Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
Kentucky Route Zero is an enigma of roads leading to everywhere. It is a mystery of people appearing and disappearing. It is the secret of small towns located in the middles of nowhere. It is the riddle of a queerly-shaped tree at the bend of the road, of people lost in museums. It is a thriller that crawls instead of peaks. It could be all of these. It could be none of these. What matters, at the ending of things, Kentucky Route Zero is.
Jesus, I don’t know. I’ve just finished Act 1 and I don’t think I understand anything anymore.
Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure game, a familiar niche genre in the video game hierarchy. But understand early that Kentucky Route Zero‘s a twisty sort, prone to flipping tropes and dropping conventions. Instead of knitting out a tightly-braided narrative thread, it prides itself on knotting together perfect, singular mysteries. Instead of pitting the player against diabolically conceived puzzles, the game’s story, its characters, and the spaces they inhabit present themselves as the most exacting elements to unlock.
What is it about? Kentucky Route Zero’s plot, surprisingly, can be condensed into a pitch: Kentucky Route Zero tells of the travels of Conway, a deliveryman searching for the Zero, a missing highway in the heart of rural America. That’s it. Simple and clean. But let me be the first to tell you that the objective is unimportant. The Zero is a place of mysticism and significance, spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. Like with purpose or joy or contentment or love, everyone knows what the Zero is but nobody knows where it can be found.
The places that surround it are as meaningful and awry as the destination. Kentucky Route Zero sketches a picture of small-town America and hangs it slightly askew. Your next locations are described to you as road directions to unfamiliar places–‘take a second left’ and ‘go straight ahead’ replaced with ‘turn right at the prosthetic limb factory’. But don’t go there yet. Those plastic arms aren’t going anywhere. Drive around in the night and see the half-darkened sights Kentucky has to offer. Find the museum and watch the game change genres from point-and-click to text adventure. A house cuts away to reveal the interior. The interior cuts away to reveal its secrets. Secrets cut away to reveal a tapestry of questions flitting just out of the reach of understanding. Why does that dog have a hat? Why are these folks playing a boardgame underground? Where did they suddenly go? Who is Weaver? What is Weaver? Why is she so surly? Discover the little things for yourself, friend. Figure out where exactly you are.
Your main man is Conway, a deliveryman searching for the Zero. He’s a good, sturdy sort. Staid but not apathetic; talky but in a good-natured, muttery sort of way. Conway complicity accepts the series of hazy goings-on–as complicit as you are in crafting Conway’s backstory from weirdly normal encounters with the townsfolk. Nothing too strange. He could have either been driving all day or driving all day to see the sunset. His is a strong, full-bodied kind of normal which is a small mystery in itself. Like us, Conway doesn’t directly influence the strange spaces of the game world. He can only comment on it, ruminate on the edges of answers, attempt to comprehend microscopic bits and angles. At the end of every muted encounter, he’d parley with his hat-wearing dog (Homer or Blue or something), his perceptions governed however you see fit. There are no wrong answers–your decisions won’t affect the game world in any way. They won’t even change Conway’s avatar or temperament. It’s a clever little idea, trivializing the protagonist’s backstory. The only mutable elements are what you think important.
If you’re wondering why I’ve only been skirting the edges of the game, I’m sorry. A lot of what the game is is undefined, cryptic. As loopy as the game is, it cobbles together its own stage from novel mechanics and rounded, esoteric world-building. Every character is looking for something. Conway, the Zero. The boardgamers, their dice. Carrington, a place to call his stage. Shannon, ghosts. On the world map, Conway is signified by a wireframe wheel trucking it all over the state. In game locations, motion is heralded by a horseshoe whirling round a stake. Every character has a quest and . “There is no one here… who could go there with you,” says a Greek chorus singing bluegrass midway through the game. The entire game is a maze to navigate. And in mazes, there is always a search. In search, there is always travel. And in travel, there is always loneliness.
Act 1 doesn’t really end. It just hangs there, a flat line in the plot progression. Acts 2-5 will be required reading, supplying the necessary backward steps to view the larger picture. Still, Act 1 serves as good introduction into the whole Kentucky Route Zero experience because it never asks the right questions. It nudges you to ask them yourself. I don’t really like to use the word “meditative” to describe anything, but it works for Kentucky Route Zero. It allows you to take what you’ve found, turn it over in your head, fiddle with the flappy bits, and just admire its novelty. Then it locks you in a room and politely requests that you begin wondering.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 ends with a nervous dive into the unknown. Then you realize that this is also how it began. And this is how it was for the last hour or so. And this is how it will be for the succeeding Acts. Kentucky Route Zero offer some advice. The straight shot to the exit isn’t always the best route. You don’t need to get there just yet. Travel. Take a trip. Not the frenetic, country-hopping kind. Nor that sabbatical for some sublime punctuation to existence. Get the kind you struggle with when 3 AM saunters by and you still can’t sleep. That bleary longing to leave the house, lock the door behind you, and meander.