Can a person be haunted?
This piece is hard for me to write because I feel as though I’ve been writing it for years. It’s always been there, this low hum under my skin, everytime someone talks about Kentucky Route Zero. Every time a new act comes out, it’s been waiting.
I’m not mad, even though I feel like I should be. I think at this point, 10 years into this process, what I mostly feel is resignation. The game is complete. The game is out, and it’s so good, and it’s so inaccurate and that’s it.
It’s weird to be a part of a thriving and ever-growing game development community in Kentucky, to see the games being made right now in this arena, and to know that the only game that matters internationally is Kentucky Route Zero—a game made by folks who up until recently didn’t call this place home.
I’m not mad. Because I know it wasn’t made with bad intentions. But it’s this niggling issue that I can’t break free of, that pestering element everytime I read an article on the game or see it advertised. This is going to define Kentucky games for years, it’s going to define a region of the country that never gets talked about, and it’s not going to be right.
A game is never going to show you the real Kentucky, the same way a series of NYC alleyway shots aren’t going to show you the real New York City, but takes on Kentucky usually fall in the direction of a more rural state of mind. Vast empty fields. Coal mines. Cheap buildings held together by hope and grit. It’d be hard to gather from most media produced about the state that Lexington, KY ranked in the top 25 of most educated cities in the US—right up there Hartford, CT and San Francisco, CA. That we’re queerer than people expect—Gallup polls state that Louisville, KY is in the top 15 of metropolises in terms of LGBT citizens, or that there are more queer people in the South than other regions of the US. Kentucky Route Zero, for all its strengths, isn't about this kind of place. It's about a Kentucky that doesn't exist.
Name a game about Kentucky.
There’s only one.
In an interview with Dan Solberg for EGM, Elliot is quoted as saying, “[Kentucky] is a real place and all three of us always tried to respect it as a real place.” In Kentucky Route Zero, you can pinpoint your overworld location based on a map of Kentucky. It’s a real map—the locations there are actual bodies of space, and you can drive your way down I-65. At one point, on the back of a large eagle, we got lost and used Google Maps to find our way out. The map shows you the location of Lake Cumberland, of Bowling Green, of Wax Road. These are all real places, assuredly. But there’s something about them that’s wrong. A friend who played with me asked why we weren’t traveling down the Parkway. The intersection at Wax and Peonia does indeed host a bait shop, but its parking lot is gravel not dirt. There aren’t a lot of dirt parking lots here, mostly gravel. It rains too often for true dirt lots, and that’s how you get stuck.
In 2015, a friend messaged me: “I would love to go talk to them & offer to take them on a drive to elkhorn creek mine or any other notable location in the game.” She’s from Manchester and London, Kentucky, small towns that edge the game’s map. There’s one thing every Kentuckian knows about Kentucky Route Zero and that’s that it’s not set in Kentucky.
You know when people are looking at you from the outside.
We have this way of remembering places and peoples as perfect snapshots at the last moment we saw them. Think of your best friend, a childhood hangout, the last time you saw your grandmother, a country you visited as a teenager and you see them, perfectly preserved as they were when you last laid eyes on them, even if it’s been decades. Even if they’re gone. We remember things as we last saw them. Ghosts of our own experience.
When was the last time you saw Kentucky?
In 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson declared a war on poverty, and he did so on a Martin County, KY front porch. It’s one of the images that persists of Kentucky to this day, as though we are in fact frozen in 1964—a tin roof, rough porch, and a cast of thin, impoverished people with missing teeth and outdated clothing. The roads are dirt. The people are of that tough stock. These are the men who emptied the mountains of their ore. It’s self-perpetuating to an extent—if you go to my Eastern Kentucky uncle’s Facebook page, his most common repost is a picture of famous moonshiner Popcorn Sutton, whose beard, Model A, and mountain accent are dropped straight from central casting. But, even if they’re celebrated, images like these haven’t been accurate to the state since before my mother walked these Kentucky hills.
In the heat of a discussion about Kentucky Route Zero, I ask a work peer to describe the state I call home. It’s a trick question, I know. I’m asking him to give me the stereotypes. I didn't expect him to say the word “rickety.” It was 2018, and he still saw Kentucky as that Martin County porch.
The first time I saw the Kentucky Route Zero Kickstarter video, the thing that stuck out to me was Junebugs’ Loretta Lynn dress. Loretta Lynn is from Kentucky, a tiny place called Butcher Holler—a town so small and remote it’s been subsumed into the equally small Van Lear. Butcher Holler was a coal town—it was literally built by the coal company and it was made famous by the Loretta Lynn song “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” In 2004, when she recorded the album that gave her modern cache (Van Lear Rose with Jack White) she wore a dress in that bright blue shade, the same color as Junebug.
The second thought I had when watching the video was of pastoral literature. Pastoral literature is a movement to ascribe a kind of rose-tinted glow to the life of shepherds tending their flock, the natural world, and this bucolic, idyllic sort of place where the folks are down to earth and the living is simpler. What also defines pastoral literature is that it isn’t written by shepherds. No matter how much Marlowe cries for his shepherds’ love, he still lived in London. During one of my first copy-editing jobs, I had to edit an article about Kentucky Route Zero. The writer had written that Kentucky was a land free of strip malls. I think about this everytime I pass a strip mall. Is it Cardboard Computers’ fault that others read them as locals? That they take their pastoral interpretation of my state as the reality—a land free of strip malls where folks chat on front porches, where the living is simpler, where a man is as good as his hand shake?
Is it just that my ghosts don’t match up with theirs’?
You see those elements fading towards the end of Act III and beginning of Act IV. The whiskey is now bourbon. The story moves further from the actual—no more maps of the state—and toward the impossible architecture of Mammoth Cave and unplotted land (though I am still curious what non-pot-field land they could’ve found in the Daniel Boone National Forest for the town featured in Act V). When people talk about the places they’ve been to in Kentucky, they mention Lexington—one of the largest cities in the state.
According to Kill Screen Issue 9, writer Jake Elliot moved to Kentucky between Acts III and IV.
You can tell when someone gets it, when their perspective morphs. There is a familiar ache of shared experience. In the finale, when the community loses their home to a flood, I think about the people in modern day hollers whose homes were wiped out by floods. Whose experience is like theirs, suddenly sodden and with only enough possessions to carry to a new home. I think about Conway’s struggle with addiction, and how him falling off the wagon hurts so personally because I recognize in him the older men in my life, a grandfather who died with a six pack in his hand and an unlit cigarette touched to his lips.
The worst thing about Kentucky Route Zero is honestly that it’s so fucking good. It’s just as ethereal and heartbreaking and dream-like as I always hoped it would be. When someone says that it’s a game made in Kentucky, even though I know it’s wrong and even though every time I hear the word whiskey it sends a tingle like someone is walking on my grave, I want it to be true. I want people to think that beautiful things come from here.
I want the place Kentucky Route Zero calls Kentucky to be real, even with all its tragedy. But it’s not Kentucky. At least not the one I see when I wake up.
Amanda is an occasional writer and alternative controls designer based out of Kentucky. You can find them on Twitter at @barelyconcealed.