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Imagine a world taken alive from Cormac McCarthy’s prose. An isolated, strange, disturbing world in which you can feel the atmosphere of the end of the road – a bit apocalyptic, a bit of being “on the other side”, in magical space, a bit of stubborn, desperate survival in a gloomy, cruel, lonely poverty. It is a world in which the past blends with the present, in which the tragedy likes to be reminded of and relived again – like a return to alcohol addiction. That’s what Kentucky Route Zero is, a game that won my heart right away, undoubtedly drawing its fullest from the work of an American writer.

One of the main characters of this unusual, divided into acts point & click adventure game is Conway, a supplier of antique furniture, traveling in a rickety truck, with an adopted old hound wearing a straw hat. Conway has to make his last delivery, but it’s not that easy – to reach the address, one must travel a route that does not exist, the eponymous Zero. As we can guess, this road is much more important than the destination. It is a path full of memories, discovering oneself and getting to know the world and its inhabitants.

Kentucky Route Zero – screen from the game

The game is built on the same thing that is most appealing in McCarthy’s prose: the anxiety associated with otherness and other (lowercase) and what I personally call scrap metaphysics. This anxiety is the kind of childhood fear felt by those children who for some reason are unable to fit into the wider group. Anxiety in front of space, twisted and dyed black by imagination working at full speed and anxiety of strangers with whom you cannot talk or take candy from them. This feeling evolves later into a sense of seclusion and antisocial character. In turn, the scrap metaphysics is a narrative from the perspective of people from the social margin – people affected by extreme poverty, thrown out of the so-called civilization –  and giving them features, let’s call them, mystical (does anyone remember the homeless character living under the bridge, appearing in Suttree?).

The space in Kentucky Route Zero can be very unreal, surreal, e.g. the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, the cathedral, which now houses a multi-story office space, the Museum of Dwellings, a housing estate of houses, functioning as museum exhibits or the underground (afterlife?) whiskey distillery in which the so-called “Strangers” – mysterious characters, half-human half-spirits – trying to make up for their debt, and each of them with an alcohol problem[1].

Conway meets many people on his way, each of whom has a story to tell: Shannon, a young girl rising to the rank of the second main character trying to make a living by repairing old TVs, Joseph, who likes poetry, a blind Equus Oils gas station owner, who is on the verge of bankruptcy, Dr. Truman, a young internist who lives in the wilderness, trying to pay back student loans by selling a prototype of a suspicious drug, or Harry, the owner of the sadly empty bar, The Lower Depths, who pays musicians with alcohol because he has no money.

Kentucky Route Zero is a transformation of the world which is on the verge of social visibility (it can only be reached by a road that does not exist – Foucault would probably say that it is a shadow path, which is beyond the light that belongs to power). This is a beautiful, sensitive story about those who lost their voice or whose voice was taken from. About people thrown at the mercy of fate, deprived of any support. About people who were taken away from home because they were unable to pay the debt on time. About people who are deprived of medical care and must heal themselves, sometimes with fatal results. About people whose work has become worthless and yet they have to do it. About people who lost everything, and the only things they have before them is an uncertain pathless goal and imagination feeding on fears of the future. They are all shown in the shadows, in the zone where they are forced to live. It is hard to find a more beautiful critique of free market cruelty – with an emphasis on the situation in which many people find themselves in the United States (because it is American production. Although, of course, it should be noted that the problem is not confined to the United States).

The adventure game of a tiny studio, Cardboard Computer, can also boast of beautiful, arthouse graphics and great music, turning up the disturbing atmosphere. This year, the last, fifth act of this little masterpiece is to come out, so it’s worth considering buying. Kentucky Route Zero is definitely a game worth recommending and not only to lovers of video games medium.

[1] Tom Waits' songs are another association, after McCarthy, that strongly resembles this game.
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Mateusz Tarwacki

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Laura Przybylska
Laura Przybylska