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Dimly Lit Highways

A personal essay / review of Kentucky Route Zero by Daylynn Lambi

The 11 year old version of me spent their nights in bed with a small clip lamp, reading His Dark Materials and playing Pokemon hours beyond my designated “bedtime” - the only instance where my purposeful noncompliance was deemed acceptable and not an unwelcome intrusion on my family’s put-together facade. The intimacy of this liminal space, occupying both my dark bedroom and the stories I hungrily consumed under the blankets, is the deepest and most resolute root in my connection to storytelling.

At 31, my dog-eared copy of The Golden Compass still sits on my bedside table, though now it’s accompanied by a stack of books about transformative justice and a binder of printed PDFs I’m reading for grad school. My Gameboy Color has been replaced by a Switch, but that’s there too - and I won’t lie, I do still play Pokemon - but in the twenty years since my middle school introduction to gaming, I’ve discovered a world of gorgeous, heartfelt indie games that have shifted my relationship to gaming, to art, to mental health, and especially to storytelling.

It was in this 31 year old version of my bedroom - dim lights now carefully curated so I don’t need to balance a small but bulky battery operated lamp to create that same sense of quiet intimacy - that I recently spent time with Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ).

In the language of games, KRZ is an indie, story-driven, point-and-click, adventure game - but to more accurately describe the project, you’d need to use the language of literature: parable, magic realism, tragedy, mystery, southern gothic, experimental fiction…

Under a soundtrack of bluegrass hymns, you navigate a small cast of characters through a linear (but not fully literal) story. It is at first centered around Conway, an aging delivery truck driver for an antique shop, struggling to find the location of his last delivery - but he slowly accumulates a small collection of wandering misfits, and you take on control (at least conversationally) of each, at one point or another. The game has no puzzles or challenges, no way to win or lose, and is incredibly text-heavy. It is primarily moved forward through dialog. Sometimes you decide answers about a character’s past, sometimes there are options that seem like poetic nonsense, sometimes it’s presented as more practical decision-making.

Much like the wandering characters, you wander through the plot, with the option to expand the space between the moments that drive it forward by examining every possibility for interaction and exploration. You can follow the directions to the highway - or you can make a wrong turn and sit at a drive-in movie theater for a while. The pacing reminds me of how I hike; tip-toeing off-trail, peering under every fern, using a macro lens clipped onto my iPhone to take closeup videos of bugs. It’s a pace that some of my friends find irritating, tagging along at the promise of a beautiful waterfall at the end, or to reach an arbitrary exercise quota, or whatever. I think we’re trained to be destination-bound, and it’s something I fight. The Google Maps app on my phone has “highways” perpetually set to “off”. The backroads are my friends. I meander.

Nothing has been placed in KRZ without intention, and a curiosity for this will benefit your depth of understanding of the characters and the environment - but will not alter the course of the story. In fact, the way you benefit from the game is more subtle: where in most games you gain an advantage from following directions and carrying out your mission, in KRZ you often miss small moments of beauty and connection if you set to your task at any faster than an amble. Who you are “meant” to talk to in order to move the plot along is often obvious - but at some point you have to realize, and then decide, that this is perhaps not the sole point.

This function of the gameplay actually becomes the primary criticism that I’ve seen of KRZ - that it does not challenge the player, and that your decisions do not impact the game’s narrative - which has led some critics to view their choices as “not meaningful”. For me, this misses not only an accurate understanding of where KRZ fits within game genres, but also misses everything KRZ is speaking to. The habit to half-consciously skip through dialog or cut scenes, and rush to “solve” a game has been taken away from us by its designers intentionally - to slow us down, to make us listen, to force us to give up some control, to question what it means to “win”, to hold some value in just appreciating words - and through these motives, to make a larger statement about what it is to be human (or, more specifically, what it is to be a human lost in the American South, literally and figuratively). Obviously, the game does challenge players, just maybe not how they’re expecting. In the dark empty/fullness of my bedroom, escaping but also surrounded by my work (my binder of PDFs for school is never far away) it’s the type of challenge I hunger for.

The way KRZ’s dialog functions - both the lack of impact on gameplay and the way that your spaces for input weave in and out of conversations, sometimes changing characters midway through so that “you” as one character are answering a question that “you” as another also asked - actually represents a type of autonomy for the characters. These stories are not ours. In fact, Conway, the man set up in the beginning to be your protagonist, isn’t even in the 5th and final “Act” of the game. We don’t know the end of his story. We aren’t entitled to it.

It’s a (sobering) reminder of how important, impactful people who we’ve connected with, and maybe even have a sense of ownership over - can drift into and out of our lives in reality. We don’t get to control them. We don’t always get a big finale rescue mission, or a tidy epilogue. Darkness is where we often locate these difficult subjects - the transitory nature of life, of relationships - the lack of control. But under my covers, KRZ makes these conversations with myself safe. They’re not fully mine, not fully not-mine.

In most games, the player takes on a puppet-master role, not quite god or self, but usually with full control (within the confines of the game). In KRZ you’re more of a collaborator. Sometimes you get to choose a line, sometimes you don’t. When you do get to select some text, your choices do not determine the fate of that character. Their fate is already set.

Whether or not we as people are fated is a common thread throughout the story - and maybe these frustrated critics’ misunderstanding of what the game really is, is also in part because KRZ’s designers don’t hit you over the head with their intent. The subject matter is heavy - medical trauma, addiction, grief, longing, exploitation - but it never feels so loud as to be contrived, or so burdened as to be hopeless. They create that soft space for dialog within yourself. Instead of shrieking about capitalism, they show you the damp moments of joy miners created for themselves deep under ground, in worker-solidarity. They give you a young boy whose family is an eagle, his human family absent. They take you to the suspiciously poetically titled “Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces”, which seemingly, at least partially, documents gentrification. The narrative feels like an American Odyssey - Conway’s road trip taking the place of Odysseus’ voyage. What becomes the American mythology, then, is debt, displacement, uncertainty, absence, the night. My 11 year old self’s copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths becomes the text scrolling by on my Switch, as if it were being typed out on an old computer. Both are my home.

Though, even within the idea of “home” in KRZ, there is a sense of quiet haunting - each character is grappling in their own way with a sense of displacement - whether home is somewhere they no longer recognize, have never felt, have left, are returning to, or are building. In fact, the only characters in the game who really have a set “home” live on a boat - still drifting along a river in underground caves. But this unrootedness is never made to feel unsafe, rather, it’s presented as the most natural thing there could be. A grounding.

In many ways, KRZ is a story about the sacredness of our constructed stories, and their location in this darkened space. The game is full of nods to this - in one of the very first scenes Conway encounters people (possibly actual ghosts) in a dark gas station basement, playing something adjacent to Dungeons & Dragons - the box tells them that you cannot win, it’s a tragedy. Later, there’s a group of scientists living in a cave, feeding a fire and working to preserve a seemingly doomed computer that’s covered in fungus, and runs a hypertext fiction. One of the “Interlude” stories (between the 5 “Acts”) is structured as a play, placing you uncomfortably between the dark audience and the stage light-lit actors - the scene set to nighttime at a bar.

The 11 year old version of me spent their nights in bed with a small clip lamp, reading His Dark Materials and playing Pokemon hours beyond my designated “bedtime” - the only instance where my purposeful noncompliance was deemed acceptable and not an unwelcome intrusion on my family’s put-together facade. At 31, every day I feel the echoes of having been allowed to exist in that space - of continuing to exist in that space - when my presence in every other space has felt complicated or heavy. My covers, these stories, their mine-ness, their not-mine-ness, the darkness, Conway’s glowing skeleton leg, the miners’ folk songs, the water lapping at a boat in an underground river - they’re all sacred.