Warning: some vague spoilers about Kentucky Route Zero.
This isn’t going to be long. I’m not going to address the comparisons to The Walking Dead that everyone is making (which I don’t understand at all). If you care about the conversation that has been happening around the game, look to RPS here, here, and here. The game is about The South, and apparently people thing that is really important, despite the game being nothing like the Southern experience that I’ve had for the past forever. With all of that out of the way:
Kentucky Route Zero is about haunting. It is, as Daniel has noted, about presence and absence, about here and there, and about knowing that something is missing in the world.
We can retread the story so far: you follow Conway, an antique shop truck driver, and sometimes Shannon, a t.v. repairwoman. Conway is looking for Route Zero to make his delivery. We aren’t sure what Shannon is looking for, but she is along for the ride no matter what. We follow them into abandoned homes, to gas stations, deep into mines filled with emotional trauma.
I’m not particularly interested in these plot details at this point. While they resonate with me, I can’t really say that they’re amazing until I know where they go. The first act is very much a first act in that we become aware of the players and then watch them move. What I am saying is that it is interesting, but I don’t care about it enough yet.
I’m much more interested in the presence and absence of information as it is given to the player. As I’ve noted in my varied readings of horror games, that genre is heavily dependent on keeping the player from knowing things, particularly by limiting sensory information. In essence, the modern horror game is one long, split up jump scare. It all depends on a lack of information and a knowledge of what that lack means–I can’t see down that corridor, and I know I could be jumped at any moment by a monster, so I am forced to dread the encounter until it happens. Tension is generated from this process and makes everything, as Aristotle would say, “all scary.”
Kentucky Route Zero depends on this same kind of information withholding, but the stakes are never made clear to us. I am never told why my lack of information is a lack. Instead, I am merely kept in the dark and made to enjoy it. In this way, the game is about finding a total joy in the total absence of a reasonable world. A horror game would exploit this; Kentucky Route Zero leaves you totally ambivalent toward that condition. It smiles a little.
It is precisely because of this that I think various connections drawn between Kentucky Route Zero and the films of David Lynch are warranted. Lynch’s work has always moved along the edge of horror, which makes his actual forays into that realm incredibly terrifying. The homeless man in Mulholland Drive, Bob’s appearance in the living room in Twin Peaks, and the Mystery Man in Lost Highway are all prime examples of this, and I mention them because I think they share something: in contrast to the standard situation in Lynch films, which is one of uncertainty, these moments rely on absolute certainty to generate fear in us.
Kentucky Route Zero is making the same moves as Lynch would–the end of the first act has the Route itself opening up in a strange interpretive space that is neither wholly real nor wholly fictional. There are plenty of moments for horror to appear in hackneyed form in KR0, particularly one sequence in a mine where the player has to turn off the lights in order to hear an audio recording. In the dark, miner’s songs play and echo, scratching their way from reel to reel through time. A lesser game would use this moment as a scare tactic; a Silent Hill would have the lights come back on with something terrible standing in front of Conway. That doesn’t happen. Nothing happens. The player backs up and moves down a different shaft to the exit. Fear averted, I follow the game a little longer; I go a little further down the path you can’t come back from.
I’m eagerly anticipating the next sections of Kentucky Route Zero. I really want the developers to go “the full Lynch” because I think that mode of storytelling is severely lacking in video games as a medium. I want more games that stand on their own and require absolutely zero familiarity of cultural tropes to play them. I want more games that don’t cleave to a market share. I want more games that are willing to leave it to me to interpret and understand what is happening inside of them. Kentucky Route Zero has me hooked for this, and I hope the quality stays.