These are some thoughts on the first act of indie video game Kentucky Route Zero, which just recently – after almost a decade – finally released its fifth and final act. With all of the story available, we can at last begin.
For the curious, here’s the trailer.
This is not the real Kentucky.
I have been to the real Kentucky, as a kid; back in the days when becoming a park ranger was one of my big dreams. Mammoth Cave is here, somewhere; there’s a road that bears its name, and somewhere in my childhood home is a battered caving helmet I returned with as a souvenir from my first wild caving trip.
But this isn’t that Kentucky.
In this Kentucky, trees that burn forever are just part of the landscape. A landmark, like a corner store or a little white clapboard church or one of those memorial plaques for someone whose name rings a bell, in a vague and distant sort of way. This is just where we turn left.
In this Kentucky, there are people playing a mysterious game (Dungeons and Dragons?) in the basement, in the dark, and being unable to see doesn’t seem to bother them. They don’t seem to see me either, even with the lights on. I’m not quite sure if that should bother me.
Ah, well. We roll with it.
The first episode of Kentucky Route Zero is quiet, but not shy about announcing what it is. A man named Conway is making a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, and stops for directions at one of those kitschy retro service stations, the one you’ve seen in screenshots if you’re in the habit of following gaming publications: Equus Oils, with the huge and dramatic horse’s head. Immediately I wonder if the name is just a reference to the horse, or to the play – but happily our hero’s eyes are in the usual places, at least for now.
The power is off, because the power is always off in games; the owner seems oddly unconcerned about this, perfectly content to lounge in an antique chair and chat with whoever happens by. Maybe they don’t really sell gas here? Maybe it doesn’t matter.
He has some thoughts about how to get where we’re going, though. We have to take the Zero.
Nobody bats an eye at the impossible number. If that’s where we have to go, then that’s where we have to go. That’s all. We roll with it.
Everything about this presentation seems calculated precisely to lull the player into a kind of meditative dream-state. Visuals are spare, with a careful calculation of angle and lighting and colour and perhaps especially darkness that is striking without taking you out of the moment. Music is quietly lovely – here a surprising little folk song, there a kind of eerie electronic thrumming.
Everywhere I am encouraged to take my time. The spiderweb of little side-roads on my map – none of them the Zero, but it must be there somewhere, unless it mustn’t – is peppered with encounters that have the feel of those tiny little dream-fragments one wakes up with when the alarm jangles in. But the alarm isn’t coming, not here, and when the fragment is over, here is the map once more, and I am no wiser about where I am than I was before. Though perhaps I have learned a little more about Conway.
In a way that seems to be the point, really. I can’t help but notice how the decisions we’re making have a lot more to do with what kind of person our hero is and what’s behind him than what’s before him. We’ve chosen to take this ride, and we’re going where it’s going; it is our own perceptions we change with our decision-making.
We roll with it.