Parts Unknown — The Foreign Feeling of Home in Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero is abstract, haunting, and beautiful — if you’ve got the patience for it.

The Appalachian region of the U.S. is usually discussed with a certain level of snark or disappointment. Considered a culturally-backwards region (which, while not being entirely wrong, is still an incredibly distilled view of the region and all it has to offer), Appalachia is a favorite punching bag of all kinds of media. To most, it’s a simple, backwater stretch of trees and rednecks, with nothing really of note aside from angry cannibals or heavily-accented town sheriffs. It’s not just immensely inaccurate — it’s also a flat-out boring perspective on a region so many know next to nothing about. There is so much potential for interesting, inventive stories to be told, but no one ever takes advantage of it.

So when I gave Kentucky Route Zero a try a few years ago out of curiosity, I never expected it to not only nail the culture of the region, but also the setting and pacing of everyday life in rural areas. Everything, from the folk stories that dominate much of the game’s sub-narratives, to the way the game naturally draws you along to where you need to go next, seems to reflect this understanding.

Though I grew up about 30 miles east of the eastern border of Kentucky, the culture is still fairly similar to my home, and I was struck by how at-home I felt on the Zero. The people I encountered along the way all felt inspired by people I’d actually met growing up in the area, and never felt like a cheap imitation quickly pulled together by some writer in an office trying to finish up and beat rush hour by a few minutes.

While the Appalachian region doesn’t (as far as I’m aware) have a magical highway that always takes you to where you need to be, it does have a certain way of life that is tied into the core concept of KR0 and the stories it has to tell. That said, the game often intentionally keeps the player at arm’s length, always telling you the information you need to know in that particular moment and nothing more. Each act introduces a different set of characters with different, unconnected stories, many of whom you’ll only interact with once, if at all. Even when the setting of the story shifts completely, that meandering sensibility stays along for the ride, and Kentucky Route Zero is all the better for it.

Mechanically, anyone who’s ever played a “point-and-click adventure” game will feel right at home, and the game rarely leaves you scratching your head when trying to figure out where to go next. That mechanical familiarity is crucial when paired with the abstract, disorienting narrative the game weaves, and in some ways is a piece of that narrative. That said, it never really feels like the game is railroading you down any one path — it’s not a particularly divergent game narrative-wise, but it does let you decide your characters’ motivations and goals.

Instead of forcing you to make some life-or-death fake-out choice, Kentucky Route Zero just wants to know if you saw an owl on the way in.

In major contrast to most adventure games, the story itself is fixed in place, and your decisions really only change the lens through which the player views the story. This inversion is brilliant, as it avoids the “false choice” trope that many Telltale games fall victim to and grounds the story on one through-line, without making decisions feel pointless in the process.

Like many parts of Kentucky Route Zero, the choices you make are as important as you want them to be. Not everyone experiences a game the same way, and giving them the ability to tailor their experience rather than the game itself allows Zero to sidestep many storytelling pitfalls that other adventure games fall into. It gives the narrative a strong foundation to build on, which is crucial to tying together the abstract imagery and nonlinear stories within.

One of the more well-known cultural aspects of the South, as well as Appalachia, is the comparatively slow pace of life. KR0 is a slow game, often taking multiple acts to expand on ideas or letting other ideas and characters fade in and out along the way. The primary story of the game — Conway making his final delivery before retirement to an address on Route Zero, and his journey to that ambiguous destination — is only occasionally addressed beyond Act I, instead giving way to the stories of the people you meet along the way. This measured patience may turn some players off, but that’s the entire point — life in the country is slow. To move any faster would make the game feel almost disingenuous.

Not only does the game take its time with unraveling its narrative knots, it often does so in very abstract, disorienting ways. KR0 is a game with many stories going on at once over the course of its five (currently four released) acts, and these stories rarely end with a satisfying conclusion, or a conclusion at all. You enter the lives of these characters at various points, get to know them, and move on. Sometimes you’ll enter at a crucial point in their story — other times, you’ll enter long after the story has ended. On the Zero, you’re just another traveler, not the most important person that’s ever traveled the route. Conway and his friends are only brief side-characters, passing by on the way to their own ends, occasionally stopping to enjoy the scenery and help a singer and her bandmate get to a performance on time (as much as “on-time” means for those that live on the Zero).

Which brings us to the other thing Kentucky Route Zero excels at: making the player feel like an interloper. In every scenario Conway and co. find themselves in, you always feel like you’ve stumbled onto some folks that don’t want to be bothered and don’t really care whether you help them or not, but might appreciate the gesture.

Butting in to help others regardless of whether or not they want help is also part of a pretty well-known component of rural/Appalachian culture: we’re stubborn. Often, many people won’t ask for help, but will freely give it even without being asked. This contradictory attitude is a pretty fitting microcosm of Appalachian culture — many of the beliefs of rural folk are contradictory, ,and don’t always make sense when explained to people that haven’t experienced the culture up close.

Same, kid. Same.

And yet, while being so good at making me feel at home, Kentucky Route Zero also frequently feels completely foreign to me. I find myself rapidly oscillating between understanding the game on an intensely personal level and feeling like I’m playing something totally different. Comparisons to Twin Peaks are fairly played out by this point, but I honestly can’t think of a closer analog to Zero. Everything, down to the culture and the pacing, feels perfectly fitting, and yet, I frequently wonder if I don’t really understand this game at all, or if I’m even supposed to understand.

This off-feeling has only ever happened to me in one other scenario that I can think of — it’s the same feeling I get when I go back home to West Virginia, after primarily living in D.C. for the past year or so. Seeing the “Wild and Wonderful” welcome signs on the interstate always fills me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, but commonly that feeling is followed by a sense that I no longer belong here, that this isn’t really my home anymore.

Driving through Charleston and seeing the lottery building, the old Civic Center, the Kanawha River — they’re the same sights I’ve seen for almost all my life when passing through the city, but they no longer feel like “mine.” It’s like leaving home permanently took a part of me that I’m never going to get back in the process, and suddenly I’ve become Conway — just another traveler, on my way to somewhere only important to me.