One of the first things you see when you start up Kentucky Route Zero is Equus Oil, a 1950’s – or even 40’s-era – full-service gas station. At the same time, you realize that the sun is setting and that there is a shadowy, elephantine bust of a horse standing sentry at the side of the station. The scene is very Norman Rockwell. The horse head is very Fellini. It has flared nostrils and a mane like a Greek statue of a horse.
One of the next things you see is the road I-65 on a map.
Somehow, I-65 was the one that struck me as stranger. We’re used to seeing in video games surreal things, hideous things, imposing things, and things that are much much larger than they should be. But we’re not used to seeing the road we live on. Yet to my mild disbelief, there it was, plain as morning, situated on an atlas, like a map you might find forgotten in a crevice of your car’s upholstery––only inside a computer game.
A main artery of the east-central U.S., the real-world I-65 begins in Mobile, Alabama, where it butts up against I-10 and stretches due north through Birmingham, Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee, takes a detour around Bowling Green in Kentucky, hits Louisville, Indianapolis, and Lafayette, and splits into 94 in the outlying suburbs of Chicago at the southernmost point of Lake Michigan. From a top-down view, the intersection and toll booth look like a sheepshank knot.
Obviously, the setting for Kentucky Route Zero is somewhere in Kentucky, but as far as I can tell, the surrounding roads and landmarks are all fictitious. That goes for the prosthetic arm manufacturing plant, the abandoned Protestant church, and the horse head. Just eyeballing it, I figure I live about four or six hundred miles south of there, just outside Tuskegee. When I played K.R.Z. around ten at night, sitting on the carpet with all but one 40-watt light out, I could hear the omnipresent whir of traffic on the interstate, the ambiance of pockets of cars growing louder and then diffusing to an almost inaudible murmur again and again like lapping waves. Occasionally, a loud one comes by, but they frequently sound like distant airplanes.
I can’t complain about the noise, although I will say there is little to no mystery to I-65. That is artistic license. I usually don’t even notice that I’m driving on it, always back and forth from my exit to work or to the parents or the bowling alley or the post office or fifty-five other ordinary places. The most bizarre event I’ve witnessed was this time I was driving to the supermarket at 3:30 A.M. I rounded a stretch of pines in the median and suddenly the ruby red lights of ambulances were galvanized with electricity. Then, they were in the rearview, flickering until drawn safely into the distance. When you pass a scene like that in sheer darkness, it strobes by in photospheres that linger in afterimages. There were paramedics with stretchers and I might have seen a dead body. He was lying really close to the roadside like he had been hit. I imagine if I hadn’t have got off at the next exit, and just kept going, that one time I would have ended up outside Equus Oil, asking the grandfatherly attendant Joseph for directions.
Kentucky Route Zero is a slow, cerebral, psychological game that unnerves and then calms you with soft noisy drones by Tamas Kemenczy and Jake Elliot. It’s a game that tells you in the Readme file, “Using a single large ice cube in an Old Fashioned (in place of a few smaller ones or even ice chips) really does make a difference.” It’s a game where you ring a stake with a horseshoe to move around. The folks say “y’all.” The scenery, which includes mines and plantations, reminds me of Dogville, the Lars von Trier film with Nicole Kidman. Jake and Tamas call it a work of magic realism, by which they mean it seems like a place you could happen upon if you just kept driving a little further down the highway than you’ve ever been, pulled over, and had a fever dream.
What’s surprising is how K.R.Z. manages to retain the atmosphere of fear and dread of adventure games of yore, although nothing catastrophic ever happens. The most significant choice you make is whether your dog is a boy named Homer or a girl named Blue. You can put whatever password into the computer you want. The main character Conway breaks his ankle, but it only hobbles him. The characters don’t have a ton of personality, but neither do the people I’d find if I drove a half-mile to the pumps at the exit ramp and looked around. The game has a confidence that other games lack because the creators aren’t afraid to simply let it exist. Here are roads that have names but lead nowhere, and town centers that you can enter, go through door by door and pick a lock, and find nothing but the experience of pressing against the empty possibilities, and appreciate that.
Some of the best moments are spent driving the delivery truck around the map, not knowing what’s out there and what isn’t––only I think the words “driving” and “delivery truck” might delude you. The map is a simple thing, about as complex as what you’d draw on paper if you drew out your home and the surrounding network of roads from memory. What you’re actually doing is clicking on waypoints on a map and moving a spinning circle around on the screen. In terms of the fiction, you’re taking a right on Smiths Grove Scottsville Rd., turning around on Vine St., then left on Louisville (Highway 259), and following it back to the interstate, which trails off in a series of ellipses.
And if I stand up from my chair, take five steps, face left, and open the door, I can see where those dots end up a few hundred yards out in front of me, where a semi roars by, deliberately splitting open the wind like a strange, magnificent creature.
About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.
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