Mining For Truth in Kentucky Route Zero

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Kentucky Route Zero is a ghost story. The episodic point and click adventure game from the two-man team of Cardboard Computer digs deeply into Kentucky’s history and culture to create a game that explores the ways those who came before can impact us in subtle but inescapable ways. It’s a low-key, challenge-free, narrative-focused experience that conveys its meaning primarily through tone.

Kentucky Route Zero understands that history itself is a collection of ghosts. When we consider our past, we also consider the joy and the pain and the trials that made us who we are. It’s not a simple thing to examine the past—every historical event is loaded with meaning and emotion and certain truths which can be internalized in such a way that we begin to relate deeply to the people involved. We begin to feel haunted.

Kentucky Route Zero also feels haunted, a sensation partially created by the game’s deliberate nature. Nothing about it is rushed, from how we play it to how it was made. The pace is slow and considered, and that’s the attitude Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy of Cardboard Computer had when making the game. Less “when it’s done” apathy than a planned and measured stroll through sacred themes and places, the game’s episodic structure is a perfect fit for realizing its thematic intent. With no strict release dates yet in place, they plan on releasing all five acts over the course of the next year, ending in January 2014. According to Elliott, players will likely have until April of this year to dwell on the first act.

The developers behind Kentucky Route Zero may be haunted by history themselves, if their creative output is any indication. The past work of Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy is firmly rooted in the antiquated, demonstrated most cogently in an art installation called “Magic Matrix Mixer Mountain,” a cobbled-together sculpture made up of old broken computers, surveillance cameras, and other random equipment. While Elliott and Kemenczy were only two of several collaborators on this project, it seems to have set the tone for their work going forward. “Magic Matrix Mixer Mountain” is a technological ghost—a distinctly unnerving experience that reminds one of the uneasiness that nostalgia often ignores in a haze of discontentment. While so many of us pine for the “good old days,” Elliott and Kemenczy are here to remind us that the good old days had their own problems.

They seem to have made Kentucky Route Zero a reminder of the dangers of nostalgia and the realities of historical suffering nearly on accident. These themes seem understated at times, blunted at others—secondary characters in Kentucky Route Zero share their dilemmas with the protagonist, Conway, matter-of-factly. “One of the themes in the game is how debt can enslave us. Another is alienation of labor,” Elliott explains. “The worker’s life and safety are not aligned—the worker’s concerns are not aligned with the employer’s concerns. So they fall naturally into these exploitative situations.” Struggle in Kentucky Route Zero seems to result naturally, almost lazily, from the systems already in place. Characters seem to understand that they live in a world under a curse. It is not presented as a pressing matter because it is literally a living fact.

It’s a game of exploration, not primarily of worlds or mechanics, but of established cultural moods and historical systems that are taken for granted by the games’ inhabitants. As Conway and Shannon, who act as alternating avatars for the player, descend deeper into the mines, they find themselves confronted with injustices inflicted on an entire work force that existed a generation ago. They weren’t searching for ghosts, but when they found them, they couldn’t turn away.

This arc seems to emulate that of Elliott and Kemenczy, whose first game together was homage to an earlier game from the mid 1970s. According to Elliott, “a big part of our interest in Mammoth Cave comes from the classic text adventure game Colossal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther, also set in Mammoth Cave.” This original text adventure inspired what they refer to as a “surreal cut-up/remix” of the game called Sidequest. The surreal and self-aware text-adventure seems, more than anything, like the dream that inspired Kentucky Route Zero. At times, the player is informed that “the universe collapses.” At another point, they are told that they have “reincarnated William Crowther.”

Inspired by both the historical significance of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave in videogame history and its pragmatic benefits for what was originally supposed to be an exploratory platform game, Elliott and Kemenczy latched on to the setting. “We thought it would be more of a platformer,” says Elliott. “But without any sort of tests of skill—so our idea was kind of like… You know how in Assassin’s Creed you can do all of these crazy acrobatics but you’re really just kind of gently moving the thumb-stick? That’s how we started designing the interface. Originally the coal mines were kind of like a dungeon that you have to go and explore.”

But as Elliott explains, the setting slowly began to assert itself in the design of Kentucky Route Zero. “We started looking closely at some of the political and labor realities of coal mine labor in the U.S., and especially in Kentucky and the Appalachians. That became the focus of a lot of the coal mine areas—stuff about the company store and safety issues and stuff like that. That started feeding more into the characterization of this character Shannon and her family history, instead of being just this space to explore.”

It’s interesting to think that what was clearly on track to become an inevitable throwback to an earlier time in both human and technological history was meant at first to be a kind of evolutionary improvement on the existing platform genre. That sort of blatant mechanical innovation almost seemed destined to be thrown out in favor of the haunting appeal of the past. “This thing about the point-and-click adventure came up that was always part of our conception of the game, looking at the game as a point of reference in game history,” Elliott insists. “There are some moments in the game where you’re interacting with it in this purely text-driven mode. Some of that stuff is a throwback to some of that interactive fiction stuff.”

The game’s appeal to nostalgia on its face soon gives way to a kind of self-examination on the part of both the player and protagonist, partly a result of the designers letting the setting and stories pull the theme, narrative and mechanics in a direction that made sense. The result is a kind of chaotic coherence. It’s less of a creation as it is a discovery, an unearthing of ancient feelings and concerns that lay dormant and unconsidered for years. As Elliott explains, “There’s this nostalgia for 20th-century moments smashed together. A lot of the reference images that we used for different parts of the game are Depression-era America. There’s some stuff especially later in the game that’s really about computers, that’s sort of nostalgic for ‘70s computing. There are thematic nostalgias butting up against each other.” Shockingly, all of these seemingly disparate elements don’t butt up against each other as much as they mesh, creating a unique sense of both wonder and oppression.

“You kind of get lost in it,” Kemenczy says of the original in-game cave concept from when the pair was intending to produce a more interactive platformer. But the focus on physical exploration was soon thrown out in favor of historical, social and cultural exploration. “It became more important that the exit wasn’t so hidden. You can just blow right through that section if you want to. But the way it’s laid out you can explore the other branches and learn more about Shannon’s history in the mine.” As a way of inviting the player to investigate the depths of the cave, Kentucky Route Zero places them in the middle of a giant turntable, full of artifacts from a generation ago. The player uses coal-miner scrip to buy necessities from the company store. It’s more than an educational pit stop. Because of players’ investment in Shannon (they have, after all, been playing as Shannon during part of the game), they find themselves invested in the plight of her overworked parents.

What the people in the mines lived through was the blunt trauma of the aforementioned exploitative situations that come so naturally when employers and employees are paired up unceremoniously without any kind of outside oversight. They experienced the lack of political action in action, echoing off the walls of an ancient cave, increasing in volume as time went on. While Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy didn’t set out to make an activist-style game, the truth of the mines in Mammoth Cave became a story that forced itself to the forefront of Act 1, a sobering reminder of trial and toil at the beginning of the player’s slow but haunting yearlong journey.

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