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Kentucky Route Zero: Homesick for a place that I've never been

ACT I: THE RETURNED OBSESSION


The last time I was so obsessed about anything can be dated back to when I was 5 or 6. One day, I discovered the fun of playing with water. I spent the entire summer engrossed in playing with water - putting it into different shapes of transparent containers, filling them up and then pouring it out, overwatering my grandparents’ garden, and watching rainbows form when I blew water against the sunlight. It felt like I had discovered magic.


Thirty-something years later, I encountered "Kentucky Route Zero" (KR0 for shot) a video game I had heard about from many sources. I knew it had a huge impact on many critically acclaimed games, practically the ones from which I happened to have drawn inspiration for my next game. I knew I would eventually have to play it, and I'm glad I didn’t try to find out too much beforehand. Well, there was a moment when curiosity got the best of me and I started watching a walkthrough. However, just 5 minutes later, I turned off the video, realizing I didn't want a second-hand experience; I wanted to experience it all for myself. I purchased the game immediately, and then the obsession took over.

a screenshot of Equus Oils. A gas station on Route65. from KR0
Kentucky Route Zero. Equus Oil gas station where we start the journey.

It’s really strange how sometimes you can like something so much that you become overprotective and jealous. After playing the game, I moved on to almost every single article about it out there, listened to the album's OST back-to-back every day, meticulously followed the cardboard game’s social media channels, website, extra materials, interviews, videos, and even talks from game conventions. Then I delved into internet grave digging — something I often do when the original dev logs are no longer available on the developer's website (People usually take them down after the game's release). But I always manage to unearth the archives somewhere to relive those years-long development processes. Afraid I might lose them, I even download the PDFs and print them out for safe keeping.

As I mentioned, I was truly obsessed. I simply couldn't stop thinking about it.



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ACT II: HOMESICK FOR A PLACE THAT I'VE NEVER BEEN


For those who dreams vividly. I often wake up and find my self homesick for a place that I've never been. In my dreams, I know those cities and streets by heart, I have a family, as if I’ve already lived a full life. The experience of KR0 is like having one of those hauntingly nostalgic dreams.


It also awakens something so deep inside me that I thought I had long forgotten.

I don’t know how to exactly describe these feelings; they're complicated, delicate, very personal, and full of sorrow. It’s the kind of sorrow that you experience when watching a sunset as a kid, when you seemingly shouldn't have anything to worry about in life yet, but as a human being, you can't help feeling both sad and awed as the sun goes down. You start to understand the feeling of loss, the meaning of never being able to reclaim today as an experience. You have a long life ahead of you, but you eventually realize that it will all come to an end someday.


That kind of sorrow.


Many locations in the game were so odd, yet somehow I found them familiar. Especially the Bureau of Reclaimed Space and the Random Access Self Storage. These empty, gigantic spaces, the echo of emptiness, factory-like architecture, and the stark, white fluorescent light somehow provide me with a melancholic comfort. It took me a while to remember where it comes from. I finally recalled that it was where my mom used to work.

In the late 80s and early 90s, my mom worked in one of the city district government offices. For some weird reason, she would take me to work during weekends. We would sometimes stay there for the whole afternoon or evening, and the entire building would be empty, giving us the place all to ourselves. I remember the walls in the corridors were partially covered in green paint (a unique surface protection scheme in 80s China). The ceilings were tall, and the air was still; the entire building felt like a huge maze as my playground.

The Random Access Self Storage screenshot from KR0
The Random Access Self Storage

There wasn't anything particularly interesting for a kid to explore. I would just wander around, weaving in and out of people’s offices, turning all the lights on, looking at their desk, chairs and documents. Mom was busy in her office, and only my footsteps echoed throughout the whole building.


Nothing exciting ever really happened during those times, but it’s an important memory to me. I felt insignificant surrounded by the gigantic buildings. Yet, at the same time, there was a sense of the vanishing of ego; I was relaxed and free. No one knew or cared that I was there. To those spaces, I was simply irrelevant. We shared the stillness of those fleeting times, when life was slow. I didn’t need to comment, take photos, or form an opinion. Nevertheless, these experiences are like images carved onto hard rock, capable of lasting for eternity.

Screenshot of Bureau of Reclaimed Space from KR0
Bureau of Reclaimed Space

How is it that things seemingly so mundane leave such a strong impression? Does it convey some kind of universal human truth I wonder?


You try to put these feelings into words, but words often prove too weak and clumsy to encapsulate human experience. Therefore, video games serve as a potent medium for storytelling. Music, SFX, and visual arts can carry these complex emotions across cultures. Personally, I might not share much in common with the characters in KR0, yet I oddly find myself homesick for a place I’ve never been.


It's the past. It's an inevitable future that awaits all of us, and it's from that future that I'm homesick. Yet, while we share this precious time in the present, I want to cherish all that's lost and found, the good and the bad, all the experiences and all the questions.

Work like KR0 is an endorsement of my belief in the importance of human experience. We should strive to remember more, to live a life intertwined with tangible things—objects you can hold, press, play, rewind—leaving a physical sensation on your body. I never want to upload my mind into the Meta-fucking-verse. I'm a human being; I need to live in a world where things can hurt me. Thus, from the painful experiences, I learn to appreciate kindness and love.


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ACT III:

A TRAGEDY

Evening. A couple sits in their living room. The Man reads newspaper, the women sits by the piano. They could be a couple but each seems occupied by their own thoughts
Room in New York by Edward Hopper 1932

I don’t know if KR0 was ever inspired by Edward Hopper’s art.

In Hopper’s paintings, you often see a solitary white building standing alone, a gas station beneath a streetlight, people gazing out of windows lost in thought, a couple sitting together but seems distanced. Just as Hopper captures these timeless and ambiguous atmospheres, KR0 portrays a familiar Midwest American small-town life. People travel along the Zero, their lives intersecting and then departing again. It's only towards the end of the game that we vaguely discover each character’s background story, somehow leaving us with even more mystery.


KR0’s set design draws significant inspiration from theatre art and plays. Much like Hopper’s drawings, the dramatic lighting, the minimalist props, and the highly curated and carefully designed mood, alongside the experimental storytelling, we're presented with various perspectives of the same story. These dreamlike environments only intensify the emotional impact of the narrative.

A screenshots from kR0
The scene of the Falling Tree

Whether it's Weaver, the ghostly woman who ultimately guides everyone to 5 Dogwood Drive; or Conway, the so-called protagonist who disappears on us in the middle of the game, ending with a tragic fate; or the Android duo who perform one of the most amazing shows in video game history; the people lost in the study of XANADU; the glowing skeletons at the Hard Times Distillery... everyone is connected by the Zero, yet no one can escape their own loneliness. I'm often moved by Edward Hopper’s paintings because I feel like the characters in his works have so much to say but don't know how. The greatest tragedy in human society is not being able to acknowledge another's love before they're gone.

screenshot of Junebug and Johnny's performance at The Lower Depths in KR0
Junebug and Johnny's performance at The Lower Depths

In Act I, when Conway finds the Band of Bedquilt Ramblers attempting to decipher the rules of the board game they're playing, they struggle to determine how to win. One of them examines the box. “I don’t think you can win,” they say. “It says on the box it’s a tragedy.”


Therefor, I found this message to be ironically anti-game, as the concepts of "winning" and "beating the game" have become the mainstream mechanical design for modern-day video games. But only during times of tragedy and conflict, we have the opportunity to truly understand ourselves, to achieve a deeper clarity into our own character. Much like the choices we made in KR0.


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ACT IV:

A LOG FALLING ON THE ROAD


As a game developer, I must confess that after playing KR0, I feel a sense of depression. "What's the point of creating my own game, when masterpiece like this already exists? I'll never, in my lifetime, achieve what KR0 has." These are the thoughts that often occupy my mind late at night when I should be heading to bed. Yet, as the next day's sun rises, I manage to regain my sanity.


KR0 is undeniably a massive source of inspiration. I am eager to incorporate many of the fresh ideas that sprouted from my experience with it into my own narratives.


Attempting to draw a straightforward conclusive critique of KR0 is a futile endeavour; those who believe they can do so are simply missing the whole point. There's no definitive "Real ending" or "Ultimate analysis" to the story. The more I write, the more my words resemble a confession or a love letter. So please also don't take my words as the final say either.


screenshot of Horses on the road in KR0
Horses on the road.

KR0 is simply a journey that you must undertake in person in solitude preferably. In my opinion, it's a transcendent experience, also akin to the everyday encounters we have. Engaging in conversations with people, dialling a phone, reading books, painting, drawing, writing poetry, making choices without looking back... Life can only be experienced by living every single ordinary moment fully; only then will you possess a magnificent story to share in the end. Your very own story.


I must find a way to conclude this essay, even though I feel as though I could carry on forever. Thus, I'll end with this quote from ACT V, where the townspeople discuss the airplane tire marks on the old, no longer operational runway.

The rain reveal once bleached runway marks. Those marks keep come out when it rain. It’s like a log falling on the road, reminds you that this all used to be trees.

ACT V screenshot from KR0

Fin

1 comentario


u235xc
19 ago 2023

Can't say I'm that obsessed with the game, but KY:0 world definitely resonates witth me. It's like being back in my childhood home. Strangely familiar place.

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