It’s challenging writing about Kentucky Route Zero. It’s an art game that’s held in high regard by critics and developers alike. It’s also been kicking around store shelves since 2013. I feel unprepared. This is a game that has been releasing episodes over 7 years, yet I’ve only spent the last 2 weeks playing it. The fifth and final act dropped recently, so it’s time to dive into the discussion. A discussion that has made me re-examine so many ways I think about the game, and many other things, for better or worse.
I want to at least give myself a bit of a head start on the disdain this article may receive from the Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) fandom. Let’s not pretend that this game doesn’t have some utterly fantastic elements to it. In fact the visuals for this game are so strong, I found myself legitimately obsessing over even the smallest details, such as scene transitions. A cabin darkens, a TV turns on, and the camera pushes through a membrane-like wall, to reveal an intimate close shot of two characters in Act I. There’s a moment in a forest that shows the interwoven narrative of the forest, and its occupants in Act II. As you move through, the scene has trees passing in parallax to wipe and separate out images of houses, characters and more to a surreal effect. The sound on offer is equally inspiring. The world is filled with all manner of auditory information, which is foreboding, and yet rarely oppressively so. There are some resounding, beautiful uses of visual and audio design here. There are moments that will stay with me as exemplars of how games truly are a modern-day art form. Although with all of that said, I really don’t know if I can truly recommend playing this game.
Light on story, heavy on telling
It’s fair to say Act V was merely the culmination of the many idiosyncrasies picked up over KRZ’s narrative. The story, as it appears in the opening act, is a straightforward road trip. Our protagonist, Conway, is transporting antiques. In order to reach his destination, he attempts to find the mythical, titular highway. It’s such a simple start, but the narrative it spins is a remarkably intricate tapestry. Winding together a ragtag bunch of misfits into a travelling troupe, the game deals with all manner of bureaucracy, dreams made and lost, lives torn asunder. This narrative is one I completed within 10 hours, yet the density of this world is intense. To attempt to encapsulate all that it becomes is a fool’s errand. Not that it makes much difference, because honestly, I think it matters less than I anticipated.
Kentucky Route Zero lies in something of an uncanny valley of storytelling. The genre of magical realism was an apt choice. The world is often sobering in its mundanity, and yet is steeped in the mystical and the impossible. A mine is full of ghosts killed by unchecked greed. People suffer debts in various ways, including at the hands of a company run by skeletons under a church – a rather obvious metaphor for hell. The storytelling is much the same. Many stories have no glamour. Conway is no great hero. Hell, he doesn’t even get through the first act without having to share the main character spotlight. Throughout the five acts, the player will play and run conversations as various other characters. This is no straightforward fairy tale of a narrative. As a great man once said “Stories never begin, nor do they end. They are comprised of people living; an endless cycle of people interacting, influencing each other and parting ways.”
The other side of storytelling is, simply put, the telling. The game on initial inspection appears to be a rather standard point-and-click adventure. You are tasked with turning on the power. To turn on the power you must help a group of friends recover their d20. In doing so you learn about the basic interactions such as moving, picking up objects, and turning your flashlight on and off. However, this is somewhat misleading as much of the game past this point is abstracted from this framework. In fact, KRZ tips its hand somewhat in a followup task when typing in a password into a computer. Rather than being told the password outright, you are given vague directions to enter a poem. Lo and behold, regardless of which set of poem fragments you enter, access is granted. It sets the ball rolling on this overarching sense of withdrawal.
I question if disliking Kentucky Route Zero is actually a positive
I wonder, to a certain extent, if feeling dissatisfied with Kentucky Route Zero is the intended result. Now, let’s keep one thing straight, that is not grounds for dismissing criticism. If I dislike a game, saying that “you’re supposed to dislike it” doesn’t really change anything. Arguments have been made over the years if games should be “fun”. Why should we limit the discourse around games to childish “fun”, the games-as-art crowd may say. I agree. Games should not exclusively feel the need to be fun, in the traditional definitions. Horror games should not elicit the same reactions one reserves for Super Mario Bros. Horror games should instil fear. There are totally games that instil frustration, the most obvious being the “Soulslike” games. Kentucky Route Zero isn’t “fun”, fine. But my issue is more that Kentucky Route Zero often doesn’t wish to engage the player. Often times I would wonder when the pace of an act might pick up, only to find the story managing to somehow slow down further. It’s frustrating, to say the least. It’s also dismaying to dislike this game that seems to have so much widespread love for it.
The non-commital storytelling and the progressive lack of control is what frustrated me, but I’m left wondering if that’s supposed to be the point. The most obvious theme of KRZ is the difficulties of capitalism. On reflection, much of the world’s mundanity feels steeped in it. The individual storylines document human suffering and the corporations that hang over them. You may recall the unresolved ending that tormented me. In the world of KRZ, it is brought on by the magical realism equivalent debts leading to signing your life away. What about the final resolution of Conway’s delivery, the job that led to this whole adventure? Act V demonstrates how much of an absurdist farce this whole job was. Maybe that’s really what this game is communicating. The pursuit of this job, risking life and limb, accruing debts, it’s all a meaningless joke. This is a game, that despite skeletons, ghosts and giant eagles, is very much about the mundane. As such, it’s a game that has soaked in its political leaning.
I don’t think there is value in divorcing video games and politics. All games are made by developers and all developers have political leanings. Whether explicit or not, games will have political underpinnings. I appreciate Kentucky Route Zero’s political agenda, but let’s be honest, that’s because it aligns with my own leanings. Really, I think my problems sink deeper into my psyche.
“Perhaps this makes Kentucky Route Zero the most honest game that I’ve played”
The problem I suppose I have is more in the realm of games as escapism. January 2020 has not been a big reset. The year past into the next, the world continued on its procession. The world didn’t collectively stitch up all its gashes to start fresh in a new decade. Perhaps this makes Kentucky Route Zero the most honest game that I’ve played. There is no happy ending, only the continued plod of our lives. But this is simply what absurdism is all about. The fact that we as people believe in happy endings, in an absolute meaning that doesn’t exist. I don’t know really. I think this has just been a bit of a sounding board for me, thinking about this game. This game is a harsh mirror. It’s in a way the most honest game I’ve ever played, for better and worse.
I don’t know if I can explicitly recommend Kentucky Route Zero. I don’t know *how* to recommend this game. Talking about this game is like making a statue. I have a big marble block that represents video games, and the only way to express my opinion is to systematically chip away at the block. Remove preconceptions of interaction, discard choice, gradually file down all player control and chip away at the concept of a single solid narrative. I suppose it’s appropriate for an art game tilted so overwhelmingly on the side of art. Kentucky Route Zero is not an easy game to come to terms with. It’s boring and slow. It makes you think and ruminate on your world outside the game. At times it may confront you, sometimes you see wondrous things. But hey, that’s life.