Kentucky Route Zero, the long journey into hidden America

Kentucky Route Zero, the long journey into hidden America
Inserting Kentucky Route Zero among the best games of 2020 could also be misleading, not to say reductive: the Cardboard Computer game has developed over almost a decade and has come to an end this year, after a long journey that started with a Kickstarter campaign successful for the broken headphones and long waits between one chapter and another The result was a delayed game experience, the result of refinement and decantation but also of an evolution derived from the different sensitivity matured by the developers during development, in a strange game case that grew and in part also changed in the course of development. Opera. For this reason, limiting it to the videogame landscape of 2020 may seem reductive, but if nothing else it serves to finally put the point to this extraordinary journey and possibly assign it a well-deserved recognition for all that it has meant and still means, not only for independent development but for the narrative technique of videogames in general.

In the truest and most banal description, Kentucky Route Zero is essentially a game about Kentucky, but this only tells one layer of the question: on the one hand there is both a criticism and a lyrical ode of the Bluegrass State, which we at a distance can only guess or translate in some way but which can be well appreciated (or even criticized) by those who live or have experienced that reality closely, but on the other hand the American state rises to a metaphor of a whole certain human condition that transcends the geographical location, making it a bit like a place of the soul and making history more universal and suspended. This fusion of realistic elements and dreamlike passages, humanity represented always grappling with extremely earthly but also metaphysical problems, represents a bit of the constant of Kentucky Route Zero, with the various disparate episodes held together by the presence of the bewildered messenger Conway and the his dog Homer (or Blue) to act as a link and suture between the strange events on the screen and the player / spectator / director.

Text and blues

Kentucky Route Zero can be considered one of the best examples of narrative applied to video games, and also for this reason it deserves to be included in a selection of the most significant games of 2020. In its total, pervasive narrative, it does not experiment with the communication channel like other titles, relying on simply to the text and requiring a rather traditional type of interaction, but it fascinates and disorients the player in his constant change of point of view. The leitmotif remains Conway's strange odyssey along Route Zero, but this is more than anything else a pretext to stage fragments of broken stories, dropping us each time into a different reality. Magic realism has been talked about as a literary reference to the particular style used by the game and the comparison is really fitting, for how the magic and the supernatural break into situations deeply linked to reality.

This is also emphasized more strongly by the graphic representation, which already adopts a style tending towards surrealism and abstractionism, mixing the planes of reality here too. The same premise of the game is paradigmatic of these distortions and mergers between the real and the magical, with the protagonist who lingers to make the last delivery and finds himself on a mysterious road that appears and disappears in the moments of twilight, leading him to know ravines of the otherwise unattainable realities and that perhaps do not even exist and could be the result of Conway's hallucinations, whose odyssey develops on different levels since it is also intimate, as an alcoholic seeking rehabilitation.

Theatrical representation in five acts

In the five acts that make up the strange theatrical representation of Kentucky Route Zero we are faced with ancient existential questions that merge with modern problems and its magical realism manages well to put seemingly conflicting suggestions, also carrying out a notable critique of postmodern society, the cynicism of the capitalist economy and the absurd hypocritical nature of the bureaucracy, which for example destroys the houses of peasants to make room for electricity companies, to then rebuild them in a museum. The characters on stage all have a story to tell, which generally speaks of defeat or extreme difficulty but which nevertheless demonstrate a great inner strength in the ability to resist the adversities of life.

Each act is essentially a story in its own right, connected to the others by Conway's journey and by the changing and invisible Route Zero, the hidden road that connects these figures to the margins of society but also extremely significant. This subdivision entails a considerable difference in gaming experience from one act to another, favored by the highly deferred release of the various parts over the years: there is always, in principle, the need to make a delivery or to reach someone, as the premise of each fragment of the story, but this then develops quite independently from the others, also modifying the formal characteristics of the game such as the framing, the controls and in some respects the videogame genre itself, so to speak , to tell a different story each time in a different way. This continuous variation removes the reference points and makes the game absolutely unpredictable, returning to its tracks only in the phases of connection between one act and another, in which the player returns to the familiar Conway and resumes the path on Route Zero.

Player, spectator and director

In all this, however, there is an element that still cannot be precisely placed: what is the role of the player? This is perhaps the most peculiar feature of Kentucky Route Zero, which in its extreme formal care in the textual and graphic narration seems to leave the player the simple role of spectator or reader. But is it really so? Beyond the choices that allow you to address the discussion on different topics or aspects of an issue, the title of Cardboard Computer plays with points of view, tossing the player from one role to another, following different characters and different positions each time in the various stories and representations of these. This substantial change in roles is also reflected in different actions or in the sudden variation of the reference systems of the act in progress, such as the reconstruction of the control system or of the shot from one situation to another.

It may seem dispersive, but at the end of the journey the impression is that of a cohesive experience, and it is something very difficult for a title structured in this way and released in almost eight years, demonstrating how behind Kentucky Route Zero there is a well-defined and perfectly direct vision from an expressive point of view. Of course it is difficult for such a game to emerge in the mass audience compared to other titles, but its notoriety is already an important signal, also as regards the appreciation of the public towards different experiences than usual. It is perhaps not a truly revolutionary game from the point of view of the narrative and its particular structure makes it difficult to evolve on this basis, but this also contributes to its preciousness: it is unique in terms of writing quality, artistic sensitivity and strangeness, and although it may not aspire to the game of the year ever, it is certainly among the titles to remember of the entire decade.

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