A Modern Literary Masterpiece
- this article will contain minor plot spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero -
I have tried to verbalise the astonishing genius of Kentucky Route Zero for a long time now, but with every attempt I arrive at the exact same problem: Kentucky Route Zero defies any attempt to categorise it, but it is invariably a masterpiece in whatever medium I end up defining it as. It's a video game, at least nominally. You push buttons, you move characters, you save and quit and start again tomorrow, but it’s not a game. Not really.
In actuality, Kentucky Route Zero is a work of literature; a fictional phone line; a work of transcendent imagination that constantly shifts into new mediums, perfecting each one as it cycles from point-and-click Lucasarts adventure to interactive poetry. I've had to ruminate on it's content for six months, trying to understand its message and meaning. When I finished it for the first time, I was even disappointed, but as more and more time passes it becomes ever clearer to me that this is a work of magnificent design. It is storytelling at its most mesmerisingly malleable, and yet however you construe its characteristics, it remains both an entirely compelling experience, and what Laura Hudson has aptly identified as perhaps the next great American novel.
In an international landscape still irreparably scarred by the greed of Wall Street and the Great Recession of 2008, this game emerges as perhaps the most essential work of art to encapsulate the political and economic environment sparked by that immense failure of capitalism. Kentucky Route Zero is a ghost story, finding its feet in the whispers and apparitions of vanished prosperity. It's a depiction of economic wreckage, but interspliced with magic realism and Greek tragic form, both only intensifying the identifiable reality of the text's subject matter.
In KRZ Kentucky's coal mines have closed. Its factories are abandoned: all industry has either succumbed to the never-ending march of late-capitalist monopolisation, or it has ceased to be. But, beneath the ruins of 'free market thinking,' a new community is constructing itself, attempting to escape the tendrils of ruthless financial enterprise. Deep in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, a supernatural highway extends underneath a desolate above-ground. Traversing 'The Zero', that magical route twisting in the caverns of the Rust Belt, the game tells its story with indescribable effectiveness, encountering all of the poverty and suffering inflicted by America's systemic inequalities along your adventures underground.
Enter you, as Conway: a delivery driver searching for a mysteriously unfindable address. Enter you, as Shannon: a TV repairwoman. Enter you, as a homeless child; a local television station showrunner; a transient musician. What immediately becomes clear in KRZ's defiant rejection of American neo-liberalism is essential to understanding how capitalism itself must be opposed. There is no single protagonist to this story, instead, there is community. A collective, unified by exploitation and economic suffering engineered by the inherent corruption of foul profiteering, travelling through KRZ's magic realism.
It's a story about medical debts, wage-slavery, corporate greed and the exploitation of the American working class. At its core, Kentucky Route Zero holds a narrative entirely inseparable from the long, painful tapestry that modern capitalistic systems have weaved. It is a parable about how communities pick up the pieces, continue the legacies and re-start the revolutions after those that lit their torches in the past, pass.
In truth, Kentucky Route Zero is an experience that feels almost cynically targeted at my exact interests and obsessions. Through all the whispered tones of forgotten Appalachian voices and an astonishing commitment to over a millennia of dramatic form and the stylistic conventions of writing unique to the world of late-stage American capitalism, there aren't many combinations more appealing to an English literature graduate from King's College London. Released over a period of seven years, KRZ is a five act interactive play dedicated to surreality and an exploration of painfully truthful economic suffering. It's a reflection of the past, invoking Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost and Arthur Miller in the construction of a quite defiantly atemporal Gothic South, but it is also a folk tale, rooted firmly in an American landscape disintegrated by the 2008 financial crash, and the malignant exploitations of workers under the insidious wickedness of capitalism and the monopolies it inevitably enables.
The game is an experience of startling imagination, punctuated by moments of indescribably transcendent genius, and its most immediately notable in how developers Cardboard Computer made this game sound. The songs of a bluegrass trio parallel a Greek chorus, presiding over this tragedy with all the weight of an Aeschylus or Eurepides. Intensely industrial synth waves decimate headphones while sitting down at a simulated CRT monitor. But amongst the relentless perfection of this (*three person*) games studio, there are certain sections that catapult Kentucky Route Zero forward as, quite possibly, the greatest game of its generation.
I've been hesitant to reveal my favourite moments of this game while (unsuccessfully) hoping to convince my friends to play it. This is a project of inconceivable ambition, that somehow succeeds with every medium it experiments with. Between each Act, a free downloadable interlude stitches together the mystical reality that KRZ revels in, ranging from an art exhibit to watching a community-run tv station broadcast through a thunderstorm. But even between these multi-media deviations of ambitious creativity, there stands one moment so unexpectedly meaningful, that it would be a oversight not to mention it here.
Between the crushing financial strains that plague each of the game's chapters, hope is rarely encountered. Joy? Even less so. But with one moment, Kentucky Route Zero was elevated beyond anything I thought it was capable of. Act III introduces Johnny and Junebug, a musical duo travelling the roads of Kentucky having unshackled themselves from the corporate responsibilities they were designed for. They're late for a performance at some roadside dive bar, empty having given up on the thought of the two ever actually arriving. The establishment is populated only by the rag-tag collection of characters assembled by the chance encounters of the game, but sitting back in expectation of another tuneful rendition of folksy Americana, Kentucky Route Zero played its hand. Headphones on, sat in the dark of my room, suddenly the ceiling parted. Synthesisers materialised. The music began, as lyrical options faded in from the atmosphere. The song, like the game itself, announces itself through collaboration. The boundaries of individualism shattered as KRZ invites you to participate, choosing the lyrics as Junebug recites them in real-time. The result was indescribable:
A moment like that has stayed with me, even now several months on. Though the story weaves its way through fantastical scenes and immediately recognisable dioramas of 21st century income inequality, in these brief, transcendent experiences like KRZ's hypnotic musical performance, the developers demonstrate just how cutting-edge the project is. What's shocking then, is that this moment of genius is no isolated occurrence.
I will not ruin anymore of the game's surprises, I have promised myself not to, but there sits in between chapters 2 and 3 of KRZ an entire one-act play. Viewed in first person as one of the actors on stage, this performance (lasting a full forty minutes) struck me as one of the most clever uses of interactivity I've ever encountered in games. With each of the interludes downloadable for free, its an excellent way to see what KRZ has to offer, and the phenomenal quality of its writing. It is a Waiting for Godot homage, certainly, only fuelling the affections of impressionable literature graduates like myself further, but it is one that itself could be performed as an excellent stage production. It's a play, within a game. KRZ did not need to do this, but they did it anyway, and they did it with spectacular success.
But that's what Kentucky Route Zero is. It is an interactive Ravana of endless creative faces, each one a perfect encapsulation of the potential that each of its mediums can excel at. It is a parable of community and capitalism, and the role magical realist fiction has to play in understanding the world we inhabit. It is a game, but not like one I'd ever played before. This wasn't Grim Fandango, Night in the Woods, or Witcher 3. This was a new kind of masterpiece, and one that, like The Witness, might have reinvented the wheel in terms of what I thought video games could achieve as an art form. It is, and I mean this in all sincerity, one of the most well-realised pieces of 21st century literature that I have encountered so far, and could well be the defining representation of the conflict between community and these 'once in a generation' failures of capitalism that appear to be happening with increasing regularity. Even months after finishing the game, KRZ remains firmly at the front of my mind, and I can only hope that what comes next can be as prescient, imaginative and compelling as what is quickly becoming one of my favourite games of all time.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.