Driving the roads of Kentucky Route Zero, I lost sight of my objective in favour of giving lifts, one by one, to stranded night-time commuters; ephemeral figures adrift in the nowhere-space of late-night highways and backwater towns who don’t seem much concerned when or if their transport will arrive; their role in this world the act of waiting itself. These people are so anonymous to me that neither they nor their destinations are afforded visual representation and the game itself offers no reward for interacting with them, no “4/5 Commuters Helped” objective tracker, no grand quest ending, only simple interaction with a few human beings who aren’t really a part of your story. In involving myself however, my journey was taken off the highways and the comparatively well-lit places. In pursuit of these destinations I found myself stumbling upon a church, another in a brief chain of disparate sites evidencing a community, a place of shared belief or activity that unlike the others seemed awake amidst the cold depopulated night.
In as eerie an environment as this, a church alone is a heavily affecting presence. So much is implied by even just snippets of its being that rather than a set of ideas it announces itself as more of an imposition. It cannot be ignored and inevitably it feels even more otherworldly than anything around it. The muffled choral singing coming from within conveys what has become an unfamiliar sensation, not only a presence but a community, not only life but enthusiastic engagement and though I can’t help but feel a piercing dread about the whole situation I am compelled to enter. I shuffle my way nervously through its back-rooms. Memories of the old village hall by my primary school spring up and impose themselves on my surroundings. The sense of familiarity and homeliness of it only allows the dread to pierce further in. The deafening stillness drowns out the livelihood of the continued reverent chorus, many voices becoming one speaking to me of warmth, community, my own trespass and the inherent exclusion of my position in equal measure. To linger any longer taking in the sensory overload of this place would shift my position from curious wanderer to outside invader and the only options remaining are to make my presence known or slide back into the still night.
Steeling for whatever awaited me inside and pushing onwards into the main chapel, I find the most and least surprising outcome of all, there is nobody at all attending this place. The church is empty, the sounds of worship louder play from a tape, a recorded chorus echoing off the walls over and over for who knows how long. The emptiness is familiar and almost comforting but the chorus now has a presence altogether more existentially frightening than previously. Questions abound as to its purpose and origin but the single focal point of my feelings is a pervasive sense of looking upon a creature unconvincingly wearing human skin. This place now seems both a sad and abandoned small thing and an all-consuming eldritch beast all at once. Awash with the stunning timelessness, anxiety and mundanity of the world I’ve entered I simply stand and listen for a while overtaken by a quiet awe. Eventually I find myself standing with my finger over the stop button. The choice feels as though it could be the most monumental thing I ever do in my life. I click the button, silence fills the room, anticipation gives way to a mournful realignment, I’m standing in an abandoned room with a tape player. Back on the road the church melts back into the infinite dark of the night, another forgotten place between places. The physical journey around a building goes with it but the memory of the mental landscape it placed me in will never leave, it is a personal space that could only exist within the two of us.
This entire section played out entirely in little text boxes with a few decision prompts, the sounds of the chorus the only thing anchoring you with a definite real image of events. Accessed via simply stumbling onto it while moving around the simple map of roads and locations that makes up Kentucky Route Zero’s overworld, it couldn’t be more optional or missable and has stayed with me as one of the most haunting experiences I’ve had in a video game. All of this I feel speaks to the character of Kentucky Route Zero, it presents more than a couple of these little text adventure vignettes scattered around and it does so with complete confidence in their ability to carry the tone and feelings set up by the game prior. It is a piece of media that fully understands restraint and the power of words and feelings, stepping back to let your imagination run away with the few stimulus it is handed. It allows you to craft an infinitely more personal and affecting experience. In Kentucky Route Zero everything is meaningless and everything is full of meaning, the world of dark highways to nowhere, extradimensional rivers and service stations is held up by an understanding that meaning is created in conversation with the audience, that all this emptiness is truly anything but, and that any void can be filled, for better or for worse. More than any other game I’ve played Kentucky Route Zero asks you to bring your own self into its world. The dreamlike nature of everything that happens, the logic that ties it together, the fact you play as no character and also all characters, sometimes even transitioning to narrator as seamlessly as switching speaker in conversation: all of this pulls you into the world. You may not be present but you are lost in The Zero all the same, and the reality of things is that if you really look into the darkness and its surreal landscapes you’ll come to see familiarity.
Kentucky Route Zero is a sprawling dream-logic free-association progression of events but at the same time it is as mundane as they come. If you’ve ever been exhausted in the middle of night stopping at a service station along a highway you’ll already know the underlying otherworldly unease. The bizarre facsimiles of human civilisation you find yourself in when all the world seems to have melted away, leaving you one among just enough other souls lost here for it to still be just about verifiably existent: feelings represented in every presence of life and activity along the titular Route Zero. Though the first episode of the game is spent searching for the entrance which exists as more of a concept or a moment than it does a physical space, nothing ever really proceeds as though it were strange at all. Antique delivery driver Conway is directed onto The Zero (always represented in text by a distorted shifting static-y texture over the letters) as it is the only way to reach 5 Dogwood Drive, the location to which he is to deliver. It is only prior to entering The Zero that Conway really takes all this to be at all strange. Though he is likely the least acclimatised of the group as a general rule, he is mostly found quietly accepting things as The Zero passes on by, not least of all because his stint as main audience viewpoint is short lived.
Conway enters The Zero via a quest revolving around bringing a TV to a woman and then finding her sister to repair it, a quest involving two visions on the same TV: one of a farm behind the house and the other of himself and Shannon, the woman just brought in to repair the TV, entering The Zero on a road that opens up in the same farm, at this point the narrative immediately shifts to the two being inside The Zero, the vision and events seeming one and the same. The Zero itself seems a common knowledge route in the area. Everyone knows of it but nobody can really offer help getting there outside of Shannon’s mysterious sister Weaver, a figure who appears to be both there and not there, an experience Shannon appears used to. The Zero itself also cannot be navigated by traditional means: the controls for Conway’s van (represented by a wheel upon a map that moves after your mouse as you click) remain the same but instead of a top-down roadmap you now have to navigate an infinite circular road where the landmarks have switched from buildings and nature to something between constellations and concepts. Whether or not the huge serpentine mouth exists as a shape or merely something understood to be there due to its name is unclear. The nature of space itself in The Zero is unclear. Directions given take a shift from “2 lefts and a right and straight on” to “approach The Jaw and immediately turn back until you reach The Cup” and so on. Places are accessed via circuitous codes of movement and don’t just exist in space, the locations themselves are actually much the same as they are outside The Zero: physical places, usually man-made buildings, housing offices, storage or road-side shops that are navigated on foot just like outside in normality.
In turn the normal world on the outside makes itself indistinguishable from the surreal dream of The Zero. The abandoned church has an analogue inside The Zero in the form of a church-turned-warehouse with one man playing sermons from a tape to a “congregation” of nobody. The player’s control of conversation doesn’t stop at picking lines for the active character; it extends to who is talking and what they are talking about. Conversations progress with every line, there is no doubling back to choose different options, allowing conversations to take on dreamlike pace and flow. This disconnection of player from character extends far enough as to create scenes such as Conway and Shannon’s entrance into a museum, where the viewpoint shifts to watching them through cameras and choosing lines of dialogue for a pair recounting what they watched them do. This museum itself exists out in the normal world but it is as bizarre as anything found deep in The Zero. It is a showcase of dwellings, made up of all different kinds of homes, many of which are still inhabited, the residents now parts of the exhibition as a means to protect their homes from re-purposing and removal by the ever-present Consolidated Power Company, which seems to own and fund literally everything you can come across.
Renovated space is a constant in Kentucky Route Zero. One of those shifts in character perspective lands us in control of an employee of The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces (which incidentally is one of my favourite titles in anything, compounded by the organisation itself existing within a reclaimed space of its own) who is tasked with processing applications for space that is to become something other than what it is. Basketball courts become kennels, churches become storage facilities and nothing can really stay as itself much less establish its own identity out in the dark nothingness of Kentucky. If you’ve lived practically anywhere the process of anonymous money taking over buildings and constantly reshaping them into seemingly unneeded facilities over and over should be immediately recognisable and though the manifestations of this process in Kentucky Route Zero can seem absurd the end result is the same: emptiness, purposelessness and forgotten communities left bereft of their needs and lives. In this context the chorus on tape and the sermons in the church-turned-warehouse seem almost a weak rebellion, an insistence that these sites remain what they are, lights holding back the dark. At the same time, though, they are static, recorded things. They can never live or grow or change and thus resistance is reduced to repetition and clinging to the old. Out here one isn’t given the choice to progress, merely to fade or to become trapped in a rose-tinted past.
When one has no options though, what if they refuse them all? The introduction of Johnny and Junebug is a bombastic thing: a chance encounter as they pull over on their bike to help Conway and Shannon with the van. They are introduced immediately tearing down the road at a great speed, coloured hair flowing in the wind adorned with symbols of stereotypical rebellion. They are a leather-jacket, coloured hair, fast-living, drifting band on the way to perform in a nowhere dive-bar that happens to have booked them. The narrative drags us all off to the performance in which we get to write Junebug’s lyrics as the song goes. The bar is utterly empty save for us and the owner but Junebug and Johnny’s performance is able to lift the walls away nonetheless, leaving us looking up at the infinite potential of space, a kind of heaven to the hell of the dive bar (named The Lower Depths). The duo are able to create meaning in nothingness; they join our journey with no more reason than to just tag along for an adventure and it’s enough for them. They wish only to live, experience and change.
Junebug and Johnny’s ability to inject meaning (shared in that moment with the player) is no accident. It is both antithetical and integral to their purpose as beings. Junebug and Jonny aren’t human: the pair are robots crafting identities for themselves as they go, their dialogue focused on finding oneself and creating identity where there was none, experimenting and changing, always moving to find a more comfortable and better things to be. In a sense they are the other side to The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces’ coin. Where cultures of old struggle for breath, endlessly recycling the outer shells of old and often regressive institutions, these new young beings reject place and roots they have adapted to the world as is. Through their engagement with, and discarding of what they will they can move beyond the world of many of the other characters. Junebug shifts presentation frequently preferring to define herself by her current moment rather than a static idea of self. The duo’s discussed ideas of experimentation and finding oneself in outward expression (along with your standard queer coding coloured hair) position them as kind of queer millenial figures. As robots they were born outside the expectations of binary gender and do not seem to have initially at least limited themselves to it. Junebug’s contemporary feminine presentation stands in opposition to the masculine aspects the culture of old miner songs that the pair discovered their sense of self through would naturally impart. They recognise the genders with which they come to identify as being more aspects of human culture for them to try on in search of a self and not immutable primordial fact. As any queer theorist can tell you gender isn’t a descriptor of the configuration of one’s body, and the struggle of many is to escape assignments of this kind of definition. The duo start from a position of ambiguity but their conclusions are no different: ones identity is not defined by what is assigned to them. The robots initially had no genders assigned to them but adapted to them themselves. They understand in the future they may become something else still, as technical outsiders to the standard cultural programming of the other members of the party, they are well positioned to reckon with this idea of fluidity.
Johnny and Junebug live both true to and in opposition to their purpose. They were created to fill the mines of Kentucky with new labourers unblemished by personal lives and identities, beings made for work and work alone, raised to be a new generation of perfect capitalist subjects working in what surely must be an infinite cycle of accumulation and growth. In so far as they were built to restore meaning to the voids of Kentucky they work to their purpose, albeit as artistic and social actors rather than economic ones. In opposition, though, they have come into being in a world in crisis, a Kentucky abandoned by the economic forces that once had an interest in mining there. They find themselves new beings detached from the cultures and labels of the old world but stuck in its rotting corpse. They were raised to work mines and to carry out the same roles as their predecessors, but in lieu of that reality materialising they’ve reckoned with a world seemingly without meaning and developed senses of self that can remove them from it, if only in the company of each other. If Conway and Shannon are the sufferers of mid-life crises left adrift in a world that’s ceased to be, Johnny and Junebug are the young people born into it.
The mining automation brings us back to a concept central to Kentucky Route Zero: the economic abandonment of the region. The Zero is awash with family businesses struggling to stay afloat, buildings hollowed out of purpose and made lifeless and so on, any of which could simply exist anywhere within Kentucky. While The Zero is so much more it is also just getting lost in the night of a place between places, a place garnering no economic interest, a place of abandoned industry and everything that implies. Whether the people of the night and The Zero are lingering ghosts or real people living out these lives doesn’t matter and would scarcely make a noticeable difference to anything. This is a place for the forgotten; even a computer running old text adventure games becomes a significant location within The Zero. It can be easy to forget while travelling the impossible roads, rivers and caves of The Zero that all this nowhere exists as a turn off road in Kentucky, but the narrative never forgets. The caves under the mines in the normal world tell stories of lives lost to mining accidents and later the flooded caves of The Zero contain a grim memorial to them, a quiet reminder of those who have been lost and what it really means to wander the night like this. If The Zero can be said to be anything, perhaps it could be called the collective psychic malaise of a world kept just barely alive in the service of a surreal and inhuman corporate restructuring of life itself.
Conway himself is the greatest example of the surreal being all too real. An injured leg forces him to see a doctor who, while obviously compassionate and helpful, through use of medicine owned and supplied by corporate entities from beyond our immediate world, effectively robs Conway of his leg. It remains functional but now exists as a skinless glowing skeletal thing, a symbol of Conway’s loss of bodily autonomy and later a harbinger of impending loss of self. In yet another church, Conway, separated from much of the group, sits down on a pew to discover the church itself is an elevator to a whiskey factory owned by the Consolidated Power Company, staffed exclusively by loyal skeletal workmen all of whom are said to be paying off a debt to the company. In accepting a drink of ludicrously expensive whiskey, Conway finalises the debt accrued by his doctor visit and is forced into signing up for labour to pay it off, his transformation into anonymous skeletal worker all but assured. Not only are these obvious representations of real world sufferings, distant corporate powers preying on the weaknesses of people their world has left in the dirt, they are effectively the only malign force present in the game.
It is arguable whether or not the church-turned-factory-access is even a reconfigured space at all; perhaps in this corner of The Zero things merely just appear as they are. The church as representative of an old comforting culture, merely a place to direct people to where they are economically needed. In re-entering this cultural space Conway is led into servitude. He is led back into his implied alcoholism granting the factory the power to keep him there forever. The underside of the only cultural activity that seems to even be remotely allowed to flourish out here is an industry, an industry that ensures access to the destitute and the weak and maintains (even in lieu of an actual need) a culture that valorises nothing but work for its own sake.
Kentucky Route Zero is not a finished story and so my engagement with it cannot come to a neat end, but I suspect even with the final act there will be little sense of finality. Things in this world linger, they aren’t allowed to move on and they aren’t allowed to live. The forces of production and change are deployed only to maintain the state of things. Superficial reclamations abound as unliveable jobs work people and places into nothingness to no end other than the continual movement of property to ensure the stillness of people and culture. There seems little hope for an ending for these people, but perhaps turning the click of the stop button in the church was a more cosmically significant act than I had allowed myself to realise. Perhaps our ending will be more a philosophical triumph than a physical one.
If heaven’s not my home then lord what will I do?