For more on Kentucky Route Zero, read Ryan Smith’s interview with the game’s writer and designer, Jake Elliott.
The rural South—according to the narrative of many reality television shows—is a land of Wal-Marts, quaint diners, and downscale homes owned by honest, unironic folk who are blissfully free of the pretensions of city life. The gator wranglers and beauty pageant contestants of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, Moonshiners, and other quasi-scripted docu-dramas are real people. But they feel like performance artists playing cornpone characters in a Sarah Palin fantasy of “real America,” a place somehow devoid of the social problems, like poverty and substance abuse, that plague the real South.
This popular brand of aw-shucks oversimplification may be why Kentucky Route Zero strikes me as more honest and human about its depiction of the South, despite its journey through a surreal world that includes an underground secret highway and a prosthetic limb factory. The unnamed rural Kentucky area presented in the game’s first act (four more episodes will be released in coming months) is defined by its duality: ingratiating yet unknowable, modern yet historical, grounded yet steeped in the supernatural.
There’s a difference between honesty and realism, though, and Kentucky Route Zero is hardly a documentary. It’s set in a dark, nearly empty nightscape with a dream-like quality that shrouds many of its images in mystery. People appear and disappear like ghostly apparitions. Conversations with strangers can twist in unexpected directions. A bluegrass band croons a song in the middle of nowhere.
You play as Conway, an antique-delivery driver who can’t seem to find the location of 5 Dogwood Drive for his last delivery of the day. The game begins with a stop at Equus Oils, where Conway asks directions from the gas station’s owner. In response, the owner waxes poetic about the broken circuit that has left him without power. And he rather casually lets slip that the way to reach your final destination is a hidden highway called “The Zero.” From there you spend the rest of the episode either hunting for Route Zero or roaming around roadside attractions both on and off the beaten path.
The places you go and the characters you meet exude old-fashioned Southern hospitality, but they mask a sense of well-worn hardship. You learn secondhand the backstory of one central character, an eccentric mathematician who fled her house out of exasperation with her family’s crippling debt. The old mine, once the economic engine of the town, is now haunted with tragedy. Almost every object—a wobbly truck, a rabbit-eared television—feels like a relic stubbornly hanging on for life. The people feel that way, too.
The structure keeps the player off-balance. At times, it’s a point-and-click affair where you navigate shadowy caves with your mouse. Then it switches to a text-only interface without warning and prompts you to explore with only written descriptions to direct you. To access a locked computer, you don’t guess a password but rather compose a short poem, line by line. Most jarring of all, the game occasionally changes into the perspective of another character and forces you to pick several different dialogue choices for someone you know nothing about.
Reality shows in the Hillbilly Handfishin’ vein are like a meal at Denny’s. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you sit in front of it for a half-hour: folksy sayings, contrived drama, and gee-ain’t-that-strange depictions of Southern life, set to twangy music. But in Kentucky Route Zero, the people, places, and even the overall structure of the game are as complex and unpredictable as the South itself.