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The Weirdness of Kentucky Route Zero

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In my last post, I took issue with the TV show Mr. Robot for not being weird enough. Although imaginative and compelling, its universe is well-ordered: everything happens for a reason.
If you’re looking for media to consume that doesn’t suffer from that problem, I recommend Kentucky Route Zero.
I previously discussed Kentucky Route Zero (KR0 for short) in the context of the first Trump-Clinton debate. It’s relevant to that because it’s a tour through coal-country America, and it engages with the desolation there that’s fueling Trump’s support.
As a portrait of the region, it’s a Picasso or maybe a Goya, not a Velázquez. It has moments where it approaches documentary realism, but it mostly traverses an imaginary landscape reflecting its creators’ perceptions, inspired by their real-life travels in Kentucky.
KR0’s medium is a computer game, but “game” is misleading. There’s no element of skill. It has the interface of an adventure game, but unlike other games in that genre, your progression through the story isn’t blocked by puzzles to solve. Rather, it’s more like a work of interactive fiction. The story is mainly told through dialogue, though the soundtrack and visuals are important pieces of the experience.
The medium is appropriate: it makes a better game than it would a book or a tv show. The ambition seems to be to create a world, and the ability to explore it freely is important. There’s a narrative, but the world is alive beyond the narrative, and there’s a lot to discover outside the main plot.
The three-person studio that produced KR0, Cardboard Computer, has been trying to erase the lines between their fictional universe and the real one. They’ve released a number of companion pieces to the game, including an experience for Occulus Rift or Mac / PC where you participate as a cast member of a fictional 1973 production of a one-act play. The play appears to depict events that occur in a bar a few hours before the character you play in KR0 visits the bar in the game, but the fictional set designer for the 1973 production — ie, a real person in the production’s fictional reality — is also a character in KR0. In case that wasn’t confusing enough, you can buy a print copy of the script, published under the name of the fictional author.
It’s not a bad play, either. As the script advertises, “The one-act play “A Reckoning,” set in a tavern in central Kentucky, is Doolittle’s take on the sort of barroom tragedy made popular by O’Neill, Gorky, etc.”, and I would say it stands on its own as a piece of theater, although the ending will have more resonance if you’ve played through KR0.
This almost pedantic accumulation of fictional detail, both inside and outside the game — names, biographies, places, events — lends believability and power to KR0’s magical realist plot-line. Because the production team took such great pains to create verisimilitude, the more fantastic elements of the game feel justified: hauntings, strange and implausible creatures, a whiskey company whose employees are all glowing skeletons, and the titular Route 0, a hidden underground highway through non-euclidean space.
The game’s plot is simple and unobtrusive compared to the sprawling, strange world it is set in. Conway, a truck driver for an antiques store, is trying to make a delivery to Dogwood Drive, a street that doesn’t show up on his maps. As he looks for it, he picks up some traveling companions, and we learn more about his and their pasts. KR0 isn’t complete yet —the game is divided into five acts, and final one hasn’t been released — so I don’t know yet if Conway ever makes it to his destination. In fact, I still don’t know what he’s delivering, or to whom.
As a player, the main way you exert agency is through your choice of dialogue options. Unusually for adventure-style games, your dialogue choices don’t seem to affect the plot. Rather, they affect the past: you can give the characters different backstories, influence their temperaments, change how they see the world and treat each other. It’s a limited degree of freedom: I haven’t flexed the game aggressively to see how divergent you can make it, but my understanding is that the basic outline of who the characters are always remains the same. It’s more of a matter of altering the shadings.
The net effect of the simple plot, the strange, expansive world, and the freedom to emphasize and explore different aspects of the characters is that playing the game doesn’t feel like you’re being told a story, with themes and a moral. Rather, it feels more like an invitation to you, the player, to interpret what you’re confronted with. The game gives you a lot of details to work with, and powerful images and emotions, but leaves you to decide what to think about it all.
At its heart, I think Kentucky Route Zero is a meditation on entropy. Certainly, entropy is the unifying characteristic of the game world. KR0’s setting is a Kentucky that’s been devastated by the collapse of the coal industry and by the 2008 housing crisis. Everything you encounter is in some state of falling apart. The gas station you refuel at has overdue electric bills. The bar can’t buy alcohol any more. The coal mine is abandoned. Conway’s dog looks like she’s seen better days. All the characters have various stories of poverty, alcoholism, loss, and debt.
Entropy has different facets. There are many different stances that one can take towards it. KR0 seems to explore each of them in turn, weighing them, inviting you to partake.
The most basic stances are the emotional ones: despair, grief, and anger. There’s certainly plenty of that throughout the game. In one particularly powerful moment, you come across a memorial for coal miners who drowned when some tunnels were flooded in an accident a decade or so ago. The memorial is a collection of hard-hats floating in an underground lake, accompanied by an angry, hand-written sign accusing the mining company of negligence. In another moment, you meet a team of engineers who spent their lives trying to build a computer system (called Xanadu, presumably a reference to the real world could-have-been internet competitor), who are now just sitting around hopelessly, having given up on ever completing their lives’ work.
Another stance is simple momentum: keeping going on as long as you can. One character you meet is a switchboard technician, the last one on her team after all her coworkers were laid off by the phone company automating the systems. They couldn’t quite automate her, so she keeps plugging away, alone in a tunnel, connecting call after call. There’s also a church, relocated to a warehouse by some beauracrats, where the congregation all drifted away, the preacher left, and now it’s just a janitor who puts on pre-recorded sermons every Sunday.
Entropy and grief can also give rise to beauty. KR0 has plenty of beautiful moments too. The game has a gorgeous soundtrack, mixing electronic music and ambience with bluegrass classics. The bluegrass pieces, performed by a mysterious wandering trio who occasionally wander across your path, are all explorations of loss and hardship, transmuted into folk songs and hymns. The visual palette of the game is mixture of blues and oranges, mostly subdued and minimalist, but occasionally spectacular. Everything has a satisfying organic, analog feel. Radio systems crackle, televisions hum, computers react to strange magnetic fluctuations.
Yet another approach to entropy is to consume and exploit it. At various points in the game, you encounter modern, structured institutions, that are in the process of channeling the breakdown toward their own ends. There’s a whiskey distillery that’s steadily acquiring the balance sheets and souls of the folks you meet. You get to take a tour of its expansive, industrially-clean factory in an amazing descent-into-hell sequence that feels like Dante meets OSHA. The local power company also seems to be on the march. There are also more highbrow institutions consuming the entropy. For instance, you visit the “Bureau of Reclaimed Space”, which seems to represent government, taking in weirdness and outputting paperwork. In another interlude, you find an entire town that’s been transplanted to be inside a museum, the residents still living in their houses, enclosed in a giant glass warehouse.
Somewhat related to high-brow consumption, there’s intellectualization of entropy. KR0 has a steady stream of references to academia. You meet a number of characters who have spent time in the grad student / post-doc limbo space, and there’s a lot of art and math jargon. From an academic perspective, entropy is a source of phenomena to record, analyze, and write papers about — hopefully publishable ones. This content is a reflection of the game itself, which in many ways feels like a modern art project. KR0 is obsessed with topology and imaginary spaces. Characters muse about space aloud, and as you move around the game, you explore a number of different spaces and means of navigating them: a driving map of Kentucky as navigated by truck, the same map as navigated by a bird, a bureaucratic office building where you ride an elevator up and down, a pure mathematical abstraction that you traverse by turning around at certain symbols, an endless underground river where you are swept along on a boat, among others. This self-conscious exploration invites you to see the entropy in KR0’s world as something to think about and study.
Finally, entropy gives rise to newness: the inadvertent creativity of random processes. Two of the more memorable characters you meet are a pair of androids that, in their telling, emerged from the mines as shapeless lumps, and transformed themselves into a pair of motorcycle-riding musicians, who are now releasing an album outside the game. Abandoned things in KR0 tend to take on a life of their own. A hobo sets up shop as an organist in a church converted into an office building. A failing restaurant turns itself around financially via a chance encounter with some divers who accidentally inspire the chef to create a bizarre, infinitely long menu of seafood from the depths. A child who lost his family befriends a giant eagle. Dig into any corner of KR0’s world, and there’s signs of life amidst the desolation… strange, random, unplanned life.
Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t settle into any one of these interpretations of entropy. It’s not a dirge, or a rant, or a hymn, or beautiful painting, or an essay, or a story of rebirth, but rather its something of all of them, and not quite any of them. It’s expansive, and powerful, and really really weird.
The best explanation I’ve found for what it’s about comes from a Ribbonfarm blog post called Speak Weirdness to Truth. The post doesn’t mention KR0, but it inadvertently provides an aesthetic theory that sums it for me. It’s an attempt to define weirdness as a mental state: “by my account and understanding of it, weirdness is not so much a feeling as that state of not knowing what to feel.” Weirdness is a “state of emotional indeterminacy.” The whole article is worth a read, but I’ll quote the key chunk:
Ambiguity is not being sure which interpretation of a situation is the correct one. But you’re fairly sure the situation is covered by the set of mental models in play. It’s either a duck or a rabbit, or some deliberately ambiguated thing in between.
Uncertainty is not having all the relevant data to flesh out a picture, but you’re fairly sure you get the picture itself. It’s a stock market, and with high probability, the stock will go down, but you don’t know how far and how soon. That’s uncertainty. You’re not trying to decide whether it is a duck in a rabbit warren or a stock in a stock market.
Weirdness though…
Weirdness is a deeper sense that you are encountering the truly unknown-unknown. Chances are you cannot even sort out what part is ambiguous and what part is uncertain.
Entropy is a lot of things, but above all, entropy is weird, precisely in the sense that the Ribbonfarm post describes. Things that were taken for granted —an economic and societal order of things, in the case of KR0’s Kentucky — have broken down. Old categories no longer apply. There’s a lot of noise, as things break and decay. Some of that noise is just noise. Some of that noise will turn into new patterns, and some of those new patterns might become important. But we don’t know which are which, or how to feel about all of it. Do we grieve? Do we laugh?
KR0 is rare as a piece of media in that it stares into the heart of that unknown unknown. It allows the human reactions to occur — it expresses the anger, it processes the grief, it appreciates the beauty — but then it gives you an extended discourse on varieties of medicinal fungi, or the habits of underground cave bats.
At one point in the game, a character talks about her love for the static between radio stations (Static Between Stations is also the name of the preview track for the upcoming android-produced album). It’s an appropriate sentiment to sum up the game as a whole. Most of human civilization is about finding the signal in the noise: processing entropy, sorting the useful from the useless, drawing boundaries and building walls. Kentucky Route Zero lets all that go. In its universe, the noise is the signal.

Written by jphaas

October 15th, 2016 at 5:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized