Friction Burns
A house with a tin roof built on top of horizontal oil drums sits in a warehouse that is also a museum, a single light illuminating an old man asking questions of the residents on the porch

Finding The On-Ramp To Route Zero

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  • Kentucky Route Zero bears a weight that exists entirely outside its text. When I think about friction, I’m often thinking about competing elements of the game – how it communicates, genre expectations, and how it relates to games culture – or friction thematically wielded as a tool. Kentucky Route Zero, on the other hand, sits with its own history, its own critical reception, and its own snowballing impact on narrative games that came after it.

    When Act V came out in 2020, concluding the story that started in 2013, it marked a personal history for many who had played it and known it. For me, it began a two-year countdown of feeling terribly self-conscious about potentially playing this game wrong. Separate to anything within the game itself was the history of what it has been to so many other people.

    The cure for self-consciousness, it emerges, is having a fever. I played Act I this past weekend, wrapped in a blanket, with ginger tea. I remember it in pieces: the bluegrass singers that feel like they’re in the game’s orchestra pit, exploring the museum when I lost the bait shop, sitting in the dark of the mine and wondering how bad that leg injury would be if Conway had to walk out alone.

    It was… lightly disorienting. I checked the ephemera repeatedly, but directions were foggy, so I just drove around trying to stumble across recognizable landmarks. I let its ghost story wash over me and disarm me in turn. Checking in on Blue, and feeding her snacks, was grounding – you have to make the world make sense for a dog that depends on you, if nothing else.

    I’m aware that my fragmented experience leaves me with an unhelpful reading on Kentucky Route Zero itself. “Having a fever” isn’t a useful lens. I don’t think its magical realism is served better by me method-playing the surreal, or Conway’s pain made more sympathetic by mine – if anything, there’s likely more that I missed. But that isn’t really the point.

    In the same way that the insurmountable anticipation about playing existed regardless of Kentucky Route Zero, so is the value of playing it wrapped in a blanket, with ginger tea. I’ve asserted myself in my own timeline of “where was I when the on-ramp disappeared.” Kentucky Route Zero no longer has to carry the impressions of nine years of other people’s impressions, histories, and influence for me. Whether it still will remains to be seen – in however long it takes me to start Act II.

     

     

    Ruth Cassidy is a writer and self-described velcro cyborg whose DMs are open for pictures of mountains & your cats. Direct them to twitter @velcrocyborg

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