Kentucky Route Zero: Act I
SOUND, GRAPHICS, GAMEPLAY
This part of Kentucky, it would seem, is a quiet one. There is no voice acting and very little background music. What is prevalent are ambient sounds – crickets, the humming of lights, tires on an asphalt road. A good amount of the KRZ world is established through these small, often outdoor sounds, and it gives the game a feeling of enormous physical space, as well as sets a certain (slow, ambling) pace. At other points in the game, music will be used as a plot point, as well as a calling card of a specific group of characters. However, the lack of sound sets an overall tone of quiet reflection that the game really thrives within.
There is a connection between music and mystery, and using this as a tool, the game advances it’s indescribable narrative. Music in the game will often indicate that something “magical” or “otherworldly” is happening. I use those quotes because the game does not label things as magical or non magical, further blurring the lines between what we are expected to recognize as mundane and notable, an obfuscation that adds to the low-key mystery of the whole game.
Emma’s Note: Back in 2013 when I played Act 1 for the first time, I emailed Cardboard Computer about a couple of the songs that they used. They responded promptly. If you’re interested, here’s the link to the miner’s song, and here is the tape you find in Elkhorn:
I mean, honestly? What is there even to say? Cardboard Computer has created something here that looks like no other thing. I suppose “That Dragon, Cancer” and a few other games on the market sort of approach KRZ’s core style, using geometric shapes and predominantly neutral palettes to establish a stylized world, but KRZ stands alone. In the first chapter we see mostly that neutral palette, and a lot of dark and blue colors, as a good portion of this chapter is spend in a mine, on the road, and in Weaver’s home. As the game goes on, however, you will see different neon colors applied in a similar way music is; often to indicate a notable moment, or highlight something magical or unusual.
The game has a sad, slow feel to it, and not only because of its mechanics or plot. The spaces are wide and dark, often using an architectural blackness to establish different weights and distances. A good portion of its plot takes place underground, so I suppose that makes sense. However, to designate the GAME as being sad and slow, would be incorrect, I feel. Those are elements at work here, sure, but there is also so much more.
The way you move through buildings and settings lends the gameplay another aspect of space. The camera does not move with Conway, but only after Conway has breached a threshold between moments or spaces. Then you are permitted to see a new room or area, or perhaps watch as the camera turns in a way you weren’t expecting. Every camera move is calculated and rational. I’m not sure what this effect had on others – for me, it definitely gave me the feeling of a complete world, like KRZ, in its infinite mystery, was bigger than what I was viewing on my computer monitor.
Because, essentially, KRZ is a point and click narrative game, there aren’t many “special” moves: you rarely have to pick things up, there’s obviously no fighting, very few puzzles. There is however, one element you get to play with a few times during the course of the game, and that’s the use and application of light. I find this absolutely fascinating because its a function that I have a very hard time manipulating. This is something Emma is very good at; she is able to see certain functionality as being almost self aware or rather, the fact of its existence is an indication of use. So for example, in the beginning of the first chapter, you are underground and slated with the task of finding a glow in the dark item, armed with the ability to toggle your flashlight on and off. This took me like a solid 15 minutes to figure out and I think I did cheat and google the answer. In my head, the light switch function does not have a two-way meaningfulness; you are underground, therefore, let there be light. It’s hard for me to grasp that the darkness also has use and meaning, not to mention purpose. If you want to make it on the Zero, though, you better start thinking that way.
Scenario: you’re a teenager and you have a favorite band and they’ve got that one album that resonates with you SO hard. Years pass and it resonates less, until it finally becomes something you play only out of nostalgia. One day, you’re an adult, haven’t listened to them in ages, and they’ve suddenly come out with a new album. Much to your delight and surprise, their new sound resonates with current-day-you as much as their old sound resonated with teenage-you, and you get to have this beautiful experience of falling in love all over again. This is a very long-winded way of me saying: this is the game that got me back into video games.
What a gorgeous, quiet, introspective game KRZ is. It lives in the gaps between concrete thoughts and concepts. It is opaque, it meanders, it never states a hard thesis, but while playing it, you find yourself gaining something. That “something” remains elusive – wisps of understanding are always all around you, and the “meaning” of the game seeming to have always just turned a corner right as you’ve caught up to it.
The world of KRZ is inhabited by a mix of strange and gentle characters. In most video games, the NPC’s you interact with seem like they’re just statically waiting for you to appear. In KRZ, if you suspend your disbelief, it feels like each and every character really was just minding their own business until you came along. It’s a slow-paced world, no one is in a hurry, they were going to sit on that bench all night regardless of whether you were going to show up.
My Conway is a sweet, tender old bean. He’s quiet and kind and complacent, generally accustomed to making the fewest ripples as possible. He’s a man of few words and questions; he seems to accept things for what they are in this world. He’s not a complainer and he doesn’t show much emotion. His dog is named Blue, because he is definitely the type of guy whose dog would be a sweet ol’ gal. He is in touch with his feminine side, whether he’s aware of it or not. You get the sense that he respects and values the women in his life, regardless of whether that’s something he’s been explicitly taught to do. Kind of an inherent quality of his.
So what about the other people in this world?
The guy who runs Equus Oil uses a short poem that he can’t remember as a password for his computer. Strange people live in his basement and play some version of Dungeons and Dragons (headcanon: it’s us, its Emma, Zoe and I, we’re in the basement playing D&D, we’re the ones ignoring Conway even though he goes and gets our dice for us). The D&D players are the first whisper of ghostiness in KRZ. They ignore you to the point where it seems they truly do not know you’re there. When you find their missing dice and bring it to the table – they’re gone. I left the dice on the table for it (you can choose to keep it if you want). Just thought… maybe they need it. For ghost stuff. I don’t know.
Alright, I’m gonna come right out and say it – I think Weaver is a ghost. Something’s up with Weaver. When you’re at her farmhouse, she tells you about how she used to be the same age as her cousin, but isn’t anymore. What’s up with that, Weaver?
You eventually meet that cousin, Shannon, and she says this about Weaver – “I’ve known her all my life. She was … she’s my cousin.” Was? Is? Alright Shannon. Then she hits you with this:
She starts with “Weaver doesn’t lie,” and ends with a story about Weaver saying something that doesn’t appear to be true – yet. As the player you understand that Weaver had some sort of vision – so, she isn’t lying – her story just hasn’t happened yet. This is when the game really starts messing with temporal shit. Time and reality are starting to seem vague and we have only a loose adherence to science and natural law. Reality becomes extremely subjective. Is it time yet for me to start rambling about how the game is kind of an allegory for death? Not yet, too soon. We’ll get there. Next Goatplay, maybe.
Here’s a thing I love about Weaver & Shannon Marquez, and I actually might be wrong about this but I’m hoping I’m right: they both appear to be women of color, and maybe I’m making a leap here, but they both seem a little queer, Shannon especially. I know, I know, I just want them to be queer, so maybe I’m incorrectly assuming they are, but please let me have my fun and also don’t tell me what to do.
But anyway, these characters? They’re great. They’re all generally friendly and helpful, even if a bit opaque and confusing. No character appears to be the enemy or the antagonist – the people are all just there to help you get from A to B, even if they explain things strangely or don’t give you the full picture. And guess what, goats! We haven’t even started to scrape the surface! The characters in Act II-onward are so wonderfully bizarre, and I can’t wait to tell you about them.
CHOICES & PLOT
One of the most compelling things about Kentucky Route Zero is the concept that these characters are relatively undefined. Sure, they have goals, families, and some experiences that are hardcoded into their image, but as any one character is played they also must be further defined. Your choices may come up in a couple scriptlets, but overall the decisions of character are meant to give some experience a personality particular and relevant to the player. Some people may find this infuriating, what with our modern-day gaming society’s obsession that your DECISIONS make an IMPACT in the STORYLINE (see: Mass Effect 3 Bloodletting Riot), but in a gaming world plagued by imposed meaning, I find it incredibly meaningful. This authorship is one of the core concepts and driving forces of Kentucky Route Zero, and it defines a genre that is yearning to be touched: A play, written by you, for you, guided by Cardboard Computer’s unified hand.
Zoe’s Note: I also feel that this obsession is a method of legitimizing the act of gaming. It feels like this compulsion very desperately points and seeks to connect gaming to some more formal methods of narrative, to create everything into a work of interactive fiction. That isn’t, however, a prerequisite an experience must contain to be considered a “game”. Also, and I’m guessing, but this is a far more point-and-click, quantifiable method of looking at media consumption, and that is where I think KRZ really falls through the cracks of this argument. What if the effect a game had on you was completely intimate, based on your experience and knowledge alone? Somehow, KRZ manages to provoke this experience, within the realm of a single, limited game space. How else do you account for all three of us having different “Conways”, despite the fact that the in-game choices are not often actively reflected character choice or narrative? KRZ gave us the platform, but we projected that character, and I believe Cardboard Computer knew we would, and laid a path for us to do so.
“Video game” is a problematic term that places an unfair expectation on these works. An argument can, will, and has been made against KRZ regarding the “impact” (as aforementioned) of decisions in games on the world and story within. A Wired review of this game speculates that decisions having proper consequence and effect justify a media’s existence as a “video game”. The writer of this article, Ryan Rigney, complains that “even when the meaning of a decision isn’t clear, Route Zero forces players to make choices”. Rigney unintentionally and bitterly defines the artistic essence of KRZ itself: much like life, little is black and white, not every decision has a consequence as much as it further defines, and even when meaning is not necessarily intended, the human mind superimposes it. Those are the moments we become people, and as we become Conway, he also becomes us. In one interview, Jake Elliot, one of the three Cardboard Computer members, states,
We’ve gotten this critique a lot, that the decisions [the player makes in the game] are not meaningful. It’s a weird criticism because it’s … what does that mean? Meaningful? … There’s something that people want to talk about with regards to choices in video games that maybe they don’t quite know how to talk about right now. I don’t feel like [players and critics are] using the right language, to say that the decisions are meaningful [or not].
People ask for concrete, determinate proof that something they are doing is meaningful, instead of drawing meaning from it themselves. It’s a shame to me that Cardboard Computer has received this critique so much, but I am happy to see their team does not appear to be dissuaded. Kentucky allows a player to both construct their own world and take part in another, expertly merging artist and observer expression into a creation worth seeing.
Kayla’s Note: The choices that have seemingly no impact on the plot are my favorite ones to make. It’s almost as though it is a long, drawn out, character customization sequence – except instead of adding scars, picking your haircut, changing your eye color – you’re slowly but surely modifying Conway into your own custom character. The character stats are unquantifiable and exist only in your interpretation of the game. In that way, each player has a totally unique relationship to the character and the narrative.
My Conway? He is smooth, silver, and damaged, and as I force and watch my loved ones play this game, I find myself shaking my head and whispering, “That’s NOT My Conway,” to which they usually reply, “Emma, you wanted me to play this game right?” to which I always reply, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I usually have no problem backseat driving a game because I am The Worst, but the reason for that regret and retraction in this instance is that My Conway doesn’t matter. This experience is a different game than the one I played. By imposing My Conway upon others, I alter, challenge, and threaten the self-written poetry of this game, and that’s enough to frighten me into submission.
So what does KRZ do for us? The intended narrative, despite each actor’s character within it, lies somewhere between southern gothic, reality transgression, and economic downfall. KRZ tells a larger story about debt and the things we leave behind in the space it occupies, and it does so with a web of fantastical vignettes about the debts its characters owe and are owed. Conway is determined make things settle up in a world where each debt is magical in the way that it refuses payment. As reality slips in and out of his grasp with disappearances, oddities, and unreliable rules, debt remains the only concrete framework for any connection, and its resources are endless. He’s a man of checks and balances, but there are no obvious rules to balance his checks. Conway does not appear to be convinced that death will pay off his obligations. While his progress towards his self-proclaimed last delivery becomes shadowed by more crippling problems, it is exposed as an emotional debt that he has pushed away and replaced with trivial, solvable, payable ones for some time. The extent that this remains Conway’s priority will define his character as intended, despite any imposed meaning by the player, and that is where KRZ truly shines: by making you think its your idea.
The Magic Of It All™ remains relatively distant to Conway, and we experience his determination and focus in response. This paints Conway as a very serious character; a painting I don’t believe you can disassemble in any way, although I did not particularly try to. While Conway is assaulted by fantastical imagery and events, he remains earnest in his goal. The best way to experience magic is through the eyes of a non-believer, and while he is not necessarily a non-believer, he is certainly preoccupied with his goal. Anything that occurs either helps or hinders his ability to complete his delivery, his debt, and potentially unbeknownst to him at first, his life. Conway is a character who does not live in our world, but a person we may know that could, and is easily utilized by the player as conduit for participation in a set of rules that don’t belong to us.
KRZ’s many aspects work cohesively to create a world we used to live in, a world that never left, and a world that, despite its differences from our own, will always be.