Picking the right time to play Kentucky Route Zero is not all that easy. I feel like I have to be in the right mood to fully appreciate all it has to offer: The magical setting, the interwoven narrative and the slow pacing. I think the game is best enjoyed with a good cup of tea and a relaxed but pensive mindset. Unlike certain other games I would call immersive (like some RPGs I know: Fallout 1 & 2, Morrowind, Planescape: Torment), Kentucky Route Zero somehow transcends that level of immersion. I don’t feel like am am the player, I feel like I am an actor. Then, as the game shifts focus from one character to the next or cuts to short interludes, I feel like I am watching a play in a theatre. It’s a weird and fascinating balance between fully becoming and feeling as a character and retaining a sense of disconnect and abstraction towards the narrative world.
Shannon, acting as a philosophical conduit in seeing the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces for the first time, asks at the beginning of Act II:
The Poetics of Space
The idea of inside and outside can - of course - be applied directly to the game and be taken as such. After all, the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces is a building within a building. Or rather a space within a space. As the name would suggest, the Bureau itself was erected in a reclaimed space; an old cathedral, with the organ still looming in the background. However, this is more of a daring philosophical question about the core nature of things. Kentucky Route Zero references a lot of philosophers, including Gaston Bachelard, who wrote:
— Gaston Bachelard
If we consider for a moment that this particular question about inside and outside is being asked in a game environment, we suddenly find ourselves (and this is exactly what I mentioned earlier) in a conflict between being a player and being one of the game’s characters. Impermanence and finality.
This is a conflict arising out of the limiting boundaries of the design binary present in the gaming industry. We are either players or spectators, there is nothing in between. Games are only insofar interactive that they accept human input and react to it accordingly. We move a character, we look around - and the game reacts.
On a narrative level, though, most games are non-interactive. Games don’t ask question, they give orders. And as we go along, the story is kept in the background - almost as if it was just one more ingredient; as if “it just had to be there”. As such, Kentucky Route Zero challenges even the existence of this binary. It makes us think about ourselves as players, as actors, as human beings. It evokes emotions, it plays with our feelings, it incorporates us into its design. It is right there, sitting daringly in a space within a space, questioning (maybe even judging) a core principle.
In the first article I mentioned the game’s text interface. Do we consider the text interface presented to us by the game to be a part of our experience? Or is it just that, an interface, an abstraction, an outside factor, a crutch? Since the text actually varies in pacing and appearance according to certain actions, words and names, thus forming a diegetic experience, we simply must argue for the former. This is something that will be even clearer when I talk about Act III and its Xanadu adventure.
Bureau of Secret Tourism
One of the core game mechanics and indeed another theme touched upon in Kentucky Route Zero is the notion of travel. Conway works as a driver for Lysette’s Antiques and the initial impetus that starts off our adventure is a delivery we have to make to 5 Dogwood Drive. In Act I, our only means of travel is our truck and the Kentucky road system. The game displays a simple 2D map in which we can move about freely, finding hidden places and encounters along the way. Act II introduces the highway after which the game is named: The Zero. Where before we were travelling on an ordinary map, we now move within a three dimensional wireframe cave system inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure and the Mammoth Cave National Park.
On route Zero, there are no intersections. Instead, we move along a never ending circular loop - the only way to change course is to stop and go back in the other direction. “Turn left just before Bowling Green” becomes “Turn around when you see the Animal Bones”. Later in the game we are flying over Kentucky as Julian, a huge bald eagle, carries us to our next destination.
But it is not so much the way of travelling as it is the idea of travelling Kentucky Route Zero has at its heart. We all travelled at one point in our life, but where is it that we are actually going? If we talk about the concept of home in the context of travelling, we imagine a place to which we will always return and to which we feel deeply connected. Where or what is home when we consider life a journey? To which place do we keep returning? Our memories, our dreams? Are we even able to define, and therefore reach, a home?
Black smoke’s a-rising and it surely is a train Surely is a train, boys, surely is a train Black smoke’s a-rising and it surely is a train I’m on my long journey home Lost all my money but a two dollar bill Two dollar bill, boys, two dollar bill Lost all my money but a two dollar bill I’m on my long journey home
— Ben Babbit
This is perhaps what the main characters are trying to find out. It seems as if they all lost something; that they are on a difficult journey to find the one thing that meant something to them. They dream of an answer, a reason, a final catharsis. As Kentucky Route Zero depicts their journey, it creates - in miniature - the same kind of voyage for ourselves. It will be an experience that is unique to each player, just as every life is unique in itself.
The question that remains is whether our characters will be able to find their answer - and whether we will have the some sort of finality in finishing the game. If we think back to Gaston, however, is it not the journey itself that counts? Is it not the people you meet, the places you see, the experiences you make that define your life? Maybe it is indeed “better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality”.
Limits and Demonstrations
— Introduction Text
A game is essentially an interactive exhibition, the only difference being the space in which it is displayed. It is still very much a public showing, just one that lives and develops in a virtual world. There’s no doubt that some people will take the discussion into reality, but the majority of it will happen in the original context. So much so, in fact, that you can consider the internet a huge museum, with millions and millions of both exhibitors and spectators.
Coming back again to the concepts of “inside” and “outside”, Kentucky Route Zero is both exhibitor and exhibition, inasmuch as it features several kinds of museums and is in itself an art piece. There is, for instance, the Museum of Dwellings which exhibits houses, homes and dwellings; all of them still inhabited: A dog house, a boat house, a camper van, a rural home, a stable, etc. Back in Act I you could find along the road an old, abandoned museum with old computer tapes and smashed display cabinets. In time, this abandoned building has become an exhibition itself - one of decay and transience.
The game likes to show and describe things. It likes to hint subtly at its enormous depth and toys with player’s expectations. This is done through text and visuals as well as sound and music. If you stop at any time while travelling in the Zero, the music starts to distort and cuts out violently sometimes. In key scenes, the Bedquilt Ramblers provide diegetic music, and while they’re visible in the game, Conway could not interact with them when he met them in the basement of Equus Oils. Weirdly enough, however, one of them seemed to notice a presence. Music and visuals show that they are in the game world, but do they not exist in the same space after all?
Parallax Love Letter
Just like the music and text, the visuals in Kentucky Route Zero take on a strange, otherworldly and abstract form. Foliage is displayed as an assembly of squished rhombi in various sizes and hues. Shadows seem to loom everywhere as a few lonely traffic lights cast rays on both the street and a seemingly never ending line of utility poles that vanishes in the murky depths of rural Kentucky. A lonely sign next to a bar proclaims: “Hard Times served”.
In fact the most astounding display of creativity and imagination we can witness at the very end of Act II. On the search for a doctor, Julian carried us all the way to a forest just beyond Lake Cumberland. Blue moonlight shines through the tree tops, reaching a log on which Julian is standing. As we control Ezra - Julian’s brother - and the screen starts to move, background and foreground intermix, cutting violently into each other. A magical version of parallax underlines the coming together of the fore and the back, the inside and the outside. Walking past the homes of those who could not sleep in the Museum of Dwellings and were thus brought to this forest, we make out in the distance a gentle bluegrass solo…
Homesick and lonesome and I’m feeling kind of blue Feeling kind of blue, boys, feeling kind of blue Homesick and lonesome and I’m feeling kind of blue I’m on my long journey home It’s dark and a-raining and I’ve got to go oh-home Got to go home, boys, got to go home It’s dark and a-raining and I’ve got to go oh-home I’m on my long journey home
— Ben Babbit