The Tragedy and Mystery of the ‘Best Game of the Decade’

Kentucky Route Zero has won “game of the year” awards multiple times, was dubbed the “best musical of 2014,” and has been called “the most important game of the decade”—and all this before it was finished. Over the past seven years, the three-person indie studio Cardboard Computer has released four episodic “acts” of its critically acclaimed game, along with four playable “interludes.” Fans have eagerly awaited the fifth and final chapter, the one where maybe, just maybe, you will arrive at your destination.

It’s finally here, part of a new collected edition from Annapurna Interactive for PC and console. The menu takes the shape of a circle, each act arranged around it like numbers on a clock face. This is a game that loves circles, cycles, places where binaries collapse: real and unreal, absence and presence, inside and outside. Back in 2013, the first chapter began with a scene that felt very much like an epilogue: an aging man named Conway setting out at sunset to make his last delivery for a doomed antique store. Naturally, the fifth act ends with something that feels like a beginning: a hazy orange sunrise, shimmering across a waterlogged town the morning after a terrible storm.

Kentucky Route Zero has never been a very literal game, which makes it hard to describe in concrete terms, but let’s give it a try. Imagine for a moment that the next Great American Novel was created in the 21st century as a point-and-click adventure game, woven out of Southern Gothic fiction, magical realism, and a techno-mystical understanding of hyperreality. Imagine it is a tragic ghost story about the American Dream where the ghost is the American Dream; the tragedy is that it keeps haunting America because it doesn’t know it’s dead.

Originally conceived in the aftermath of the devastating 2008 recession, Kentucky Route Zero is a surreal tour of economic ruin visited on the Rust Belt by the greed of the superrich. Everyone you meet in its version of rural Kentucky feels lost, liminal, and precarious. Like 40 percent of Americans, Conway and the people he meets—a TV repairwoman, two self-liberated androids, a professional theremin player, and a little boy whose brother is a giant eagle—are all teetering on the edge of financial ruin, just one accident or bad day away from toppling over into crushing debt.

Where many videogames look primarily to other games for inspiration, Kentucky Route Zero reaches outside the medium, referencing film, theater, poetry, philosophy, semiotics, bluegrass music, computer art, and interactive fiction. Its structure—the way the acts and interludes are built—is inspired by theatrical set design, particularly where you are drawn into spaces where the audience is, say, both inside and outside of a bisected house, where the walls open up and dissolve the lines. There’s a moment during your road trip down the Zero where you and your new friend Shannon stop for directions at the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, an office of professional gentrifiers located in an odd-looking cathedral. When you arrive, Shannon looks up, disoriented by the vertical patchwork of jutting concrete and night sky. “This is weird,” she says, “but are we inside or outside?” Conway has three possible answers: inside, outside, or both.

The game asks this sort of question a lot, in one way or another. Is this perception real, or that one? Is one reality real, or another? There is no right or wrong answer, no single, fixed way of seeing the world. That’s the idea behind a parallax—that a more complete version of a story or image is possible when it’s experienced through multiple perspectives. During another scene, a little boy races through a forest, triggering a parallax scrolling effect that creates an illusion of depth by moving the background images more slowly than foreground images. It also fills in the space with impossible, disjointed images inspired by René Magritte, another visual trick that asks the brain to make the unreal into the real by filling in the blanks—and it does.

At another point, you spelunk deep into Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system—the inspiration for the (arguably) very first text adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure—where you find a group of experimental scientists working on a project called Xanadu, which you can play and which seems like a slightly scrambled version of Colossal Cave. As you proceed deeper into the game, you encounter a computer where you can play the game again, sliding down through three layers of metatext. Are you inside or outside now? Who are you? Are you real?

The music of the game also plays with this sort of metatexual echo, the sense of being about something and simultaneously becoming what you are about. In each act, a trio of bluegrass musicians appears at least once to sing about work or damnation or having no place to go. The Greek chorus, aka the Bedquilt Ramblers, takes on more active roles as the game proceeds, moving from background silhouettes to active community members. They are both on the inside and outside, not only here but also in the playable interludes between acts, each of which extend Kentucky Route Zero into multiple realities.

The bluegrass songs themselves, like “What Would You Give (In Exchange For Your Soul)” and “The World Is Not My Home,” are all traditional hymns re-recorded by Ben Babbitt, the game’s composer and sound designer. He’s one-third of the indie studio behind the game, Cardboard Computer, along with Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy. When I visited Babbitt’s music studio in Los Angeles, I noticed an unplugged neon sign: the name “Junebug” in cursive script. He explained that it’s a prop from a music video (and a 360 degree immersive version set in a motel room) that Cardboard Computer made for “Static Between Stations,” a song that isn’t in Kentucky Route Zero but rather a forthcoming album created by Babbitt as one the game’s characters, Junebug.

Junebug first appears in the third act, a chanteuse barreling down the backroads of Kentucky on a motorcycle. Later, she and her partner play a gig that both literally and figuratively blows the roof off a bar. The dive is called The Lower Depths—a reference to a relentlessly bleak Russian play about poverty and hopelessness set in a cellar resembling a cave—and as the strings of the ethereal, electronic ballad rise, so do the ceiling tiles of the dimly lit bar, opening up into an amphitheater that is traversed by the moon and stars as the song unfolds. Are you inside, or are you outside?

The ballad, “Too Late to Love You,” is at least partially cowritten by the player; you become both performer and audience by selecting the lyrics just as Junebug belts them into the sky. It’s deeply affecting in an ineffable way; one forum post by a fan describes it as uncanny: “There’s something about the song’s vocal quality that reminds me of the motion or angle of a broken limb.” If there something preternaturally beautiful about Junebug’s voice, perhaps that’s because she is an android who escaped her robotic servitude to a malevolent energy corporation after secretly listening to the folk songs of exploited coal miners. Or perhaps it’s because her voice is Babbitt’s voice, modulated and transformed until it felt like he’d created someone new. (When Babbitt, who’d long been uncomfortable with his singing voice, started working on Kentucky Route Zero and heard Junebug’s voice come out of the speaker, he “really liked how it sounded,” he told an interviewer once. “It felt expressive to me in ways that my voice had never felt to me.”)

On the synth-heavy “Static Between Stations,” Junebug sings, “I like the feeling / Of finding a new face/ And a new voice to learn how to recognize.” For her, identity is not just something that is assigned but discovered, created and chosen, and all the more meaningful for it. “I came off the assembly line about a half-foot shorter, and all gray. No eyes,” Junebug explains in a bit of conversational exposition about her escape. “We slipped out onto the road, just these two featureless shadows, and ever since that night we’ve been detailing. Coloring in. Specifying. I feel more like myself every day.”

Kentucky Route Zero occasionally makes references to the idea of a copy without an original, a notion that comes up in philosophy around hyperreality—the concept that a simulation can become indistinguishable from what it’s trying to simulate. Like the map in that story by Jorge Luis Borges, which was made so large that it physically covered every inch it mapped. At first it pretended to be the world, and then it was.

The mechanics of Kentucky Route Zero encourage fluidity of self, not only by giving you physical control over different characters but asking you to make a wide variety of dialog choices. Sometimes you might choose both the questions and the answers for the same conversation, or who answers or how they feel when they do. Throughout the course of the game, you will also compose at least two poems, one electronic country ballad, and possibly a theremin solo conducted by a small child and spliced with the ambient sounds you have recorded on and around a subterranean riverboat. The trick is that none of these choices will change the way the plot unfolds, only how it makes you (or your-character-as-you) feel about it.

Over a video chat, Elliott told me that he 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. Does it change what happens next if Conway remembers or forgets a youthful memory? Or if makes him feel tenderness? It does not. But it changes how it feels. “That’s the thing I’m the most interested in exploring in a videogame—the emotional possibilities afforded by making work in this context,” Babbitt said. “As a musician, that’s the currency of the work: how it feels more than anything else.”

This is what some people mean when they say that Kentucky Route Zero is “not a game,” because the mainstream gaming world tends to subscribe to the idea that games and play are only meaningful if they involve action, strategy, or, at the very least, the ability to “win.” Playing means punching, shooting, or strategizing your way to a victory, not experimenting creatively in ways that have no win state or making choices that a develop a rich sense of character’s emotional and psychological world. In fairness, it is comparatively easy to map a physical action like a punch to a button, but you cannot simply press X to express the complexity of emotions like regret, desire, or loss. Or you can try, but the results are very stupid.

Early on in Kentucky Route Zero, there’s a moment where you descend into the hollow body of an enormous metal horse that is also a gas station, and find the Bedquilt Ramblers at a card table, trying to figure out the rules to the board game they’re playing. They can’t figure out how to win. One of them examines the box. “I don’t think you can win,” they say. “It says on the box it’s a tragedy.”

Elliott once told players that Kentucky Route Zero would only have one ending—because it was a tragedy, and every tragedy ends the same way. It’s the opposite of a power fantasy. You cannot stop it, because in that moment you have no control over what happens. Maybe that doesn’t sound fun to you; maybe it reminds you of the angle of a broken limb. It can be disconcerting to give up control, but also valuable, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Especially if it makes you uncomfortable. That’s another thematic reason that Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t function like a power fantasy. This is game about people who are oppressed, exploited, deemed worthless by our society, and discarded to die. They often do not have the means to bend the world to their will. That’s the point.

Well, part of the point. To say that Kentucky Route Zero has or is any single point is to miss it. In a talk he gave about designing the game, Elliott referenced an idea from military strategist Gregory Treverton: that every puzzle has a solution. But according to Treverton, “a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed.” Kentucky Route Zero is a mystery by design, a piece of playable art that resists being labeled or pinned down to meaning, that takes its truest form when you are wandering between one way of looking at it and another. Are you inside the game now, or are you outside?

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