Kentucky Route Zero – Folklore and Ghost Stories

by Michael Tucker

Kentucky Route Zero is an unusual type of genre story, but it is one perfectly suited for the classic adventure game mold. I don’t know whether it’s more apt to associate its narrative with magical realism or to just think of it as a modern folklore game infused with ghost stories. What I do know is that Kentucky Route Zero uses an old genre of game to portray an image of an older America and it combines this with a presentation only possible with modern software and the freedom of indie games. All this comes together to tell a genuinely unique story that manages to spark the imagination as much as any piece of written fiction or film.

Despite the era of America’s history that KRZ clearly tries to evoke, everything about the design and presentation of this game is absolutely modern. This mishmash in no way feels like a cheap appeal to nostalgia, but rather it exemplifies how perfectly balanced these two contrasting mentalities within the game have been crafted together. The protagonist, Conway, may be designed like a barely-polygonal Superbrothers style of character but he still immediately reads like an old Southern truck driver in his beige work clothes and literal blue collar. When he talks, there’s no throwback to traditional quirky videogame dialog but instead there’s only the strained silence and carefully chosen words of a man who spends most of his time in a truck with his dog. Each character in this game looks, feels, and speaks in an equally real and world-weary manner and though you barely get much time to know any of them they are each so well constructed that you still know who they are.

If there is one thing that Kentucky Route Zero is about moreso than story, it’s atmosphere. It is in this area especially that it excels in a way that is simply not possible outside of games. The game’s visuals have a striking sense of design that at times feels clearly three dimensional and at other times the scenes feel strongly like orthographic 2D constructions. More often than not individual scenes will go back and forth between a flat presentation and revelations of dimension and each time it’s a very satisfying surprise. Beyond that, the scripted events and triggers in every scene do more to add to the immersion of the landscape than anything possible in non-interactive mediums. Without spoiling too many of the games surprises, catching glimpses of spirits in flickering lights and listening to old radios in complete darkness are situations that are made all the more spooky because each time it is you, the player, who has to choose to trigger them. The lazy camera movements and borderline sublime sound design of this game help to round off the presentation of this fictional-yet-familiar world, but like many other elements of the game it makes little sense write about them as they are meant to be experienced firsthand.

Every design choice in this game is fitting for the medium and though the framework of this type of story is very old, I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced in this way before. It’s not often I’m smitten with highbrow indie games. I tend to interpret them as being too pretentious to be fun games or feel they follow too many cliche videogame tropes to be particularly insightful. Kentucky Route Zero stands apart from most other titles in that it focuses on little more than telling its own particular story in its own particular way and that’s created a manner of storytelling that feels a bit different from anything I’ve experienced before.

Kentucky Route Zero Homepage