveness. All of those hallmarks are present in Kathy Rain.
After playing the game, I feel like it should have been no surprise that these two styles work together. While the sense of mystery and the unknown is part of the game, its real power comes from being grounded in the same thematic concern present in both universes, Lynch’s and Grafton’s. Grafton’s books are almost always based on a mystery that has gained new notoriety or attention because a newly changed circumstance has brought a new angle to an old case. In Twin Peaks, the central crime, the murder of Laura Palmer, is likewise the inevitable consequences of much older and hidden evils and the primal desires that drive people themselves. They are both works concerned with sins of the past come back to haunt the present.
It’s in this world I see the titular Kathy Rain proceeding with her own investigation. She’s a journalism student who grew up in a broken home, her father gone and her mother committed to a mental institution. The game begins as Kathy is working off a hangover. Her roommate gives her a message about her grandfather, whose funeral is tomorrow. Kathy, feeling somewhat lost at the revelation that her grandfather is dead, gets on her motorcycle and heads off to her small, rural hometown. Her grandmother brings up something that happened several years prior that turned her husband into a vegetable, and Kathy Rain appoints herself to find out what the cause of the incident was.
Much of the play time in the game involves answering what exactly happened all those years ago to her grandfather. This central question quickly spins out into many more. What happened to the paintings that the girl who sees visions created? How is dad’s old biker gang connected to current events? What is the deal with the new church and its former leader? The troubles of the present generation are not of their own creation, but instead are the unforeseen fallout of the previous generations’ failures. Additionally, it just so happens that all of this also involves outer gods and a horror-fueled spirit realm located somewhere out in the forest.
The star of the show is Kathy herself. After an admittedly weak opening scene, she is presented throughout the rest of the game as a multilayered character full of familial warmness and ’90s exasperation. Even as her dynamic with many other characters plays to their on expectations of her, Kathy accepts and even concurs with their evaluations even as we see how reductive and unfair they are. There’s a disconnect between how Kathy sees herself and what the game presents as the real her. The facade is a punishment that she inflicts on herself and another consequence of the sins of the past.
Concerning the game play and this plotline, though, a question that I often ask myself about point-and-click adventure games is: are the puzzles merely roadblocks or do they serve a purpose in telling the story? Or put another way: would the story have better off told in another medium? Admittedly, when it comes to the genre, I usually ask this question after I ask if the puzzles make any sense to rational human beings with normally functioning logical faculties.
The puzzles in Kathy Rain succeed on all counts. In the past, I have called Francisco Gonzales of Wadjet Eye Games a master craftsman when it came to adventure game puzzles, and I have to put Kathy Rain designer Joel Staaf Hästö in the same category.
How smooth is the flow of this game? I accidentally finished it in one long sitting. I didn’t get stuck once, and the story had its claws in me the entire time. Even the one completely ridiculously obtuse puzzle is supposed to be just that. It’s a riddle constructed by a paranoid, mad priest with the intent of keeping a secret from all but the worthy. Yet, this puzzle requires no outside information from previous clues in the game. Once you begin, everything that you need to know is right in front of you.
Even better, many of the puzzles serve purposes other than as simple plot gateways. They advance characterization, encourage human interactions or, in one case, set up the weird tone for the game’s final act. Up until this point in the game during interviews, you’ve been free to ask anything from a list of topics that you’ve gathered. Now, you talk to a man claiming to be unstuck in time who claims that he has already experienced this conversation. You have to ask your questions in the correct order for the truth to be revealed and for Kathy’s adventure to proceed, but he cannot tell you the correct order should the Crimson Man be listening. He can only give you cryptic clues couched in metaphor, and this speaks nothing of the actual visualized metaphors that Kathy has to contend with when you cross over into the other realm.
Kathy Rain: A Detective is Born astonished me again and again in its nuanced crafting of its stories and its puzzles. The complaints that I have about it are few and far between and ultimately are of miniscule importance. It’s a masterwork, going beyond a rehash of popular genre conventions as it reveals the inner depths of its protagonist.