an annotation on KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO, ACT I


When in 1975 the programmer William Crowther began transposing to digits the maze of twisty little passages that is the landmark Mammoth Cave complex underneath Kentucky, he may have unwillingly engendered the very first specimen of interactive, wholly textual fiction in which the portrayal of a real experience, as acquired from his subjective point of view, blends seamlessly with elements of literary fantasy. Part of the rightful merit belonging to this early page of the electronic entertainment record is derived from the circumstances inherent to the outset of his legendary Colossal Cave Adventure: a voluntary, part-time endeavor where various aspects of his life converged, from his keen interest in activities as dissimilar as speleology and tabletop games, to motives of a personal and emotional order.

Not unlike other forerunning treasures pertaining to digital prehistory, his seven-hundred odd lines of FORTRAN code would have likely been lost into the ether were it not for their rediscovery soon after and their subsequent improvement. The following year, Dan Woods, startled upon the accidental finding of the program stored in a Stanford University computer, would be responsible for compiling the enhanced edition which is still played and esteemed today for its visionary layout. The conclusion of this ensuing cooperation stands to this date as the unyielding pillar of adventure videogames as well as a seminal contribution to the blooming field of IF.

Decades after the PDP-10 and the ARPANET were deemed obsolescent, the practices of interplay altered drastically as an ever expanding industrial establishment was constructed above the early foundations cast by such guileless men – and, lest we forget, women - who sought only to hone the potential of mere workstations long before the arrival of personal computers. In less than frequent cases, it must be noted, the current creative impetus remains analogous to that which drove these unsullied architects to devise the first known pieces of digital entertainment and interactive narratives, aided by their coarse technological ally; however, the methods and ambitions cultivated ever since grew misaligned with these noble and unpretentious origins. Consumers, by and large, were sidetracked inchmeal from the substance which could bestow value to their playtime with the stimulus of quality. Fiction became adventure; became visual and aural; became a formulaic parody of its former glories. Stagnated in its revivalist gear and held captive by its hallmark quirks and irksome atavisms, the genre is largely confined to upgraded simulacra of the climaxes from a now distant golden age.

Evidencing the vital contrast between such dominating retro trends lacking in authenticity and a full-fledged work of original fiction rooted in historic references, Kentucky Route Zero had the unique distinction of being exemplary even before the project reached its completion. Whether or not they could make sense of what they saw, sheer intuition persuaded many to turn their attention to its tantalizing debut footage whilst recognizing, undividedly, that a giant was looming on the horizon. If this close collaboration between Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy has inhabited more than a single corpus, and it has certainly presented itself in at least two different countenances, its expressive essence proved sufficiently cohesive to withstand the sweeping changes underwent throughout the creative process. And while ACT I is solely the introductory segment of a senecan quintefoil, it already encompasses ample import to be saluted for its reverent consummation of computer games as a laudable storytelling medium – one of vast, latent wherewithal.


Cardboard Computer composes an allusive sonnet to a decade-old heritage of interactive adventures, as well as a humble dirge for the illustrious coder who once helped give rise to its advent. It is imperative to observe that text commonly takes precedence over the ancillary, by no means less rounded-off pictorial stratum which is classically subservient to the narrative in its primal, written form; seldom, this order is reversed with cunning. Still, from the player’s perspective, graphics and animations appear as an artist’s interpretation of the typescript contents, descending in white and yellow inside a sturdy black square. When roaming freely about the road map, the screenplay is met with no illustrative couple other than what is suggested by agile and vivid accounts. This perceptible extrication of fundaments wherein the written word mans the wheel weaves a provocative reaction to the present fixation with visual detail in computer-generated images, springing as it does from a design philosophy which endorses subject matter as its foremost priority. No doubt encouraged by a more recent variety of mouse-based interfaces, the elegant colloquial flow is recurrently punctuated by a selection of queries and rejoinders that shape the course of conversations, despite being of no deterministic consequence to the development of the story proper. Seizing those legitimate advantages of being contemporary, it is just as crucially revealing that in none of its five opening scenes can there be found the slightest factor of difficulty, let alone any kind, however dissimulated, of abstract or environmental puzzles.

Given the structural detachment from those paradigms with which it is spiritually conjoined, Kentucky Route Zero plays and feels strikingly alike the unconcerned experience of reading a book in an electronic format, for which the author concedes a sizable margin to be tinkered with at the spectator’s own volition – if always in accordance with precalculated and narrow ramifications. An unmistakable theatrical gist is immanent to its diorama-like vistas, its subtle characterizations and perhaps most noticeably the nature of its straightforward dialog. Elliot’s writing style is galvanized by the mannerisms of postwar psychological and social realism – espousing the eminent legacy of Williams, Miller, or even Beckett – his being an uncommon capacity to render personages gifted with an uncanny yet lifelike texture. The tuneful Bedquilt Ramblers trio, wittily meta-referenced within the digital drama by means of polygonal counterparts, assumes the role of an Elizabethan-type chorus, submitting the occasional and suggestive hint in the form of a non-diegetic bluegrass music insert; their appearance also interpretable as a faint demonstration of comic relief. Curiously, the band headed by the prodigious Ben Babbitt borrows its name from a much feted area in Adventure, whose reputation among aficionados was earned on cause of its peculiar arbitrariness.

Conway, in the quality of leading man to this introduction, embodies the American epitome of the moral wage earner and adventurer at heart; halfway between an upright, seafaring Ishmael and a road tripping Steinbeck, his faithful dog alongside him. Finding himself in unfamiliar surroundings, he is greeted by gregarious locals who seem oddly unimpressed by his arrival: their penchant for brevity and pragmatism - aside from the opportune regionalisms adorning their speech - befitting, with unusual precision, the desolate countryside setting they inhabit. Those descriptions and observations which help contextualize the illusory world across the screen are composed with even greater aptitude and tend to slant towards an altogether accomplished poetic intoment which promptly brings O’Neill’s meticulous stage directions to mind.

As referenced earlier, the protagonism of words tends to relieve audiovisuals from the compulsive representation of every action, a concern repeatedly manifested in the upper echelons of game production where the term realism is nigh on indistinguishable from photorealism. Kemenczy’s exquisite art finds an absolute meridian between an evocative aesthetic sumptuousness and a cost-effective management of assets: the added minutiae boasted in prior builds such as the in-game dialog demo – facial features, for instance – may have presented too tall a hurdle for an artisanal venture relying on modest resources; although it is likewise arguable that the degree of visual sophistication achieved in the final release exceeds even the most optimistic of expectations, mainly from an artistic outlook.

Whereas in Ruins (2011), the Chicago duo drew inspiration from the Romantic dejection of Chopin’s nocturnes and the sullen vestiges of a renowned David-Friedrich landscape, Kentucky Route Zero is fashioned out of the same marble from which the great monument of twentieth century American realism was erected, with a distinct contiguity to Wyeth in its serene dialectic between realism and abstraction.  In addition, it is possible to discern the delicate influence of the short-lived Precisionist school – perhaps acquired secondhand – in its angular similarities with Sheeler; with Hopper too, in its zest to expose the invisible; but above all in its intriguing parallels with Ault’s ominous night scenes from the 1940’s, owing to their starvation for light and salient metaphysical quintessence. Character design, on the other hand, appears to pair with more conventional comic book tendencies such as those also adopted by hip illustrators Matthew Lyons, Scott C. or the luminary Craig D. Adams, of Sword and Sworcery fame. Resemblances to Chahi’s vanguardist flat-colored polygons, as have been underlined time and again by the specialized press, may be interpreted as yet another purposeful and congratulatory insinuation.


Last year marked the return of the magical realism appellation to the videogame glossary, in what may well be a telling, sanguine symptom of a widespread exhaustion from those ordinary themes and principles near to which modern productions continue to gravitate. Minority Media’s Papo & Yo first made this claim with its fanciful portrayal of a South-American favela, in an intimate and soul-searching piece on the hardships of growing up in developing nations. In effect, the exact same vein – a distinctively binding García Márquez brand, if something is to be inferred from a murky tombstone inscription – reaches far north to KRZ’s own imaginary representation of a georgic Kentucky and its full incorporation of those elements intrinsic to this art category: Conway’s odyssey through the highways and byways of the state unites attributes of a supranatural order together with the stark, true-to-life picture of the hinterland and its dwellers, relegated to the margins of society.

The rural scenery is equally consonant with the belief in local lore as a repository of myths; the remote birthplace of a magic that is truest when in the proximity of darker, uncivilized regions; in other words, when distanced from urban districts where scientific reason and logic reign supreme. In truth, the mystical is by definition an unquestionable recurrence in magical realism: neither can it be censured nor, at the other end of the spectrum, questioned for what unreal marvels it produces since its characters traditionally fail to display a critical or analytical perception in regards to their own sphere; instead, they exhibit a predisposition to penetrate deeper into a waking slumber – a spell, as it were –  as that which prevents Conway from questioning his Shafferian hallucinations, or the bewildering ghostly apparitions that intervene in the course his voyage.

As customary, no accurate intimation is given as to the period of history in which the action is set, for this is indeed an alternate sphere and chronology bearing limited verisimilitude, albeit truthful and au courant when addressing Man’s most fundamental qualms. The fantastical consists, merely, of a chosen means and not the end in itself. Heightening the humanist faculty of their creation, the authors had the foresight to incorporate those predicaments which best discriminate the American century: from the past sufferance of forced labor, the solitude of an aged population and the demise of religion; to the pitfalls of housing credit and student loans, or even the despairs of economic regression of agricultural-based regional economies which strive to match the flying pace of industrial centers.


Awesome and humbling, this is a narrative which has only now begun to unveil its myriad of splendors. As the dropping of curtains signals the ambiguous ending to this overture, one may begin to wonder what novelties and changes can be expected from new installments and how they will further clarify the truer extension of its correspondence with Crowther’s epoch-making title, apart from the rest of its wholehearted citations. Due to auctorial decisions and continued reworkings, nevertheless, meaningful portions of its outline may have been irredeemably lost: in point of fact, the Equus Oils basement area of the alpha build contained the most captivating, quaint tale of a man and a horse that was revealed, what shadow play, by switching the lamp light on and off. The outlandish dramatis personæ of conceptual phases will in all likelihood be refined so as to conform to the solemnity of the tone that has now been established: unexpectedly, the precocious stage entrance of Carington, a living archaism driven forth by his pursuit of an idyllic setting in which to conduct the staging of a Robert Frost poem, is offered as a princely reward to the curious.

Of all the aforesaid traits, the utmost singularities of this contemplative journey stem from those lavish qualities and quiddities which challenge even the most enlightened report or explanation. The multitude of climatic moments it comprises, evocative as soon as perplexing, do tell of a wealth of potentialities insofar uncultivated at the bosom of this culturally impoverished medium. It is an atypical occasion when a computer user is permitted to engage in so transcendent an excursion, reveling in the rare guarantee that, regardless of forthcoming deviations, its creators can be trusted to possess sufficient sensibility and intellectual acumen to breathe new life into a moribund genre.

Illustration: Ken Roko Lone Star 03, 2012

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