The game industry has been focused on achieving the next big thing for most of its existence. From high-definition graphics to motion controls, developers often bank on whatever technological advancement is just around the corner. In this field, completely new ideas win the day. Independent developer, Cardboard Computer, has ignored these rules and created Kentucky Route Zero, a rich experience that celebrates remembrance.
Their appreciation of other art forms is apparent from the beginning. The game itself is separated into acts, the environments presented as sets on a stage. The aesthetic itself further attests to the influence of artists of the past: the scenery-design and camera staging draw obvious influence from 20th century set designers like Boris Aronson, a Russian-born set designer whose impressionist designs set the standard for such plays as Fiddler On the Roof and Cabaret. Certain environments are staged so that the scenery creates a proscenium arch, which is the rectangular frame around a stage in a traditional theater.
Character designs and animation find inspiration in artists from the modernist movement such as Oskar Fischinger, an abstract animator who pioneered the concept of modernist animation and musical animations. The creators of Kentucky Route Zero clearly felt a genuine appreciation for various artistic works, and this honest love continues to reveal itself in the music, with a mixture of electronic Ambient and classic Bluegrass combining surprisingly well to convey a haunting sonic landscape.
The game’s artistic influences don’t confine themselves to aesthetics. Despite being described as a “Magical Realist Adventure Game” there are no puzzles – a mechanic common to adventure games – to impede the flow of the story. The resulting effect is something literary. Unlike the passive experience of a movie, Kentucky Route Zero demands the active engagement of a book. With the press of a button, as with the turn of a page, a choice is made to further invest in what is otherwise a linear experience. This choice may seem intentionally counter-cultural, but it’s also the right choice. It strips down the barriers between the player and the dream-space that Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy have created.
Despite all this homage, the game is not reduced to a pastiche. There are moments that remind us we are playing a video game. There are echos of Monkey Island in the dialogue choices when branching trees come back to the same planned response, allowing the player to impart their own individual flair to the experience without derailing the story. There are stripped-down versions of quests and even an over-world of sorts that is used to move between scenes. All of these parts combine into a seamless whole that becomes meditative when played without a break. You lose a sense of outside space and feel yourself drawn into this world. The interface passes away and all that remains is Conrad, the music of the night, and that old dog.
Narratively, Kentucky Route Zero is a ghost story. We travel through places that clearly are not inhabited by only the rational things of the world. The entire experience is infused with a kind of spiritual outlook, with any attempt to rationally explain the things that take place resulting in a dissonance that is almost Lynchian in its scope. As the lovely Bedquilt Ramblers play ”This World is Not My Home” there’s an uncontrollable urge to stop and listen. It is not used, as is very common these days, to affect a sense of Southern Gothic horror or irony. This is a backwoods hymn, and it is sung with a genuine feeling and earnestness. For a moment, you understand why people spent their days singing these songs.
At its core, Kentucky Route Zero is about rediscovery, of adventure-game mechanics and modernist aesthetics, of a more spiritual outlook on the physical world. In the hands of a lesser developer the overt referencing of artistic styles, lack of challenging mechanics, and intentionally moody story could have resulted in something boring or campy but Cardboard Computer’s Freshman effort is a work of inspired brilliance. For those experiencing the game in isolation it is a mesmerizing trek through a world of depth and character. For those with an in-depth knowledge of other creative mediums, it becomes an exercise in un-ironic appreciation, with a sentimentality for what has passed, and a contentment in seeing it as part of our creative history.