I still remember clearly the first time I played Kentucky Route Zero,
or at least I think I remember it. I have in my mind a picture of a
bleak November evening, with tall concrete buildings opposite the street
watching me through my bedroom window like petrified spectators. People
walked glumly along the wet street, their reflections like a living
expressionist painting in a space that did not exist. I remember that
I felt contented as I looked out at the world. It was as if everything
finally fell into place and made sense. All my worries had gone, to be
replaced with a peculiar kind of mirth.
As I focused back on the glowing computer screen, a quaint, aliased font greeted me: “Play Act I”
It is not exact situations I recall when thinking about Kentucky Route Zero, I rather lose myself in specific emotions, small fragments of images, lines of text or crackling sound loops. The game is described as being a “magical realist adventure game”, a term that may first sound oddly specific, as it is not at all a catch-all genre. Back then I had never heard of magical realism before, and now - 3 years later - Kentucky Route Zero still remains my only source of a definition for the genre. In those 3 years however, I had lots of opportunities to delve into the realms of Transcendentalism and Romanticism - opportunities of which I took advantage. The works of Thoreau, Emerson and Shelley (both Percy and Mary Shelley) resonated a lot with me, and while people always like to categorise certain works, actual lines and boundaries will always stay blurry; Thoreau, for me, showed a sort of proto-romanticism, while still being rooted in a more transcendentalist worldview. A few times while reading Walden, I slipped into the same kind of mindset that I described earlier. There was something magical about his account on life in the woods. A sort of inspiration, a truth maybe. The feeling that it was exactly the way it was meant to be. It reminded me of Kentucky Route Zero.
And now, with the release of Act IV right around the corner, I decided to immerse myself in its world again for the third time in 3 years. This is by no means a review of some sort - it is mainly an account of how I feel about the game and certain philosophical aspects presented in it. Call it a travel journal/analysis of a very personal voyage.
Act I: The Stars Drop Away
The wheels slide away, The moon throbs. It will only get later.
The first act opens with a late sunset behind a rural gas station. A large horse’s head is towering in shadows above it, giving the station its name: Equus Oils. You are lost somewhere in Kentucky, looking for the elusive Dogwood Drive and decide to ask the station attendant for directions.
It will be the last time you see the sun in this Act, and right after you come back out of the basement to reset the breaker switch, the warm and reassuring colours of sunset are replaced by cold blue colours mixed with an artificial white coming from the gas station’s lamps. In the background, your old truck is still rumbling to itself.
In essence, Kentucky Route Zero is a game about atmosphere. Taking one step further, however, the game emphasises that core principle by introducing a very unique way of world building. Hearkening back to the era of old text adventures, Kentucky Route Zero uses a text interface to describe your surroundings and the people in it. A text interface is above all thought of as an abstraction first and part of the game world second. Here, the interface is a main element of the experience and serves as a core aesthetic. Lines of text have a specific speed and rhythm in which they appear on screen, pauses emphasise certain descriptions, and subtle font changes constantly remind you that the text - the literary element - is a living part of this world.
This makes Kentucky Route Zero feel more like actual literature. Like a book or a theatre play - and not like a video game. After all, there is also an interactive element present when one reads a book. Imagination is always interactive, it cannot exist without a player. One difference remains, however. While one’s imagination is only interactive on the player side (that is, a book has an impact on you, and not the other way around), one can actually form the narrative experience in this game. Interactive Literature; a miniature of one’s imagination.
Ghosts In The Static
Let me demonstrate this with an example. Very early on, after asking the attendant Joseph for directions, you have to log in to a computer. Joseph forgot the password, however. What he remembers is that it was a poem: “One of those short poems that really sum everything up.” After walking over to the computer and waking it from its reverie, you log in as Joseph. For the password, the game displays three choices - every one a beginning to a short poem. After choosing the one you feel most comfortable with, another three choices are given. Two lines later, and you have composed your own poem - Joseph’s password. The genius of it is that it fuels your imagination. It makes you a part of the world - not necessarily as a character in the world, but as the writer, the thinker, the architect. In the end, you are not one, but every single character in Kentucky Route Zero. The choices you make reflect your feelings at the moment you make them. At one point, one character is asked if they ever were in debt. One of the possible answers is: “No, but I owe some people some apologies”. That line hits me every single time. It’s not only because it probably applies to myself, but also because it most certainly applies to the majority of people. There is a certain weight to it. Regret; a human element, a truth.
Come to the light, ’tis shining for thee; Sweetly the light has dawned upon me. Once I was blind, but now I can see: The Light of the world is Jesus! No darkness have we Who in Jesus abide; The Light of the world is Jesus! We walk in the light When we follow our Guide! The Light of the world is Jesus!
While travelling, you come across an old church and hear the congregation repeating without rest the same two verses of a song. Stopping to investigate, you find that the church doors are locked. With the chorus still droning on, you go around the church and see a back entrance. You go through an abandoned kitchen into the main hall, only to find it empty and desolated. On a small stage there is a tape recorder, forever playing the horribly distorted song to an audience that left long ago - or never really existed. If you want, you can turn it off. In all my playthroughs I never dared to disable it, though. I always felt like it had purpose, that it had to mean something for someone. Maybe it was left there by the last parish priest, to serve as a reminder that there will always be a congregation - that there will always be hope. Or maybe the whole church was in itself an art installation, showing belief in a state of decay and abandonment - the only thing left a tape recorder for mass preaching.
A Painfully Concave Love Polygon
Kentucky Route Zero is full of such encounters - encounters that never really make sense, but are always meaningful. As such, it is a game you feel, and not a game you play. It is yourself who is alive in the story, the world, the abandoned church, the darkened diner, the abandoned museum. You are Conway, you are Joseph, you are the missing congregation. When the game describes a story of romance, it is “not a love triangle, but rather a painfully concave love polygon”. The game is touching because it is true, because things never are that simple. The game is touching because it has - at its very core - humanity. It is alive with introspective emotions, regrets and an odd sense of transience; a nostalgia even. It is a true image of the human condition. One that, in the end, may bring you one step closer to understanding yourself as a human being.
— Henry David Thoreau
On to Dogwood Drive
Act I does not end far from where it started. After traversing an old mine that is haunted by the ghosts of the miners who were left there to die, you are set on the right track to Dogwood Drive by a mysterious woman, name of Weaver Márquez. Weaver, who tried to translate between English and Spanish using numbers, is a studied mathematician and is said to never lie. Driving into a cave opening that was just seconds ago a farmhouse with horses grazing before it, the game suddenly cuts to black…
I remember staring in disbelief at the black computer screen, not really knowing what I had just witnessed. It was a magical world that had just vanished. One that was like a living poem, moving subtly like a fishing boat on a still woodland lake - and it had just ended in an unfinished enjambement.