Written by: Duncan Howard
It has always seemed surreal to me that the most profound video game of the last decade, if not of all time, also happens to be the only one set in our state. Kentucky Route Zero, the universally acclaimed point-and-click adventure game developed in 2013 by the indie studio Cardboard Computer, is an artistic masterpiece because it uses its setting to its fullest potential. It strikes a graceful balance between portraying the socioeconomic environment of Kentucky, the stories of its many characters, and the condition of humanity at large, intricately weaving these themes with its beautiful aesthetic to craft an unforgettable experience. I recommend to play it as soon as possible, and therefore will refrain from spoilers as much as possible.
KRZ is much more of an entire experience than a game. It is often said that it seems wrong, even, to call it a game. KRZ is a story, a soundtrack, visual art, and it is almost even like a case study into the lives of average people. One optional stage of the game even includes a full-length 40-minute play that only holds tangential relevance to the narrative, and yet singlehandedly captures the game’s themes so well that it would be worthy of extensive analysis purely on its own. KRZ truly excels in all fields, and yet, what makes it truly stand out is how it emphasizes people.
The game tells the story of Conway, a middle-aged delivery driver making his last run for a failing antiques shop. It is explicitly set in the wake of the 2008 Recession, a crisis that affected regions like Kentucky particularly hard. On a quest to locate and navigate the elusive Route Zero in order to reach a mysterious neighborhood to which no roads lead, players will encounter and control a diverse cast of characters and explore surreal landscapes that are rich with fragments of the past and present. KRZ features an original electronic score by Ben Babbitt, along with arrangements of old Christian hymns and bluegrass songs, that seamlessly work together to paint a picture of a world closely tied to its past and present cultures.
The game's narrative is presented in a non-linear fashion, with each chapter exploring different aspects of the story’s overarching theme. Kentucky Route Zero touches on difficult themes such as loss, identity, debt, addiction, and regret. At its core, the game is a reflection of the kinds of struggles that millions of Americans face every day. It is a panorama of the consequences that capitalist dehumanization brings, using the historical relationship between individuals and corporations as a backdrop.
The corporations in the game are responsible for a slew of injustices, the consequences of which are present throughout almost every scene. KRZ’s primary antagonists are a mining company and a whiskey distillery, both guilty of causing widespread environmental destruction, manipulating the public and their employees by spreading propaganda and forcing them into debt, treating their workers inhumanely, and ultimately completely abandoning them in times of need.
Over the course of the plot, the environment is always dark, stormy, and isolated. When the surface world recedes, the other world leaks out, and the result is both surreally magical and authentic, hence the game’s magical realist style. Despite the bleakness of the narrative, KRZ never fails to include serendipitous moments of hope. Throughout their journey, players will meet a diverse cast of friendly strangers who offer support and guidance to Conway and each other. The Zero itself is an obvious metaphor for grassroots communities that exist “underground,” separate from the pompous and utilitarian world of the surface.
Sentimentality is a recurring theme in Kentucky Route Zero. Characters cling to their memories of happier times. The game also explores both the past and present of the region, providing commentary on the natural resources of Kentucky and the ongoing social and environmental struggles in the area. Kentucky Route Zero is a captivating and thought-provoking game that explores these hugely themes through the lens of a surreal and dreamlike landscape. Through its narrative, it sheds light on the social issues we face and how we might overcome them. While the game may be dark and unsettling at times, it also offers plenty of beautiful moments and insights. It excels in all fields, and its focus on common people and their struggles makes it an artistic masterpiece.
The Young Kentuckian is a blog of the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition where youth share their work and ideas for Kentucky's bright future.
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