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The Virtual Life: Why We Need Games Like Kentucky Route Zero

by Javy Gwaltney on Jul 27, 2016 at 10:00 AM

Explaining Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) to someone who hasn't played it is a surprisingly difficult task. At first glance, KRZ looks like a typical narrative-focused adventure game. There are pretty backgrounds. You click objects a lot. The characters are on a journey; sometimes they talk to each other. However, things get a bit odder and more wondrous the deeper you dig into this interactive tale.

I've seen a number of people describe the game, which has been released in installments over the past three years, as Odyssean or strange, and they're certainly not wrong on either account. But KRZ, to me, is confounding more than anything else. It lives in stubborn defiance of what we come to expect from even adventure games themselves, a genre that that often bucks convention by focusing on story over polished mechanics. KRZ definitely focuses on story but the story isn't clear cut nor is there anything that's necessarily propelling you through the game. It starts out slowly and expands at an even slower pace, refusing to establish a steady rhythm. Initially you play as both Conway, a delivery truck driver, and Shannon Márquez, a woman in search of something lost in some nearby mines, but as the game goes on, you bounce back and forth across a steadily growing cast of protagonists. Sometimes you'll play a little boy named Ezra, who has a massive pet eagle named Julian, or a badass motorcyclist singer named Junebug.

The only common thread among these characters is that each of them are in search of something and those things are never clearly defined. Is Conway, a recovering alcoholic, looking to redeem himself from some horrible past by making his last delivery? What does Shannon hope to gain from chasing her cousin's ghost? And of the other characters? Maybe Junebug and her companion Johnny are just two lost souls searching for another adventure, perhaps the only pair in this world that has it completely together.

KRZ asks a lot of questions and refuses to answer them. That in itself is not necessarily applause worthy. It's easy to be enigmatic. The trick is asking questions that are enticing enough to leave the player wanting answers, and this game has a knack for presenting those sorts of interesting questions as well as creating stunning sequences that are a marvel to behold. For example, the finale to the second episode begins with Ezra running through the woods and culminates in a series of beautiful images, while a moving rendition of the bluegrass song "Long Journey Home" plays in the background.

This is the sort of sequence filled with enough mystery and wonder that it will lead people to several different readings of it. Is it mourning the loss of the America that never was? Is it about childhood? The power of imagination? But really, does it matter what this scene or any other scene in Kentucky Route Zero "is about"?  Some believe that video games should be dumb gizmos for giggles and nothing more; however, the idea that games that don’t fit that neat category of high-stake thrills should always have a clear message is also ludicrous.

Even "serious" games don't have to be well-executed takedowns of capitalism or religion in conjunction with being a game. Sometimes an experience is just that: an experience. There doesn't necessary have to be a well-stated point. Part of what makes KRZ work is that it's so effectively evocative of many themes that are relevant both for our time and all time: unbearable loneliness, the woes of blue collar workers at the mercy of corporations, the beauty of nature, finding salvation in (both romantic and platonic) love. That this game can cast a net that wide and still work as well as it does is a triumph for the medium and something we're already seeing more of from games, like Inside, which reviewer Kyle Hilliard aptly described as an "interactive nightmare."

As the medium of video games grows, it's natural for more kinds of games to appear. Both Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto showed up at their respective times and pushed the envelope for what sort of violence could be shown on screen, and became fundamental titles that help shape our notion of what games are and could be. I hope that games like Kentucky Route Zero, Inside, and whatever follows in their wake do similarly, expanding the scope of games to create new experiences that help the medium become a richer tapestry.