I first heard of Kentucky Route Zero in late 2012, as its latest trailer appeared online and suggested a radical shift in the nature of the game. While it had started out as some sort of side-scroller and turned into a point-click game, the fundamental story seems to be similar. It looked haunting and magical-realist and very atmospheric, for lack of a better word.
Act One of a planned five first appeared in early 2013, just as I was hitting rock bottom at work and experiencing the kind of existential despair I hadn’t felt in years. The game turned out to be just what I sensed, and just what I needed: not really a game so much as a meandering novelistic story that the player immerses into and shepherds along. Originally, all five acts were supposed to be done in 2013, but almost five years on, we’re only up to act IV, which came out in the summer of 2016.
Kentucky Route Zero is the story of a strange and mysterious sort-of-underground road and those who travel on it. It intersects with the normal world in a fairly surreal fashion, and as you continue, you go from playing one character to several. The first trailer described them as “lost souls” and that’s as good a sense as any; they all find themselves in circumstances and happenstances that are somewhat their own fault, somewhat not their fault, somewhat nobody’s fault. Things just sort of worked out this way.
By the fourth act, the action had moved to a river, rather than the eponymous road, like some kind of dark and vaguely ominous version of Huckleberry Finn. Act IV is the only one so far to take place entirely underground, and I found it more affecting than any of the three acts preceding, because…you’re always concealed. It’s always dark. There are places and people you see and meet, things as strangely diverse as a gas station or a research center or a tiki bar, all along this river in the caves. And this hit home hard with me a year ago, as I was sick of the world around me and sick of dodging the bikeholes of Palo Alto, and I found myself using the tunnels at work to go back and forth. And they were quiet, uncrowded, maybe warmer than I really needed, but along the way you’d find a side door into a taqueria. Or a rarely used restroom. Or, surprisingly, the basement lounge of a building with an open four-story atrium that was nonetheless frosted over so the light was never direct, with a vending machine and some comfortable chairs – the perfect place to escape in solitude, if not privacy.
KRZ is art not unlike Hopper’s Nighthawks – it evokes an emotional response for me, twangs a chord that I feel sympathetically in my bones. That need for not so much light, for feeling like you’re safely stashed away under the ground or under the fog or under the night sky. That sense of solitude even if you aren’t by yourself, and that even if there are a handful of other people around, you are let to go on your own way as they go on theirs. A moment to step out of the world, to get away from the claustrophobia of the crowd and the news and the creeping distant horror, something like a smoke break from reality. It’s something I hadn’t thought about for a long time, but which in retrospect I’ve craved and sought from the time I was six years old right on through undergrad and ultimately to work last year. Sometimes, you just need that five-space and five-time, you just need the universe to let you be for a moment and not think about it.
And so, into the laptop, and a drink at the Rum Colony before a long float down the river that ends up with a meal at Sam & Ida’s, and wondering what is to become of our lost souls now. It’s been years if not decades since I could say this of a video game, but…it’s a masterpiece.