ThePerson5: Kentucky Route Zero is a difficult game to talk about. There’s nothing else quite like it to compare it to. The developers have stated influences from other point-and-click adventures such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but even then, there is no comparison – the two games have completely different styles and aims. Kentucky Route Zero is definitely one of the most unique games released in a long time. That said, I consider it to be an important game, and an excellent example of the video game medium’s potential for storytelling.
The first thing that will likely strike you upon starting up the game is the gorgeous art-style. Reminiscent of Playdead’s 2010 game LIMBO, Kentucky Route Zero has a minimalist aesthetic that extends even to its menu screens. Shadows dominate the game’s environments, with characters and objects often fading into silhouettes in the background, lending to the game’s constant sense of loneliness and mystery. The sound design is similarly sparse, with no spoken dialogue and nothing but ambient noises playing softly in the background for the majority of the experience. Again, this simple approach is used to great effect, further enhancing the game’s atmosphere and mood, and drawing attention to the few important moments where music does start playing in the background.
One of the most striking things about the game is its surreal atmosphere, which is quite unlike any other game I’ve experienced. There is simultaneously a subtle feeling of unease, and an almost homelike feeling of nostalgia running through the game. Certain points of the game are peaceful and comforting, with soft folk music playing in the background as the player character, Conway, quietly talks to his dog. Other moments, such as when navigating the titular ‘Route Zero’, are more unnerving, with surreal imagery appearing and eerie ambient music swelling in the background. There is a very unique ‘feel’ to the game in general, which is part of what makes it so memorable.
Ingsoc: I think you have provided a great summary description of Kentucky Route Zero. I have to admit that when I saw the first screenshots of the game prior to its release, I was pretty eager to give it a try. Kentucky Route Zero is the latest example of what just may be a renaissance in point-and-click adventure games. As a fan of old-school adventure titles on PC, this alone was a great reason for me to join the Kentucky Route Zero bandwagon.
I should also begin by saying that, at the time of writing this, I have only played Act One. I have downloaded Act Two, but I have not yet started it – my intention is to play through it as we work on this piece. In preparation, though, I did re-play Act One for a second time just to refresh myself.
I won’t restate your introduction about the game, except to say that as soon as I started playing Kentucky Route Zero, I was immediately hit with a sense of nostalgia. Although I live in Australia, I grew up on American TV (as have many in the western world). It therefore seems fitting that we meet our protagonist at a gas station on a lonely, open highway – a quintessentially American setting.
Boff: Right off the bat, it feels like a late night mystery TV show, where the main character died moments before we the viewers tune into the events, and we have to piece together the circumstances of this death, alongside the confused principal character. OR in the case of Kentucky Route Zero, things in this version of reality may just work differently. Some would label the game as weird, and it’s up there with David Lynch or the Coen Brothers: A singular random person just breaks out into dance mid scene, an unexplained horse appears in someone’s living room, and even some subdued far-off dusty jazz miraculously drowns out the conversation of the people in the foreground.
I’ve never seen a game attempt surreal and nail it so well. To walk out from one location and have some great guitar music as an outro, of a “completed” puzzle, only for you to have the guitarists literally sit in the foreground blocking some of your view. First you question it, as an oddity, but then on the map they are indeed a landmark to drive around, cementing them into world and not a random event to keep you off balance, or it just did put you off balance even more.
The minimalist art style is very Saul Bass, and lines, angles, contours, and exaggerated proportions do their job to sell the environment and be scrutinized for information and yet be empty enough of a void that demand to be filled, projected into.
ThePerson5: I also had a feeling of nostalgia when playing through Kentucky Route Zero; the folk music in particular reminded me greatly of my childhood, especially during the final scene of Act II. There’s a really strong ‘Southern’ feel to the game which, even though I did not grow up in the American South, gave it a very ‘homey’ feeling.
The Southern setting is very appropriate for the game’s themes, in particular its exploration of the impact of debt, recessions, and hard times in general on people, as the Southern states of the US were hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. Almost all of the characters encountered throughout the game have been hit hard by the recession, and are in debt in some form or another. This idea is reinforced by all of the empty and abandoned environments encountered throughout the game, from Elkhorn Mine to the Weaver’s family house. All have a very ‘lived-in’ feeling, yet also feel empty, with various items and possessions such as clothes and canoes scattered around, as if the inhabitants were forced to leave with little warning. Elkhorn Mine has a particularly tragic backstory, as another character, Shannon Marquez explains, having previously flooded, trapping many of the miners underground, to their deaths; this could be symbolic of the way debt tends to ‘trap’ people, and ultimately ruin them over time.
Ingsoc: I agree. In some respects, Kentucky Route Zero reminds me of those American towns that have almost become abandoned due to the economic downturn. These towns seem to become forgotten, and in that sense, Kentucky Route Zero feels somewhat post-apocalyptic to me (after an economic apocalypse, as it were). It reminds me of some towns in Australia that used to be big, thriving manufacturing towns – and, once a factory or two shuts down, they turn into these odd (and almost abandoned) places.
Boff: Yeah, the economic downturn, it’s all so poignant, tragic and the situation in itself breaks the rules of how one expects civilisation to tick along that the situation. That’s also my understanding from American TV too. That people carried on trying to live and work as they once did despite the absurdity of it all, working irrespective that civilisation collapsed, around them to the point that getting dressed up in a waiter’s uniform to cater to an empty dinner for 5 years seems a mite strange.
Everything in this game is so empty, so broken, unclear and utterly pointless – it’s rather beautiful.
ThePerson5: Indeed. The game is all about, as the developers stated, ‘hard times, and the ways people deal with them,’ and unlike what other games may do, Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t just vaguely hint at this; it shows it to the player. As you explore the game’s environments, driving along the roads, you can stop at certain areas and just observe, either through the game’s text, or by actually entering the area and looking around.
You encounter all sorts of people and places; just regular, ordinary people going about their lives, dealing with their own problems, and in general trying to find some happiness, despite their poor situation. Many of these scenes are completely optional, and seemingly mundane, but they add so much to the game as a whole, and it’s setting.
Ingsoc: Another theme worth touching on relates to one of the more enigmatic aspects of the game structure: specifically, the idea that we, as the player, are not always spectating the action from Conway’s perspective. Conway is the protagonist, but fairly early on in the game, we discover that our perspective changes from Conway to Shannon Marquez (when we arrive at the abandoned Elkhorn Mine).
Did this change in perspective surprise you? Typically the player identifies with a single character, and Kentucky Route Zero really toys with that concept. I’m interested to hear your thoughts about it.
ThePerson5: It was an interesting perspective shift, yes, and it did actually surprise me at first. It’s especially interesting how, when Conway walks in on Shannon’s conversation, his name is not displayed when you move the cursor over top of them; instead, he is labelled as a ‘stranger’. This helps to reinforce the fact that you are seeing things from Shannon’s perspective, and it creates a sort of tension between what you, as the player, know, and what the actual in-game characters know. In most single-player games, you get used to having control over only one character; even in games that do switch perspectives between different characters, it’s rare that they interact in this sort of way.
What do you feel was the purpose of these perspective switches?
Ingsoc: I am not sure what the developer’s purpose is, except to say that I think the perspective change really adds to the surreal element. The game seems to deliberately change perspectives at key moments, in an effort to disorientate the player.
In terms of plot, we are only now at Act Two, so I think it is too early to say how this perspective shift will really pan out. I guess I’d just say that this method of storytelling may help to create a stronger emotional connection to characters other than Conway himself.
Boff: At first, I was thrown and irritated with the controls being pulled away from me,
but I was used to the unusual by now, and I felt the change in perspective was refreshing.
Most games just change which character you “move” around, and a little change in the UI, but Shannon’s perspective shift, is different, more deliberate and thought out. It’s unbalancing, yes, however you get to experience first hand what she feels and thinks, instead of having to piece it together. There are a number control aspects of gameplay elements that are different.
I think this constitutes my first gaming experience where in the opening scenes I have to answer questions about my characters back story, and my motivations for continuing, and without any form of hints or prompting. I’m used to morale choices but the choices were not based in black and white morals, just greys of mediocrity – and the choices themselves are nothing but empty hollow descriptions of bland mediocrity that contradict each other to some degree leading the player to have no actual idea what preceded the events that lead up to the game were. I’m used to choosing my own story, but not backstory. It piled on layers of uncertainty and doubt in my view of the gameworld.
ThePerson5: Another interesting aspect of the game is that it is framed as a ‘ghost story’ of sorts; ghosts are brought up by several characters, and there are many particularly odd and surreal moments encountered throughout. One particularly unnerving example of this occurs in Elkhorn Mine; while navigating the mines, if you are to switch off your lamp, you can catch brief glimpses of the ghostly figures of the miners that were trapped down there.
Ingsoc: Very true. This hits you at first when you are at Equus Oils and you see the group in the basement playing cards. Joseph, the proprietor, indicates that Conway is hallucinating – but it is clear that Conway may simply be seeing ghosts (I have to admit that, at first, I wondered if Conway himself was a ghost – when you try to address the group, they keep talking as if you aren’t there).
There is also a great deal of discussion about the deceased, especially when you visit Marquez’s Farm and have a discussion with Shannon about the gravestones (which, oddly, she refers to as being decorative rather than genuine).
ThePerson5: One of Shannon’s first dialogue options, in fact, when talking to Conway, is her asking whether or not he believes in ghosts. They certainly seem to be a recurring theme throughout the Act.
In fact, the ghost story aspect of the game could be seen to tie into the idea of people being ‘trapped’ by debt. As developer Jake Elliot stated once in an interview “there’s this thing about ghosts where they’re trapped, you know? Trapped on earth. There’s a sort of metaphoric thing that we’re going to push down there about people being trapped.” It’s an interesting way to get across the message of debt, and the harm it can do to people.
Ingsoc: Absolutely. Not only are the denizens in the game trapped in a physical sense (e.g. not able to physically escape their grim circumstances), but in another sense, I think they are psychologically trapped. When Conway talks to Joseph at Equus Oils, it is clear that Joseph is cynical about his situation – he almost laughs off the way in which he is being threatened by a big power company to pay his bills. I get the sense that many of these people – as depressed as they are about their situation – are also largely accepting of it. That cynical acceptance is itself almost more depressing than the situation itself.
ThePerson5: Yes, that is very true.
Relating to the ‘ghost story’ discussion, one particular scene of the game I’d like to talk about is when Conway first meets Weaver Marquez, Shannon Marquez’s cousin, in an abandoned farmhouse. This section of the game is interesting for a lot of reasons, not only because Weaver herself is a curious character, but because of the environments and imagery in general.
The scene begins with Conway entering the farmhouse at the top of a shady hill, an antique television in tow, only to find Weaver standing inside. Certain parts of this scene immediately jump out as being ‘off’: Weaver not only seems to be expecting Conway, but already knows a fair bit about him. She is not at all surprised to see a complete stranger entering her house and seems to already know about Conway’s intended destination, the Zero, even if not asked. She also somehow knows Conway’s name, despite him never mentioning it to her. All of this creates a curious, eerie atmosphere, and Weaver’s further dialogue only emphasizes this.
Weaver asks Conway to set up the television he is carrying. As Conway tries to talk to Weaver, she interrupts Conway abruptly, remarking: “Have you been paying attention? I don’t think you have. It’s time to start paying attention, Conway,” and instructs him to look closely at the television screen. Conway looks at the television, and as he does so, the walls of the house appear to peel away, revealing the backyard and a barn, as the camera slowly zooms in past the television. In a brief conversation, Weaver gives Conway directions to the Zero, and gives him one final warning to “keep his eyes open.” As the camera zooms back out again, Weaver is nowhere to be seen, leaving Conway standing alone in the house as if she had never been there.
This scene seems to mirror an earlier scene, which Ingsoc mentioned, in which Conway encounters a group of people playing cards, who also mysteriously disappear after Conway stops looking for a brief moment. ‘People disappearing’ seems to be a regular occurrence in Act 1 of Kentucky Route Zero, in fact; from the group playing cards, to the glimpses of the dead miners in Elkhorn Mine, to Weaver Marquez. Conway even seems to acknowledge this, as he mentions to Shannon Marquez later on in the game how people seem to “keep disappearing on him.” It seems to tie in with the idea of the game being a ‘ghost story,’ and enhances the game’s surreal atmosphere, leaving the player wondering whether or not they can trust what they see, and whether the characters they meet and the events they experience are even real.
Boff: My impression is of a series of ghost stories, of people stuck in limbo. As Ingsoc says, it’s under the guise of physical real world debt, but it’s the spiritual karma that gets paid off in the fulfillment of their duties. I feel the zero resembles Grim Fandango 4 year travel through Limbo to get to the afterlife.
ThePerson5: It’s an intriguing interpretation of the game indeed, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it pans out in later acts. The first act leaves many questions unresolved, ending as mysteriously as it begins; Conway and Shannon return to the Marquez’s house, where Conway once again glances into the television screen, this time seeing a vision of the entry point into the Zero. The screen then fades to black, announcing the end of Act 1, and boots you back to the menu screen to ponder over everything you’ve seen. The whole thing is very subtle; no assaulting the player with loud closing music, or rolling five minutes of credits; just blackness, and then the game ends. Even still, the game’s atmosphere and mysteries stick with you far after you’ve quit.
Interestingly, Cardboard Computer has stated that Kentucky Route Zero is going to be a tragedy, so at this point who knows where the story will go? The act ends with Conway and his friends entering the Zero. Where this road will end up leading to is anyone’s guess at this point.
The discussion panel will return in the second part of the series to discuss the second act of the game. But don’t wait until then – if anything that was discussed even vaguely interests you, please do pick this game up and give it a try.
A big thanks to Lilgreenman for helping to edit this article.