The Indescribable Journey of Kentucky Route Zero

It’s hard to put Cardboard Computer’s decade-long project into words. But it is undeniably a masterpiece.

This essay is from a newsletter project that I started in early 2020 and abandoned shortly thereafter.

It’s hard for me to sum up Kentucky Route Zero succinctly because everything I want to say about it seems to sell it short. Every description feels oversimplified; every explanation feels reductive.

Here’s the best I can do: Kentucky Route Zero’s objective seems to be to push every asset that gets categorized as “art” in videogame parlance to its most powerful and beautiful state. The written dialogue, music, and visuals of Kentucky Route Zero outshine just about any game in any genre, and these beautiful individual elements are glued together with light interactivity to create a simple experience that feels a little bit like watching a play and a little bit like reading a book, while still clearly being a videogame. Its effortless, meandering style slowly slips you inside its world, but when you leave, you begin to wonder if you’ve visited a different world at all. Everything seemed so real and so relevant to your life. Finishing Kentucky Route Zero feels like waking up from a dream.

Well, there’s the review. But to truly understand how KRZ does those things — and why those things make it so brilliant — you have to confront all those reductive descriptions I mentioned earlier and pull them apart. So with that in mind, here’s what Kentucky Route Zero is, and more importantly, why it’s also not these things.

It’s a game from 2011.

First a bit of context. As an idea, Kentucky Route Zero came into existence on January 7th, 2011 when Cardboard Computer launched a Kickstarter campaign for an “adventure game about a secret highway in Kentucky and the mysterious folks who travel it.” It exceeded its funding goal of $6,500, and the first episode was released two years later on January 7th, 2013. After that, subsequent acts were released episodically in time intervals that (coincidentally, I presume) doubled. Act II was released 6 months after Act 1 (on May 31st, 2013), Act III came a year after that (May 6, 2014), Act IV two years later (July 19, 2016), and finally, this January, after an almost four year hiatus, Act V was released.

All that is worth mentioning because perceptions about the game’s story have morphed along with the times. What started as a tale about the Great Recession has now shifted into a story about today’s precarious political and economic situation. Like a sculpture on a pedestal, the game has remained still, but time has shifted the audience around it, revealing different facets that were only visible from new angles.

It’s a game that came out in January 2020.

On January 28th, 2020, Cardboard Computer (and new publishing partner Annapurna Interactive) released much more than just the final act of Kentucky Route Zero. For PC players, the patch that contained Act V also contained significant overhauls to the game’s menu systems as well as the KRZ “interludes” — smaller, more experimental works that were released between the acts as free, standalone experiences.

For XboxOne, PS4, and Switch players, Cardboard Computer (and Annapurna) released Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition, which brought the entire overhauled PC version to consoles for the first time. I haven’t played it, but I’m guessing that the Switch version might be the perfect iteration of this game. It has always seemed perfect for a handheld system.

It’s a point-and-click adventure game.

KRZ’s main mechanic is, indeed, pointing and clicking to move characters around. But the game eschews many of the standard point-and-click conventions. There are no puzzles and no inventory system. You’re not trying to connect dots within a scene or uncover some central mystery. (Well, not in the traditional sense anyway.) Yes you point, yes you click, yes you adventure, but it’s hard to call this a point-and-click adventure.

It’s an interactive play.

The act/scene structure of Kentucky Route Zero certainly gives the whole experience a play-like feel, as does its frequent use of two-dimensional “sets” and dialogue windows that contain everyone’s speech in one area. But it’s more than a play. It’s interactive — it’s a videogame! You make choices and decide how it plays out.

You decide how it plays out.

Well, okay actually you don’t really decide how it plays out. You can select different dialogue options when certain characters are conversing, but those choices don’t seem to have much impact on what happens in a given scene. There are never “Junebug will remember that” moments. In Act IV, you are sometimes forced to decide which version of a scene you’d like to see (i.e. do you follow certain characters as they visit a place or stay where you are), but those decisions don’t impact the actual story.

In her excellent review, Laura Hudson explains that Jake Elliott, one of Cardboard Computer’s three designers (Tamas Kemenczy and Ben Babbitt complete the three-person team), “thinks of the player a bit like an actor on a stage, making interpretive choices about a character’s movements, feelings, inflections, or invented backstories — but never diverging from the event of the play.”

I cannot think of a better way to describe a player in a game. When you play a game you are agreeing to participate in a preordained experience. You bring your own feelings and emotions to that experience, and infusing the work with those feelings and emotions alters it slightly. But you can never change the core experience of a game as a player.

A revolutionary way of looking at characters in games is simply a brief note in a review. Classic Kentucky Route Zero.

It’s about a man and a dog in a straw hat.

Okay, a thousand words in and I’m finally getting to the game’s plot.

Kentucky Route Zero starts with a scene where a man named Conway and a dog in a straw hat are stopped at a gas station. The man has left his cargo truck running, and the rattle of its engine mixes with the chirping of crickets in the night air. Conway speaks to a man sitting between the gas pumps in a Queen Anne armchair (a “Queen Anne armchair,” what a delicious detail), and explains that he’s looking for 5 Dogwood Drive. The man replies that to get there, Conway will have to take the ~Zero~. After turning a breaker back on (in one of the most beautiful and simple scenes in all of videogames — you have to see it for yourself, I can’t do it justice here), you get some directions off a computer and head out onto the roads in search of the ~Zero~.

Over the next five acts, you meet various people who join you on your journey to Dogwood Drive. Although you play as Conway in most of your interactions, you begin to control more and more of the characters as the game goes on. Although Conway and the dog in the straw hat are central to the story, you quickly learn it’s hardly their story. It’s everyone’s story.

It’s set in Kentucky.

I’ve never been to Kentucky. I’ve been to many of its neighbors: West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, and Tennessee; I even live just a couple hundred miles from the border in North Carolina. But I’ve never been to Kentucky.

No matter. Kentucky Route Zero reminds me of all of these places. In fact, Kentucky Route Zero reminds of pretty much all of America. Sure, its specific style clearly reflects the American south (remember the crickets?), and the game obviously makes clear that it’s set in both Kentucky and a mysterious road underneath Kentucky. But spiritually, this game is set in America. Any American place with long stretching highways could be the setting of Kentucky Route Zero.

It’s a magical realist work.

Kentucky Route Zero’s creators often cite Gabriel García Márquez and David Lynch when explaining the feel of the game. Fans sometimes include Haruki Murakami in that list, and any of those are a good jumping off point for explaining how KRZ blends reality and fantasy, infusing the banality of everyday life with dream-like elements.

What that description doesn’t include is how truly well KRZ accomplishes this. It’s one thing to include fantastical elements in a mundane story, but it’s quite another to blend those elements in a way that feels real and truthful and illuminates the significance of the characters’ lives, rather than dilutes them. Using magical realism is a great way to illustrate the rich internal substance of quote-unquote “ordinary” characters, and Kentucky Route Zero does it perfectly.

It’s slow.

Yeah, it’s slow. But that’s the point.

When things are slow, you can really see them, really ponder them. The most powerful scenes in this game are moments where you simply sit and listen to a song being performed. In a world where music is all around us, when was the last time you really listened to a song and got those chills of familiarity as the sound waves seemed to penetrate your being? Because that happens in Kentucky Route Zero. A lot.

It’s about capitalism.

Kentucky Route Zero is about so many things. It is about death, life, hope, pain, friendship, family, nature, work, healthcare, sorrow, art, academia, alcohol, videogames, music and, yes, capitalism. But to call this a game about capitalism, or to suggest that capitalism is the only thing it’s about — or even the primary thing it’s about — doesn’t give it nearly enough credit. It’s about something so much deeper than Capitalism.

As you progress through Kentucky Route Zero, you learn about a power company that seems to be buying up every business in town and a distillery that only seems to accept debt as payment. These two companies influence everything in the game. A bar owner is forced to serve only whiskey from the distillery, and the power company controls enough of the healthcare system that, when a player gets injured, they’re told the tab for their care will be included in their electric statement.

But Kentucky Route Zero is not about that power company, nor is it about the distillery. It is about the people that interact with those things. It is not about the system, it’s about the people living inside it.

That’s a razor-fine distinction, but it’s a distinction worth making

In The Death of the Hired Man, the poem referenced many times throughout KRZ, a man named Silas returns to a farm where he worked inconsistently for years. When the patriarch of the house, Warren, arrives home, Mary, his wife, meets him at the door to tell him Silas is inside. Warren complains. Silas isn’t dependable. He’s too old to help on the farm. He asked for wages that Warren couldn’t pay. Mary pushes back and explains that “he has come home to die.”

Warren scoffs at the idea that this is Silas’s home, but Mary rebukes him,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.’

‘I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’

Warren wonders why Silas didn’t go to his rich family down the street, but Mary suggests that if he could’ve gone there, he would’ve.

‘I can tell you.

Silas is what he is — we wouldn’t mind him —

But just the kind that kinsfolk can’t abide.

He never did a thing so very bad.

He don’t know why he isn’t quite as good

As anyone. Worthless though he is,

He won’t be made ashamed to please his brother.’

Silas isn’t seeking a place. He’s seeking dignity. He’s seeking people who will respect him. Warren considers the respect Silas is seeking to be transactional, something based on a person’s ability to contribute or their familial status. (A capitalistic view of dignity.) But Mary, perhaps unknowingly, considers a radical idea: Silas deserves dignity simply because he’s human. She imagines dignity as “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Ultimately, that dignity — that intensely human pursuit of dignity — is what Kentucky Route Zero is about.

Yes, capitalism is the thing that is stripping characters of that dignity in this story. But even if you removed capitalism from the equation, that longing for and pursuit of dignity is still there. In the end, just as Mary suggests, the game ponders whether that dignity is attainable even under a system designed to strip it from you.

Kentucky Route Zero isn’t about capitalism. It’s about being a human.

It’s brilliant.

I harp on that last point so severely because it’s an exceedingly rare thing. Videogames are marvelous at simulating systems, at creating cause and effect, at showing the consequence of actions. But historically they have not been as good at creating experiences that feel deeply human.

Throughout its seven year release period, Kentucky Route Zero has been a tiny reminder of what’s possible in this medium. It has been a faint heartbeat, repeatedly demonstrating how beautiful and personal games can be. It shows how powerful games can be when music and story and character are working in perfect harmony. It has a remarkable knack for making people see reflections of their own lives in it.

It is the type of work that makes criticism feel futile. Despite all these words, I feel like I’ve only conveyed a small part of what makes Kentucky Route Zero so special. The way it makes you feel, the way it conveys emotions, needs to be experienced.

I guess that’s the only thing I can say definitively about this game: You need to play it.

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Videogame Critic