Find out why this point-and-click adventure feels like more than just a video game
Spoiler warning for the entirety of Kentucky Route Zero. If you haven't played yet or don't want to spoil anything in the game, come back now.
Kentucky Route Zero is one of those games where I spent much of my first playthrough feeling disoriented. I couldn't fully decipher my feelings until I talked about the experience with my roommate. The first thing that struck me about our conversation was, due to the somewhat chaotic presentation of the game's plot, character, and theme, that we had very different readings of it. I come from a literary background, so she chose to study acting instead. When we started talking about how the game presents dialogue, which is very script-like, its design sparked a discussion that made us realize that we fundamentally disagreed on the definition of what makes a " game” a “game”.
For me, this kind of conversation is standard procedure when playing a game I really love – I dive into YouTube looking for interviews with the creators; I scour the internet for blog posts and Reddit forums to see what other gamers have taken away; I play the soundtrack on repeat, just to remember the emotional beats that were so well crafted they made me cry.
While this research generally helps me gain a more complete and holistic understanding of a game I love, any further exploration into the world of Kentucky Route Zero only complicates things. The more I tried to find other people whose gaming experiences were similar to mine, the more I seemed to come across players who had entirely different reads, like the Eggplant podcast conversations about the game's nods to architecture and the caving movement of the » 70 and 80.
In my initial confusion, I was looking for the one thing Kentucky Route Zero was trying to tell me. The reason I had so much trouble though, is because the game doesn't use one character with one story to make a point, but rather presents us with dozens of characters with dozens of stories and no correct way to think of any of them. .
So sure, the game is great and all, but why am I talking about it now, over a year after the release of the final act? Because its chaotic presentation doesn't just cloud the waters, rather it's its greatest strength. That's what really makes Kentucky Route Zero a timeless, ever-changing reflection of the society it portrays.
To me, a work is classic if it is a cohesive and compelling work of art on its own, but it also reveals to us a compelling truth about what it means to be human. After completing a classic story, we see the world from a perspective we otherwise wouldn't have been able to view. Kentucky Route Zero achieves this feat expertly and in more ways than one.
Of all the dozens, if not hundreds, of references in Kentucky Route Zero, the one I hold closest to my heart as an excellent example of art making us re-examine the world around us is The Grapes of Wrath. Originally published in 1939, the subject matter of John Steinbeck's novel bears a striking resemblance to Kentucky Route Zero, as it focuses on the sufferings of our country of migrant workers exploited by corporations who view them as only disposable means to an end. .
The content of the book is quite intense and made many readers feel uneasy when it came out. For example, there's a gruesome portrayal of characters who can only afford to eat discarded peaches due to their infinitesimal paycheck, which rots their teeth and insides.
More than its harrowing examples of worker abuse, however, The Grapes of Wrath draws on larger themes of the American Dream and the well-meaning but unfortunate journeys we take to achieve it. The novel's Joad family are on a pilgrimage from their home state of Oklahoma to California, where they will likely find work and improve their lives. As their journey progresses, however, the family becomes more familiar with the harsh realities of the real world with each passing chapter.
The story of Kentucky Route Zero flips that trip on its head with Conway's task of completing his final delivery for a dying antique store before he can retire, but the end goal is the same: he goes on a pilgrimage with the assumption that will be comfortable and happy. the other side. Similar to the Joad family's growing desperation to not only find happiness, but also to survive, Conway moves from ending her confinement to recognizing her own regrets and struggling to live with them.
During the night of the delivery, he worries less and less about his task and ends up getting drunk. In a last ditch attempt to find a sense of belonging on the brink of his impending purposelessness, he willingly and almost enthusiastically surrenders to work at the distillery.
The saddest truth of this moment is that he seems somehow convinced that the dominant Consolidated Power Co. has its best interest at heart – an illusion that even the Joads have never really acquired when it comes to their own subservience. to corrupt businesses. In light of their difficult circumstances, the Joads looked to their family for comfort and community. Conway had no one left and turned to the only tangible structure around him rather than looking for a new family.
The painful feeling that somewhere else there is a place where we might be better off than where we are now – that's the American dream, and it's a feeling we can't shake in this game. The journey the characters in these two stories go through is learning that this dream will let you down, and all you can do is make the best of the situation you find yourself in.
The Grapes of Wrath is disturbing, but for good reason. When audiences read the stories of these families' struggles, even though they were fictionalized, it was the first time they were forced to confront the atrocities that their fellow citizens had to face on a daily basis. Instead of looking away because it was difficult, readers were outraged, and it was this fervor that caused real-world change.
Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of beloved President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was so moved after reading The Grapes of Wrath that she traveled to California herself, just to see if workers' conditions were as terrible as Steinbeck claimed so. Spoiler alert: they were. The multiple congressional hearings where Secretary of Labor Ton pays Perkins argued for better wages in the 1940s were a direct response to the outrage over the book. The Grapes of Wrath impacted not only the literary history of our country, but its historical period.
Although the developers at Cardboard Computer didn't specifically cite the book as inspiration (at least as far as I can find), I can't help but draw comparisons beyond the topic because, for to me, Kentucky Route Zero looks like more than a video game. It feels like an essential piece of fiction in any medium because it so deftly peels back the layers of modern life to show us the broken but beating heart of American society in much the same way a classic novel would. I think that's pretty cool.
And that's not to say that allowing yourself to acquire the uncomfortable emotions that this type of art can evoke is no longer relevant. On the contrary, these same systems of oppression still exist today, they have just evolved into something new. Just look at how modern mega-corporations treat their employees. Amazon warehouses are so dangerous that workers are injured on the job en masse, and ride-hailing companies have spent millions of dollars on deliberately confusing marketing to adopt Proposition 22 so they don't have to offer their drivers better pay, benefits and other extended protections. to full employees.
It's hard to argue that Kentucky Route Zero has a true antagonist, but Consolidated Power Co. comes pretty close. We feel its influence almost everywhere we go, infecting the earth like some kind of disease. They own all the power, the booze, even the characters who are forced to settle their debts. And they don't let us forget.
[Image credit: Sam Dibella]
We see it in the larger narrative beats, like the ghostly flooded mine in Act I or the town in Act V where people have been killed due to society surveillance. It's also in its more subtle moments, like Dr. Truman's description of the overly complicated and predatory payment system for Conway's medical treatment or the lonely telephone operator who remembers the days before all his friends were fired. . There is no escaping it, and we can feel the effects it has had on the people, commerce and land of the region like a pain in the bones.
The burial ceremony in Act V is arguably the clearest example of this ubiquitous grief throughout the game. bury some of his dead horses in a storm the night before. The city is full of sunshine, colorful flowers and rolling hills. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the game's imagery, which is generally shrouded in darkness, both literally and figuratively.
As the band breaks into a hymn at the burial ceremony, the dark, haunting ghosts of the townspeople who have passed away disappear. At first, there are only a few of them, but as the music swells, the camera pans to reveal dozens of these characters, outnumbering the living on a few occasions.
It's a scary moment that moved me to tears (I could write an entire piece about how effectively this game uses music, but I digress), a symbol of remembrance not only for old friends of current residents before they leave, but for everyone. of those lost to corrupt corporations like Consolidated Power Co.
[Image credit: Kriemfield]
This image is already so rich and meaningful in the context of the game itself, as well as the rest of American history, but given the current state of our country, it has taken on an entirely new meaning. It was impossible to look at those dozens of numbers on my screen and not immediately think of the more than 600000 lives we have lost to COVID-19 and the scar that the mishandling of the pandemic will leave on the history of our country for years to come.
In all honesty, I could replace any number of works with The Grapes of Wrath, and the comparisons would still ring true. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Willa Cather's My Antonia, Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street – just a small sample of literature on the failures of the American Dream. However, no matter which one we choose, the main point of them remains the same: our disillusionment with our country's failure to deliver on its promises is pervasive through all times and for everyone, and c That's what makes it a quintessentially American story. to live.
This perpetual relevance, always lending itself to new interpretations of game content, is what elevates Kentucky Route Zero from a great game to a timeless classic. In its hyper-referentiality, America's version of the game is eternal. The references of visuals, language and subject matter blend together so perfectly that we feel that we are not just in a specific moment, but in all eras at the same time. Plus, the ever-present grief and grief that we can't quite shake through playing isn't just about the few dozen lives lost in a flood, but about those who dared to dream of something bigger.
The game's characters feel like they could exist at any time, whether it's a hundred years ago or the last week, but their plight is still real, tangible, and moving. It reminds us that the tapestry of Americana is constantly expanding while remaining the same.
One of the pitfalls he could have easily fallen into was leaning too far into this mess and relying too heavily on his credentials. Drawing on classic works and staples of American culture certainly gives a room a sense of depth. However, Kentucky Route Zero does more than conjure up works of art, literature, architecture, and more. well known, but telling us something new about them. Holding up a mirror to the patterns we continue to traverse as a society forces us to reflect on why these oppressive powers continue to arise and how humanity continues to progress despite them.
In the same way that the meaning of The Grapes of Wrath is carried in its specificity, in its instantaneous depiction of a single moment in American history, the meaning of Kentucky Route Zero is that it is all-encompassing. It focuses on the common thread of American history, its unscrupulous systems and the effects it has on the vulnerable people within them.
This is precisely why scenes like the burial ceremony seem almost too real - it's not that Cardboard Computer's developers can see into the future, but the reality is that they were simply able to recognize and accurately describe the familiar patterns of oppression in our country. and the resulting events.
The real genius of Kentucky Route Zero is that, at a glance, the game looks like complete chaos. The world isn't cohesive, the characters aren't fully developed in the traditional sense, and the structure of each individual act is entirely different from the last. The scenes don't build on previous scenes – its complexity is harder to trace than that.
However, upon closer inspection, we can see that her story works differently than what we are used to. Every scene, character, folk story, line of dialogue, or seemingly random detail works like an individual brushstroke. It's only when we consider each piece together that we see the big picture, the portrait of Americana and the people who make it up.
Kentucky Route Zero established itself as one of the biggest games of the decade, but I think it's even more than that. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime works of art, and I'll spend the rest of mine trying to unravel every thread of it.