Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, written by Nicholas O’Brien. Nicholas is an artist and researcher that makes video games, digital animations, and installations addressing civic history, urban infrastructure, and overlooked narratives of technology and labor. He currently lives in Brooklyn and is Assistant Professor in 3D Design and Game Development at Stevens Institute of Technology.
When Kentucky Route Zero, the episodic magical realist point-and-click adventure from Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt), first reached players in 2013, critics were struck by its intricate narrative, distinct visuals, labyrinthine cultural references, and haunting sound design. Its follow-up chapters have wandered even further afield with their explorations of design and form.
Though its fifth and final episode has yet to see release, the volume of writing it’s inspired to date is considerable. This compilation attempts to structure notable highlights of that ample literature into four thematic threads.
Theme I: The Narrative
Perhaps the most significant element which distinguishes Kentucky Route Zero from many of its contemporaries is its prose. The characters’ deadpan reactions to the bizarre unfolding events in the game is both humorous and introspective; a delicate balance of Appalachian plain speak and heady speculative fiction. This blend is best showcased through branching dialog options interspersed throughout every scene. Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Alex Wiltshire summarizes this very well in “What Makes Kentucky Route Zero’s Dialogue So Good?“:
Kentucky Route Zero avoids that portentous sense you get in many games with narrative choices, where every action feels weighted with the threat it might lead to the ‘bad ending’. The effect is that you play naturally rather than self-consciously or with some plan in mind.
KRZ’s narrative also serves as an experiment with genre fiction, where traditional approaches to Rural Americana storytelling are bent and reconfigured to avoid the tropes and pitfalls of that canon. Here, the rolling hills of Kentucky serve not merely as a backdrop, but instead as a foreground for the individual and collective struggles of the characters in KRZ. Lewis Gordon discusses this at length when interviewing the developers for Waypoint:
Conway’s antique business is on its last legs; the farm of Weaver’s parents was repossessed due to debt repayment issues; and the lease on Shannon’s TV repair workshop was suspended. Despite the surreal and often fantastical flourishes that emerge throughout the game, it’s still rooted in the seemingly mundane struggles we all experience. [Says developer Jake Elliott:] ‘It’s important to us that the game be in, and of, the real, contemporary world. So the characters are living in the world of predatory lending and bizarre, inscrutable financial machinery.’
Patrick Larose similarly analyzes Cardboard Computer’s upending of genre-conventions in his essay for Ploughshares:
There’s a mythology that surrounds the American road trip—this way to grapple with the sheer space of crossing those distances in the United States. […] Kentucky Route Zero reminds us that those real, wide-open spaces that arch out along the interstate are tangible and covered in scars. Places that we would push out of our mind and glaze over because it would be more convenient for the oppressors if we would forget about the victims buried beneath the surface.
Preston Johnston examines the game through the lens of southern gothic literature, comparing the narrative to William Faulkner’s deconstructive novels:
Kentucky Route Zero doles out a structure where each character [has] specific qualities in how they engage the story. Not only does Kentucky Route Zero fragment a complex story into different character perspectives, but it laces its narrative with magical realism. […] Kentucky Route Zero manages to capture and show off many narratives tools within its meandering and mysterious narrative similar to William Faulkner’s meandering and at times dizzying perusal of perspectives and personalities.
While Johnston is one of several critics who hit upon the southern gothic touchstone, Tara Ogaick’s dissection of Act 1 on This Cage of Worms, Ogaick compares KRZ’s play experience to horror tropes, specifically signaling out themes of “haunting,” “presence and absence,” and tension built by “withholding information.”
Theme II: The Design
Though a lot of writing has outlined the various ways KRZ’s narrative is distinctive and enigmatic, many critics have also honed in on the game’s formal design elements as well.
In a thorough analysis of what she finds to be the precise moment when KRZ rises above the standard fair, Lindsey Joyce writes how this “fairly simplistic” project pairs narrative choice with character development. Joyce presents a sharp thesis in which the player acts as a director, combining singular perspective with collective experience:
By elevating the player above a single-perspective experience, Kentucky Route Zero actually enriches its capacity for narrative agency. You aren’t confined to a single viewpoint through which to access and assess the narrative, but are, instead, present through all perspectives.
As a point-and-click adventure, KRZ’s purposeful design directly hearkens back to LucasArts/SCUMM games and other action adventure titles from the 1990s. This is a point of curiosity for John Sharp, who, in his reflective and detailed analysis of interactivity for several of independent games, says:
Instead of allowing the player to zoom in on a detail, something fairly commonplace for examining objects in games, players are instead given a written description. Often, the description fills gaps in the level of visual detail—letting you know a chair is a Queen Anne, or the condition of Conway’s dog’s hat. Other times, these indicate activity. These descriptions are presented parenthetically like the stage direction one might find in the script for a film or a play. These descriptions also deepen the style and tone of the game tone. [Kentucky Route Zero] engages the player while keeping them at arm’s length from the story and characters.
Though in part a conversation about the influences behind the game, this short interview for Eurogamer outlines some of Elliott and Kemenczy’s original design intentions behind the project:
Oh, those wonderful blanks. There are lots of them in Kentucky Route Zero, and a large part of the game’s pleasure comes from the realisation that this is not a game where the answers will be laid out in a neat sequence or suddenly made clear by choosing the right dialogue options. Released from the expected right/wrong structure of traditional gameplay, you’re freed to approach the game like a shot of sipping bourbon – slowly savouring the taste, taking it at your own pace, relaxing into the experience without expectation.
Perhaps one of the most unique qualities of KRZ’s development (and design) over the years have been exploring new ways to experiment with telling the full story of their ever-expanding world. This expansion includes a series of “interludes” that extend the “universe” of KRZ into other media formats, including a telephone hotline, a netart project, and a Public Access TV Show. Game developer Robert Yang discusses the power Cardboard Computer’s “transmedia” projects (in particular leveraging “old media”) in a way that often gets overlooked with other games writing on KRZ:
A lot of transmedia narratives tend to focus on modern computing or the internet… but here, we’re asked to imagine a vast archeaology of decaying technology. The iconic KRZ flat vector style evokes an era of older VGA games like Another World, the live action WEVP-TV broadcasts are styled as low resolution transfers from analog tapes, and I believe even the real functioning phone hotline seems to have extra static layered onto the voice recordings. Which is absurd, landlines used to be a vital communication technology… but to a filthy millennial like me, now it’s just a salvaged material for making art. (As I dialed the phone number, I thought to myself, “how fun and quaint to dial a phone number on my phone!”)
Theme III: The Network of Influences
Much has been said on the plethora of literary and theatrical references in Kentucky Route Zero, but the games references extend into many genres. Some references are more immediate, while others are pull from Elliott and Kemenczy’s experiences with experimental and avant-garde cinema, video, performance, and sound. The process of “decrypting” some of these references has sustained many fans during extended lulls between act releases.
One obvious and immediate influence in KRZ’s design is the backdrop of Appalachia. The folk tales, yarns, fables, myths, and gossip from the Blue Ridge up to the peak of Black Mountain deeply inform and inspire KRZ’s landscape, language, and logic. Gaming Broadly approaches this topic head on as part of a short podcast series Playing Appalachia.
There’s no shortage of compelling fan theories, but several reference the outstanding “Kentucky Fried Zero” series by Magnus Hildebrandt (originally in German; English translation provided by Dennis Kogel and Josefiene Pertosa), covering the first three Acts of the series:
With their imagery of sea shells, nests and caves, the video installations in the “Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces” are basically a list of [French philosopher Gaston] Bachelard’s examples of intimate spaces. According to Bachelard, the sea shell (a theme that is repeated when the protagonists find hermit crabs using office supplies as their shells) is the foundation for the concept of home, a clear division between inside and outside. This lets us circle back to the beginning of the episode when the protagonists ask whether they are outside or inside the Bureau. Bachelard devotes an entire chapter to a similar question. Although he considers the home to be a space of dreams that fuels the creative work of an artist, a work that can only be created in seclusion from the outer world, Bachelard argues to abandon the strict separation of inside and outside. It’s an idea that Kentucky Route Zero picks up whenever it blends dreams and reality, art and video games.
Where Hildebrandt’s articles focus on visual and auditory references, Miguel Penabella’s four-part series for Haywire Magazine (1, 2, 3, 4) uncovers the thematic structures interlacing all of KRZ’s existing acts. From Part 2:
This interest in interweaving histories and emotions into spaces also reflects the game’s indebtedness to mid-century stagecraft, such as Jo Mielziner’s 1949 production of Death of a Salesman. Mielziner designed a skeletal framework that sequestered spaces […] allegorizing the emotional and historical entrapment of protagonist Willy Loman as he suffers the burden of personal failure. The concrete and brick Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces [in KRZ] soars toward the stalactite-studded ceiling of the cathedral that encloses it, similarly coalescing the interior and exterior world. But while Death of a Salesman’s production focuses on individual economic entrapment, Kentucky Route Zero’s spatial ambiguity suggests how economic downturn can result in broader real estate shifts as tenants are displaced or foreclosed, leaving behind vestiges of their presence.
Though not a piece of critical writing, Kemenczy’s lecture at GDC on the Scenography of Kentucky Route Zero (video, autocaptions) is a candid, informed, and delicate presentation of the ways in which the developers reference theater and film.
Theme IV: The Sound
Sound is an important component to Kentucky Route Zero. So much so that composer Ben Babbitt is listed as a core member of Cardboard Computer’s development team, not merely a collaborator.
In an excellent long form essay for Fact Magazine, Lewis Gordon traces a storied history of Babbitt’s compositions for the game, from field recordings captured in Europe to the Junebug persona prominently featured in Act III.
Junebug, the game’s fictitious singer and namesake for a “KRZ-adjacent” spin-off music album, is likewise at the center of Reid McCarter’s album review/analysis for Kill Screen:
Junebug and Johnny’s “Too Late to Love You” performance is an oasis of emotional clarity amid the darkness and confusion that surrounds it. The performance is melancholy, but it’s also unambiguously beautiful. Junebug’s voice, androgynous in its high alto pitch, is ur-human, a universal cry that manifests the pain, want, and hope just beneath the surface of Zero’s characters.
Although most of the critical literature about Babbitt’s contribution to KRZ is paired with longer interviews with the composer/artist, Ansh Patel’s commentary for Paste picks apart the subtle player choices that determine the emotional tone of Act III’s “musical centerpiece.” Comparing this moment to the (in)famous opera scene in Final Fantasy VI, Patel suggests that the staging of this moment isolates seemingly tangential characters in order to set up larger reflections for the player’s emotional state:
In that moment, by putting us inside that room as an invisible part of the cast, Kentucky Route Zero makes us consciously aware of how solitude and companionship coexist more often than we would like to believe.
The Zero (or: Miscellany)
Like Conway’s travels down its titular highway, Kentucky Route Zero has inspired plenty of other musings, meanderings, and unique takes over the years.
One approach that PopMatters’ Eric Swain puts forward is how KRZ breaks the conventional mold of “what makes a video game.” Swain argues that these “convention breaking” techniques are not merely a gesture toward freeing the medium from self-imposed restrictions but purposeful reconfigurations of how we even navigate game spaces:
The game has switched presentation and delivery so often that, within the realm of this one game, we are trained to understand space only as we see it and not as how we would nominally “feel it” through projection. […] Kentucky Route Zero is a rejection of the holodeck ideal, not because it goes out of its way to create spaces that are not real, that do not and cannot exist, [but because] it never subscribes to the holodeck ideal in the first place.
In his article for Heterotopias, Sam Dibella provides an engaging analysis of the Consolidated Power Company—the proverbial “puller of strings” in the Cardboard Computer’s magical realist world.
Writing for Slate, Laura Hudson lauds Cardboard Computer for presenting a world where the naiveté of the American Dream is confronted with a harsh reality of “foreclosed houses, abandoned mines, and lost, discarded people”:
An emptiness permeates your journey, a sense that we are at the end of a story that is slowly trailing off into silence. Everywhere you go seems either abandoned or about to be, displaced not by the intrusive whims of wealthy gentrifiers but rather the impersonal vampirism of companies who turn people out of their homes not to fill them with anything of value, but simply to leave them vacant on principle, like row upon row of hollow monuments to the power of concentrated wealth.
Kelsey Tabbert’s long-form literary analysis of KRZ dives deep into the sights, sounds, design, and influences interwoven in KRZ all while humbly asserting she’s only “scratched the surface of what can be found and analyzed in this game.”
While not available in full online, Aubrey Anable’s Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect delves deeply into the game:
A central concern of Kentucky Route Zero is the way our access to the past is always only partial, and uniquely so, depending on the limitations of the systems of memory and the bodies through which we store and access history, including the game itself.
Lastly (for now), the ever-insightful Cara Ellison grapples with the game’s affect in a personal, poetic, and pointed reflection:
When you are an adult, your access to those new, novelty virtual spaces starts to be shut off. There is less time, and more responsibility. There is less money to take risk and make mistakes, there is very little safe space for the magic to be let loose. […] It is this remembered magic, the magic of the past, that Kentucky Route Zero successfully articulates. Kentucky Route Zero understands what it is like to watch things break and become unusable, their magic still intact in RAM but somehow out of reach. It remembers for you, so that you can feel like a child, while still an adult.
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Disclosures: Lindsey Joyce, Eric Swain, and This Cage is Worms founder Cameron Kunzelman are former contributors to Critical Distance.
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