Screenshot of a video game that renders a low poly scene of two characters and a black cat outside looking downward into a hole in the ground surrounded by green foliage and a steel circular staircase.
All images: Screenshot of Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition by Cardboard Computer/Annapurna Interactive via Ruckus.
︎ Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer

A View of Home in Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero


Essay
L Autumn Gnadinger

[This review contains minor spoilers. Some discussion will be made concerning the setting, characters, game mechanics, and basic plot, but every effort has been made to preserve the overall experience for new players.]


If you follow the same cross-section of video game journalism that I do, then no doubt you have heard of the text-based, magical-realism narrative experience Kentucky Route Zero. Over the last decade, the game by Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt of developer Cardboard Computer has been described to me in deeply curious and heartfelt ways by friends and critics alike,1, 2 and it emerges from a genre and play style that I have a lot of existing fondness for. Layer all of this onto my professional interests in media from or on the subject of the commonwealth I grew up in, and it feels like enjoying Kentucky Route Zero anytime during its multi-act release between 2013 and 2020 should have been a no-brainer.

While I could have picked this up sooner, history has not taught me much confidence in letting a national audience dictate the worth and meaning of stories from Kentucky.3 Growing up in Louisville and having spent much time in other areas of Kentucky, I have a learned fear and malaise for the way the state is perceived by outsiders. As someone who now lives in the Mid-Atlantic, I have lost count of the number of times I have introduced myself as being from the Bluegrass State only to field reactions that range from visible pity and sadness to genuine shock and horror. Of course, much of the rest of the South also experiences an unfair characterization from a more righteous elsewhere, but it is hard to shake the feeling that there is a unique and special enmity that the country overall reserves for Kentucky.4, 5 Not that I am or desire to be an unconditional apologist for any part of the United States, including Kentucky, but I do think it is a vastly more complicated place than has ever been fully afforded.

This is all to say, despite the undeniably positive critical reception of Kentucky Route Zero,6 I avoided it for years on purpose. Ultimately, I was afraid of what I might find: yet another chance for the state to be the butt of the joke, a political scapegoat, or the target of other cruelties, all the while finding praise from national critics. I was worried that the games journalists who I love and follow closely (mostly living in California or New York) would be revealed to me as willing to destructively throw my home under the bus for sport.

While I can’t speak fully for the attitudes of others, mercifully, Kentucky Route Zero approaches the state in a way that took me fully by surprise. I wouldn’t call it perfect, but it did thaw an iced-over part of my own imagination for what Kentucky could be in fiction, as well as in reality. Having now finished Kentucky Route Zero in 2022 (specifically, the “TV Edition” which pulls together its many installments into a single game), I can say with confidence that to miss it, would be to miss one of the single most interesting and provoking stories that take place in the state I have ever encountered.

To describe too much about the actual events, characters, or setting, of Kentucky Route Zero would run the risk of cheapening its magic and strangeness, but I can outline some of the initial setup. We open the point-and-click adventure at dusk in front of the fictional “Equus Oils” gas station, where the player character, Conway, has just parked a delivery truck. It is slowly revealed to the player that we (Conway and his companion dog, whose name you choose from a short list—I picked the option “Blue”), are looking for the final delivery stop for our employer, Lysette's Antiques.

From here, we are led on something of an ever-widening and mystifying wild goose chase and sent off to travel through a surprisingly dutiful road map of south-central Kentucky between Bonnieville and Bowling Green. I-65 serves as a navigational spine, with many of the area’s smaller roads and highways shooting off from this. If you’ve spent any meaningful amount of time in this area, perhaps you too will watch with mouth agape (we’re talking jaw on the floor) as a nationally available video game character drives by named places like Nolin Lake, Cub Run, Sunfish Road, or Green River.

Kentucky Route Zero’s characters and environment are attractively modeled using a modest number of polygons, which are minimally decorated and textured. The result is a very stylized look and feel that recalls 32- and 64-bit era console games,7 but which scale cleanly in HD and are executed using pleasant contemporary sensibilities. While the player character does move through 3D space part of the time, the camera angles are usually tightly fixed and choreographed, and the overall range of movement is limited for the sake of emphasizing a stage-like theatrical feel, making movement secondary to the primary user interface of the game’s many player-chosen text selections. These are on-screen most of the time in the form of an overlaid rectangular black box, which is then populated by the game’s various descriptions, questions, and other world-building options in a white monospace font reminiscent of retro computers like those from the Commodore series.

The sound design and score are haunting and wander back and forth between a perfectly fitting and ethereal environmental score by Ben Babbitt, and a beautifully realized set of originally recorded songs by the fictional group The Bedquilt Ramblers8 whose tracks draw on a combination of bluegrass, old time, and folk.9 While I was initially worried that the game would pigeonhole the diegetic music of Kentucky to something as predictable as these genres, it makes several interesting (plot-sensitive) efforts to thoroughly complicate this and succeeded in having my expectations about what I would find (or hear) next fail me completely. After being  humbled this way, the more “ordinary” sounding Kentucky-like music manages to land less as pastiche and more simply as honest, and—at least for me—painfully nostalgic.

As the game progresses, the player character Conway gets shuffled around with an equally surprising and constantly morphing cast of companions. We take turns piloting these various newcomers in increasingly equal proportions, quickly raising questions about who we think the game is actually about. This constant grab bag also erodes our confidence in knowing who or what we might find next in the game’s version of Kentucky (a decent lesson by itself). Eventually, our group is guided toward what is known in the game as “The Zero.” This, we soon find out, is a fictional and semi-secret magic underground highway that passes through the many corridors of the real-life Mammoth Cave system.10 Steadily, and with all of these features working together, what remains of a recognizable Kentucky gives way to a gooey and dreamlike series of vignettes that carry you through the rest of an impossible to predict story.

To keep pace with the plot is an avalanche of play and experimentation in narrative style, which marries perfectly with all the other formal decisions of the game. In one scene, I found myself silently navigating around a gallery space, while a future conversation about me by two observers that happened after I left narrated overhead. In another scene, I am watching a small-town production of a fictional play and have the option to watch as the drama unfolds, as if in the front-row seat, or, if I get bored, to look around and notice a string of quotes from a review of the show allegedly published in the real-life Lexington Herald. In another corner, a scroll of text walks me through notes from the play’s writer, on everything from the nature of authorship itself to the temperament of the audience and their willingness to laugh, or not, at a particular scene. Video games as a form often collude mechanics with content like this in new and unexpected ways, but it's really worth underlining how much further Kentucky Route Zero reaches here than any other piece of art for me in recent memory. It’s this tendency of the game that most contributes to its intensely novel sense of place.

These examples only scratch the surface. The best way I can describe the narrative styling of Kentucky Route Zero is that a loose and interactive story arc is drawn out and that we as the player are then made to follow. This alone would not be all that noteworthy for contemporary games, but what stands out about Kentucky Route Zero, however, is the overwhelming depth at which we are invited to continuously texture this story arc through the world’s infinite-feeling dialog choices. It’s unclear on a first play through how much these choices alter the core of the story itself, or how many nooks and crannies were left on the table because of my decisions, but it is obvious that the exact feelings that we are left with in the end are heavily mediated by our own actions and attention with the game. This feels especially potent in a game that is so interested in the implications of the topologies of the setting’s landscape, which behave much like a character itself and whose flexibility mirror the strange narrative shapes that emerge from our co-authoring of the experience.

Thematically, Kentucky Route Zero casts a wide net over the course of its 10-ish hours of gameplay and engages with concerns of decay, debt, rejection, addiction, reality and simulation, the nonlinearity of time, professional stagnation, corporate destruction, and the unstoppable advance of change. All of these are exercised on personal and collective levels and feel inseparable from its setting of a parafictional Kentucky—a place and people that have witnessed the reflexive violence of the United States’ political and capitalist agenda more than its fair share.

While all these ideas feel fleshed out and present throughout the game, none feels clearer cut as the steady loss of control one experiences over the course of the game’s 5 acts and several interludes. At the onset, you have a well-defined autonomy and ability to drive around a real-ish road map of Kentucky, stopping where you want to explore. But this freedom slowly gets narrower and narrower, and the kinds of geographic liberty you can take begin to tighten, and in its place, if anything at all, we take on new cerebral and emotive freedom. By the end, we become less of an active participant (if we ever were one) and must watch the humans around us, who we once controlled ourselves, make painful choices in answer to the complicated hand they were dealt.

In terms of managing Kentucky stereotypes for its own purposes, the game walks an incredibly fine line, skewing the slightest bit toward abusing the tropes and somewhat obvious expectations of Kentucky—bourbon, beer, bluegrass, strange folks in the woods, coal mines, a deference to the abstract idea of religion, or horses, to name only a few. On the other hand, though, these things are seldom played for laughs or exercised cheaply and exclusively. The tone is at times whimsical, but largely deadpan, and matter-of-fact. When the game does attempt humor, it is usually through widely shared issues of bureaucracy, the absurdity of the art world, or on at least one occasion, an otherwise normal office room full of bears.

Kentucky Route Zero is a game with a lot on its mind, and an unyielding willingness to break its own rules. At the very least, it managed to break most of mine. While I remained cautious playing Kentucky Route Zero throughout, I would be lying if I said I was anything other than charmed and overjoyed that Kentucky—and the many kinds of people and places in it, even if partially magical and imaginary—was in a 21st-century video game at all. Perhaps best of all, is that in-game Kentucky felt much like it does in my own memory of it: a place that is at once comfortable and beautiful, but also heartbreaking, shadowy, and unknowable in any fullness.
Screenshot of a video game that renders a black screen and simple white text in the center that reads, “Act I, Scene II”
Screenshot of a video game that renders a low poly scene of a gas station at nighttime called “Equus Oils,” which features a large blue building size horse head.

Screenshot of a video game that renders a black and white map of south central Kentucky along I-65 with several small icons, and has a green arrow cursor hovering over a location called “Marquez Farmhouse.”Screenshot of a video game that renders a black screen and simple white text in the center that reads, “MARQUEZ FARMHOUSE.”
Screenshot of a video game that renders a low poly scene of a shadowy house and tree in a mostly cleared field on a dark foggy night. Screenshot of a video game that renders a low poly scene of two characters inside of a house having a conversation. One character named weaver has said “I was just thinking what  lovely house we have. Do you like it? Have you been here before? Did you happen to see an owl?” and the player character, Conway, is choosing between three responses including one selected that reads “Sure. It’s a nice house.”Screenshot of a video game that renders a low poly scene of several silhouetted characters around a large fire in a cave. On screen is a black rectangle with white text that reads: “I was a grad student studying statistics when I started working with Donald on his project. He said we needed someone with a more analytical mind to do the descriptions as real labor, instead of taking their authorial voice for granted.”


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Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition is available on multiple platforms including Mac, PC, Linux, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Playstation 4.

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Citations: 
  1.   Sheehan, Jason. "Reading The Game: Kentucky Route Zero." NPR. February 11, 2021. https://doi.org/https://www.npr.org/2021/02/11/966499158/reading-the-game-kentucky-route-zero. 
  2. Frushtick, Russ. “Kentucky Route Zero Review: A Grim Road Trip about the Stops along the Way.” Polygon. January 27, 2020. https://www.polygon.com/reviews/2020/1/27/21080362/kentucky-route-zero-review-switch-pc-ps4-xbox-one-cardboard-computer.  
  3. Think of obvious TV representation like The Beverly Hillbillies or the way Anthony Harkins traces out the more general history of the American invention of “the Hillbilly” in “Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon”: Harkins, Anthony. 2005. Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. Oxford University Press. 
  4. It would be hard to find a clearer or more upsetting example: Lucas, Courtney. “Opinion | the Kentucky Flooding Is Horrific. so Is Some Democrats' Lack of Sympathy.” The Washington Post, WP Company. August 1, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/30/eastern-kentucky-flooding-democrats-response/. 
  5. Another example that comes to mind is the common phrase “Pennsyltucky”, used widely to describe central Pennsylvania outside of the state’s metropolitan centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. 
  6. Polygon also somewhat famously called Kentucky Route Zero the 4th best game of the decade, only behind The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Spelunky, and Minecraft: Polygon Staff. "The 100 best games of the decade (2010-2019): 10-1." Polygon. November 4, 2019. https://doi.org/https://www.polygon.com/features/2019/11/4/20947389/best-games-2019-2010-ps4-switch-xbox-pc-10-1. 
  7. What video game people might call the “5th generation” of console gaming from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. Think of platforms like the Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn, or the 3D0. 
  8. Comprised of Ben Babbitt, Bob Buckstaff, Emily Cross. 
  9. For example: Bedquilt Ramblers. "You've Got to Walk: Kentucky Route Zero (Original Soundtrack), ℗ 2020 Annapurna Interactive." Youtube. January 28, 2020. https://doi.org/https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ql_J7_57C1A&list=RDQl_J7_57C1A&index=2. 
  10. I will never tire of stating that “Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the world's longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored.” The National Park Foundation. "A Universe Beneath." nationalparks.org. January 1, 2022. https://doi.org/https://www.nationalparks.org/explore/parks/mammoth-cave-national-park.

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11.13.22

L Autumn Gnadinger (they/them) is an artist, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia, PA and is an editor for Ruckus.

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