Wiki Commons
Kelsey Tabbert
Dec 16, 2015 · 17 min read

In this piece I will discuss modernist literary themes in the indie video game Kentucky Route Zero and how those concepts can be enhanced by interactive play.

An Introduction

There is a lot going on in Cardboard Computer’s video game Kentucky Route Zero which, if you haven’t played, is a point and click adventure game with strong American themes and beautiful twists of magic realism. From my first experience with the game I felt the buzz to write, create, or analyze; yet, it was hard pinpointing where to begin. As a game that uses predominately text based story telling, I was interested in how KRZ roots itself in classic American lit. I came to realize that its roots reach out even farther still: to James Joyce, to Joseph Conrad… I wondered, what happens when literature becomes interactive and what can we learn from the result?

In KRZ you play as Conway, an older gentleman who drives a delivery truck for Lysette’s Antiques. As the game begins, Conway is on his way to make his last delivery and ends up at a gas station called Equus Oils looking for directions to 5 Dogwood Drive. He is told that to get there he must take the mysterious, and often difficult to find, Route Zero.

Robert Frost

When I was replaying Act I, I came across a particular interaction that stimulated my curiosity. If you go back to Equus Oils after Conway’s meeting with Marquez, you meet an eccentric man named Carrington who has created a theatrical rendition of Robert Frost’s poem “Death of the Hired Man” (read it here, or listen to Frost read it for you).

Robert Frost — found at Wiki Commons

It suddenly hit me that even though I’m an English major, the extent of my Frost knowledge was “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I’m pretty sure I read both my freshman year of college, but I find them very hazy now. So shamefully, I took to google and read this Frost poem for the first time.

The poem revolves around a kind of deadbeat laborer named Silas. He isn’t a good or bad person really, just a lost soul. The married couple in the poem, Mary and Warren, have hired and been disappointed by Silas too many times to count. Now he has come back to them, back to the only home he knows, to die. Mary has pity for him, Warren is pessimistic about the situation, but neither can turn him away. At the end, Warren goes to speak to Silas and finds him already dead.

This Frost poem gave me a whole new perspective on KRZ’s story and the purpose of its narrative. I mean, Conway is so obviously Silas, and Lysette and her husband Ira are clearly stand-ins for Mary and Warren. What happens to “Death of the Hired Man” when it’s told from the perspective of Silas? Silas, stuck between his desire for home and his inherent rootlessness.

(A really quick note: The game is coming out in parts. It currently consists of three acts, but there are two more that haven’t been released. Cardboard Computer is an indie company run by three regular guys, which is pretty inspiring. That being said, my focus will be on the first three acts.)

The World.

One of the coolest things about Kentucky Route Zero, in my opinion, is its use of magic realism. Magic realism is a lit genre that alters the rules of a realistic world, making those rules the new norm (no matter how odd). One way to think about this is that KRZ is a version of “Death of the Hired Man” where rather than a reader, we have a player — meaning, this is a version of Frost’s world that can be interacted with by an outside force, changed to fit a certain perception. The result is a narrative that feels a lot like a lucid dream for the player. We know this is not our normal world, all we can do is move forward. Interestingly enough, in “Death of the Hired Man,” Mary reflects on Silas’ past working days like this:

Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream. You wouldn’t think they would. How some things linger!

She also says that Silas “jumbled everything” as if he were “talking in his sleep.” Mary is outside of Silas’ perspective, so are we as readers, but Kentucky Route Zero does away with that by simply existing in a different medium — inherently, a game requires a player. This leads me to wonder: does KRZ exist in the limbo between life and death? The moments between Mary settling Silas in the kitchen and Warren finding him dead? If so, it would make sense that in the game the perspective switch manifests itself through Conway/Silas’s abstracted perception of time and place.

This abstraction is part of KRZ’s ‘new norm’, like I mentioned earlier. This affects how the player interacts with the world and is referred to as the game’s mechanics. Kentucky Route Zero is a point and click game, meaning you point to what you want to interact with and click the mouse button to do so. Besides being a point and click, KRZ has text based choices for the player to make— these are the game’s basic mechanics.

The idea behind a choice based game, usually, is that the player chooses their own unique narrative and ending. KRZ’s choices are different in that they don’t pretend to change destiny, only that they establish the player’s interpretation of Conway, which often involves a piece of ourselves as players. In an odd way, we either create Mary’s Silas (lost, sensitive, flawed but good) or Warren’s Silas (closed off, one sided, flawed and unwilling to change). Conway will sometimes have memories of his old boss Ira (who represents Warren from Frost’s poem). In a moment like this the player chooses how Conway reflects on the memory — was Ira too hard, needing to relax or was he a good man who just wanted the best out of Conway? The player will also force Conway to reflect on his alcoholism which is hinted at consistently throughout the game — is the whiskey spilled on the side of the road a mess or a waste? These reflections that Conway has through the player are balanced by moments where the character is given no chance to reflect at all, in these moments the player is on their own exploring a world that reflects Conway’s mind. Whether we’re conscious of it as we play or not, we are trying to unravel the mystery of Conway — just as Mary and Warren try to understand Silas.

The Open Road.

Screenshot. Fig 1.

The open road is a huge key of American lit. The ‘road’ is the only place Huck and Jim can cultivate a friendship and escape the racist ideology of their homes in Mark Twain’s classic novel Huck Finn, and far into the future when there’s no where left to explore on Earth, the open road extends itself out into the far reaches of space with Star Trek. It’s all about exploration, freedom — and KRZ’s traveling mechanic gets at this major theme in a really effective way. When the player wants to move to a new location they must go to Conway’s truck and select that they want to leave. This will pull up a road map which the player can navigate, a tire icon spinning around as they travel highways and back roads. Cooler still, when your icon pulls onto the thick white line labeled Highway 65 you will hear the sounds of many cars racing past you, honking occasionally. When you pull off, onto let’s say Raider Hill Road, the traffic noises fade away into chirping crickets and the hum of your truck as you drive. The sound design immerses you in the idea of the road, better connecting the player to Conway’s mind set.

If you do explore the area you’ll find fascinating sites: an artificial limb factory, a dinner that’s pitch black inside, a church that’s empty save for the tape recorder playing the same two verses of “Come to the light ’tis shining for thee” over and over. Eventually though, you’ll run out of places to explore and you will be forced to get back to the task at hand. Just like in reality, the open road will cease to exist. The player will discover that there are roads they aren’t allowed to get on and that the edge of the map fades away. The set up of a game like this one mimics the life of Silas — it says that eventually there is no where left to wander, eventually you must settle into place.

Screenshot. Fig 2.

As the game progresses though, the rules of the road change. In the limbo created by the mysterious Route Zero, and perhaps by Conway’s own mind, the road becomes an infinite circle. Okay, so maybe it isn’t truly infinite, our game designers are only human after all. But it sure does feel like the road could go on forever, each strange and abstract location you pass becomes another and another, despite that fact that you’re traveling around the same circle. As you can see from the difference between fig 1 and fig 2, the road also changes from 2D to 3D. The transformation we have here of the standard style road map into the endless circle gives us a way of heavily differentiating between Frost’s Silas and Cardboard Computer’s Conway. While the two characters represent the same themes and perceptions, they do so in different literary eras.

While Frost took inspiration from Romantic poetry and a lot of his works were quite different from those of his contemporaries (Pound, Eliot, and Stevens for example), he is still widely considered a modernist writer. Modernism is kind of hard to describe, it has several subcategories in poetry and fiction (like imagism and impressionism) and in the hands of different writers can be separated between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ modernism. Hard modernism has a focus on the image of emotion rather than the emotion itself, placing the reader in a moment and painting that image with prose — Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would be a good example. On the other hand, something like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse would be a good representation of soft modernism because it has a focus on people and interactions in order to depict emotion. Often the two blend together, but sometimes they can feel distinctly different. I’m personally inclined to see “Death of the Hired Man” as being more soft modernism because of its focus on interaction between Mary and Warren.

Kentucky Route Zero, unlike Frost’s poem, exists in a world of magic realism which abstracts reality in order to depict it more truthfully. This is a very different technique compared to that of the modernist writers. Thus, the mechanics and design of each road map gives the player the feeling that the worlds are separate. This allows the player to interact with two different literary eras, understanding their intricate traits and differences — perhaps, without even realizing it. And in the reversal, understanding these types of literature can broaden our perspectives on the games we play.

James Joyce

While exploring the original 2D map in the first act of the game, the player may stumble upon a place called Museum. Sometimes you can enter a landmark visually, in which case the player can move around, other times the scene is described to the player and the interactions take place textually — the museum is the latter experience. At the center of the main room is an open book resting on a table. There are strange things in this museum that pertain to Conway, referring to the past and future of the game, as well as Conway’s hinted alcoholism:

Conway looks at the book. There’s no title on the book’s spine or cover. A three-word phrase written in pencil on the first page is smudged and indecipherable. On the first page, someone has left an ink drawing of a horse. Several dozen blank pages later, at the end of the book, is an elaborate ink drawing of a one-legged man working an antique adding machine, surrounded my whiskey bottles.

James Joyce — found at Wiki Commons

The smudged words, the unknown artist, the blank pages, the visual experience with no visuals— Derevaun Seraun, I thought. This is an Irish Gaelic phrase James Joyce uses in his short story “Eveline” (read it here, or listen to a librivox recording), a phrase that has become so corrupt that it has an incredible amount of translations but practically no meaning.

Eveline, Joyce’s main character, lives her life passively, unhappy with the life she’s been dealt. She is caught between staying to play the role of wife to her widower father or leave with the young sailor Frank to a life unknown. Toward the end of the story Eveline has a memory of her mother lying on her death bed, the woman repeats “Derevaun Seraun” over and over again. Joyce gives no personal translation here and doesn’t tell us what Eveline believes either. A quick google search will get you some meaning, likely: “at the end of pleasure is pain.” Eveline expects death bed wisdom, some great truth that will tell her what decision to make. As readers, we want that too! But what we get is garbled Gaelic we can’t understand or an over-translated phrase that we want to force meaning into.

Isn’t this sort of a version of what’s happening in the above passage from Kentucky Route Zero?

Narration.

In my Robert Frost analysis I talked about the difference between a reader and player experience, as well as how that effects story telling. The museum encounter and Joyce’s “Eveline” both used text based narration — a section of KRZ that comes across novel-ish in its lack of reflective choice making. The interesting story bits in this section are for the player to reflect on, not Conway. Like a novel, the player is being told things and the only real choice they have is to stop reading/exploring. The main difference here is that text based narration is inherent of the novel, while KRZ makes a choice.

In “Eveline” Joyce makes choices too, like giving us “Derevaun Seraun” rather than telling us the mother shouted something in Gaelic. He gives us something specific over something vague. We can see the words, there’s something we can seek out as readers if we really want to better understand the story. “Derevaun Seraun,” while incredibly ambiguous and unknowable, still exists as rootless language.

The actual existence and meaning of the museum is not nearly as clear. In KRZ we get the vague over the specific, for example the “three word phrase,” which is written in pencil (perhaps the least permanent mainstream writing tool), is the equivelent of Joyce saying Eveline’s mother shouted something in Gaelic over writing “Derevaun Seraun.” The text in the book is apparently clear enough that three individual words can be picked out, but the narration decides for us that the three words are indecipherable. And it goes even further still by putting illustrations in the almost-blank book, none of which can actually be seen. The horse drawing probably refers to Equus Oils, the structure of which is shaped like a giant horse head sticking out of the ground. The next drawing (many blank pages later) is of Conway, which we know because of the references to the antiques adding machine, whiskey bottles, and the missing leg (which he he loses and gets replaced in Act III). Is that where our story will end when Acts IV and V come out? Can we change the outcome? Who is the author of this future-seeing book? Is this odd museum of Conway’s life real or a figment of his imagination? Does any of it actually matter in the end or are we just looking for answers that don’t exist?

Role Playing.

At the end of Joyce’s story, Eveline is left ungrounded — one moment believing her mother’s words mean she should go with Frank and escape Ireland, the next moment staring Frank blankly in the eyes as she would a stranger, unable to leave. Does the book in the museum provide us with some answer? or just the illusion of answer, like Eveline? What’s interesting is that in KRZ, it’s the player and not Conway who suffers this similar ungrounding. This is what a game can do that literature can’t. A reader may relate to Eveline, feel her struggle in some intimate way, but they’re still separate from her.

This kind of role playing, one where you don’t get to customize your own character, forces you to perform a role that is already at least semi-established. This both limits you to a set of choices Conway would make based on who he is, while also broadening the experience by giving you a set of choices you may not have even thought to pick otherwise. The game even draws attention to this quality at the beginning of the narrative when you enter the basement of Equus Oils and find a small group of table top RPG playing ghosts who lose their twenty sided die. Yet, as a friend recently pointed out to me, Kentucky Route Zero feels much more like role finding than traditional role playing.

I touched on this briefly in my Robert Frost section, where the player seems to be choosing between versions of Conway. A great example of this in the game is when the player first enters the mines and must speak into the PA system to measure how deep the caves go based on the echo of Conway’s voice. Shannon, a companion you meet in this section, says to just tell her a story or what you had for breakfast as you speak into the PA system. One avenue of text leads to an experience with Conway’s old boss Ira, the other to one dealing with Ira’s wife Lysette. Each route leads to another, like whether Conway and Ira’s job was ruined by a thunderstorm or by Conway’s hangover.

Conway is both an established character and an almost-blank slate, in someways Eveline fits that description too. Kentucky Route Zero plays with themes of identity, memory, and abstraction in ways that mirror James Joyce’s Eveline and show how interactivity can enhance experiences of literature.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad — found at Wiki Commons

The first time I played Kentucky Route Zero I came across this place on the map labeled Airplane. Unlike the museum interaction that I related to James Joyce’s Eveline, when I clicked this box I was immediately taken to a visual of two men pushing a small airplane across the screen. Conway stood stationary next to his truck and I was unable to move him, the two of us were left to observe this mysterious event. For the longest time I had no idea what this meant, not even the slightest clue — but still, it was interesting.

I came to my answer when I was studying theories in literary modernism in a college literature course. We were taking a look at Joseph Conrad’s theory of the distant laborer (which can be read in its entirety here under the preface of The Nigger of the Narcissus). Conrad paints an image of the scholar observing the laborer, who is doing some kind of difficult work. The two are separated by a great distance. Here is the specific passage I want to look at:

We watch the movements of his body, the waving of his arms, we see him bend down, stand up, hesitate, begin again … If we know he is trying to lift a stone, to dig a ditch, to uproot a stump, we look with a more real interest at his efforts; we are disposed to condone the jar of his agitation upon the restfulness of the landscape; and even, if in a brotherly frame of mind, we may bring ourselves to forgive his failure. We understood his object, and, after all, the fellow has tried, and perhaps he had not the strength — and perhaps he had not the knowledge. We forgive, go on our way — and forget.

The overall implication is that if the scholar can understand the laborer, the working class, then with that borrowed perspective they can better understand life and truth. Now, I want to pair this with the text given in KRZ’s airplane interaction:

Two shirtless, shoeless men push a light aircraft along the highway. Occasionally, one or the other slips a bit on the sweating asphalt, or stops to pull back his hair.

The rubber is almost worn away. Soon, these men will be dragging this airplane.

The men are nearly broken.

The way that Cardboard Computer sets up the airplane experience in KRZ naturally leads the player to ask the same questions that Conrad asks — who are these people? what is the purpose of their work? Maybe we can never know exactly, but we can wonder at their efforts. In KRZ we may be lead to ask more questions, like: what is the purpose of this interaction in the game? what does it mean that Conway, a laborer, is the one observing these other two laborers? and, where does the player fit into all this?

Distance.

In Conrad’s image, the viewer and the observed are separated by a great distance. It’s the same when the player and Conway view the men pushing the airplane. And still, there is this third layer of distance that we have as players — we’re watching the men with the plane, but we’re also watching Conway watch the men with the plane. If we use Conrad’s concept as a frame, this puts the player in a fluid position of being both the scholar and the laborer at the same time. At first it may appear that Conway is in this same position (being hired man, as well as observer), however, as I have said before, KRZ sometimes has separate moments of isolated player reflection and interactive character reflection. In this instance, Conway is given no chance to reflect on what he’s observed, seemingly taking him out of the scholar role. His role then, perhaps, is to draw attention to the varying degrees of distance the player has with Conway — observing him while also playing as him.

Screenshot. Fig 3.

As you can see in fig 3 by the contrast of our silhouetted Conway and spotlighted plane pushers, distance is displayed even in the art. We also have that voyeuristic feeling that Conrad captures in his preface — we can see them, but they can’t see us. This could be taken even further with Conway, since we also see him (and control him) but he cannot see us. Not only does KRZ nail the image of the distant laborer, it also limits our interactivity solely to observation (through interspersed/well timed text and a reliance on the player’s curiosity) — melding the game’s mechanics with the text provided, as well as with Conrad’s theory. And what’s the purpose of all this? Well, for one, it seems to me that this is an excellent new way to teach an older text — regardless of the original intention. For another, this unrequired piece of game play gives us further insight into the game as a whole by giving us this multi-layer distance.

The Conclusion

Really, I think I’ve only scratched the surface of what can be found and analyzed in this game — in relation to literature or a million other things. Kentucky Route Zero is the kind of piece that proves video games have something to teach us and that the learning process doesn’t have to be grueling, it can be a lot of fun.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Jean D’ank, Heather Fielding, and cadie davis

Kelsey Tabbert

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