A Game Of Myself

Kentucky Route Zero

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
   are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next
   to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are
   nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

Walt Whitman

The summer and fall evenings in rural Kentucky contain a magical moment, between dusk and darkness. Twilight hangs a beautiful painting, where the ground is black but the earth is faintly lit with a diffused glow, as if the very land itself made a sleepy final attempt at keeping the day alive before the fireflies drain the last vestiges of its energy and drape it in the mood for its dark slumber. In these brief moments, the many cistern pools dotting the landscape stand in stark relief from the dark earth, shimmering with an unearthly silver pallor, as if you could walk their edges and peer into their depths and see the swirling chaos of distant worlds, or of ages long forgotten, or of a time that is yet to be.

These transient glimpses that transform the landscape into some other thing intoxicate me. In high school, I would often hop in my pickup truck when these little five-minute windows would occur and cruise the area, hoping to see the delicate interplay of light and shadow one more time. Often I mistimed it, or the weather wasn't just right, but if I'm honest with myself, I mostly used these times to be alone with my thoughts — in the middle of nowhere, only tenuously attached to civilization, driving with the windows down and listening to the crickets chirping at sunset.

These fleeting moments are so ethereal that they slip into that type of remembrance where I would wake up the next morning and wonder if it even happened at all, or if I had just dreamed it. Or maybe I stepped through a shimmering pool into another world very much like my own. Who knows? I experienced those moments alone, in the middle of nowhere, with no one to corroborate the encounter. As I grow older I find that many of life's most precious experiences are felt this way: in ephemeral memories, moments that are recalled through feeling more than remembered vividly in detail. All memories fade to this soft pallor eventually, but this special class of memory is conceived in elusive gradients.

Kentucky Route Zero, as far as most people are concerned, could probably be set in Saskatchewan to no ill effect on the plot or beauty of the game. But as I sat playing it, it dredged up old, half-formed memories that made me wonder if the designer wasn't me, in another age or another lifetime, transported through those silvery pools of a broken twilight. That isolated stretch of Interstate 65 roughly between (if my geography skills are serving me correctly) Bowling Green and Cave City could be nearly any isolated stretch of interstate. Those tiny, little country roads that run like a spiderweb away from the interstate could be any little country roads.

But they aren't. These are the roads on which I was raised. I know this place. And yet ... the entire game seems to exist in that fleeting moment between the dusk and night. Although I don't recognize this particular gas station, I recognize the feel of the setting sun dancing at the edge of the hilltops. I recognize the shimmering dark overtaking the rolling landscape. I don't know this place, but I feel it is part of my home. Every scene in this game is lit in that same indeterminate, ethereal quality as the dusk I chased years ago. It's something I've not seen before in a game, but is strangely appropriate here.

I hop in my truck to deliver antiques that are, perhaps, not as old as the truck itself. Although given marginally clear directions by the gas-station attendant, the siren call of the backwoods roads is too tempting to ignore. Maybe if I explore enough of these forgotten filaments running through the landscape, I will find that moment where the world is transformed once again.

I happen across an old diner by the side of the road. From the outside, it's difficult to tell if it's open or abandoned. I push through the black door to spy a scene that feels strangely familiar, delivered in no more prose than a screenwriter would use to give direction, content to convey the point by flashing brief descriptions on the screen. A checkerboard, wreathed in the smoke from two men hunkered over it in an end booth. A hunched man wearing a farming cap and a forlorn expression. A dirty menu. A waitress's hand on mine as she pours steaming coffee into a chipped mug. I order waffles with a sneaking sense of déjà vu.

I climb back into the cab of my truck and sit motionless for several minutes, staring at the sparsely-detailed map. I feel as though I've been here before, but have I? Have I ordered waffles at a diner very much like this on one of my evening excursions to find the land of the twilight? The memory has passed beyond concrete images and into the undefined world of feeling. I know this place with a deeper part of my being than my brain, yet I still wonder if I've ever been here at all, or dreamed being here, or simply read it in a story. Maybe these memories are of a parallel me, and I merely glimpsed them through the silvery pond.

I decide to continue on to my destination, via directions delivered entirely in landmarks — after all, street signs are not a particularly common thing in these parts. I meander up a hill to be greeted with the same eerie twilight I've been seeking. I head inside and talk with a girl who I think may be even less connected to reality than I currently am. Though we ostensibly discuss her TV, I am inexorably drawn to the window behind, from which emanates the same unearthly glow I remember from trips past. I peer through it and only see a decrepit old barn and grazing horses — perhaps this is not the view I sought in my youth. I thank her for her information and set about my way, pausing for a moment to listen to a front-porch banjoist across the street, lazily picking at his instrument.

Much of the rest of the journey blurs together like so many memories from the past: an old abandoned coal mine, a cloud of late-night dragonflies, a nighttime view of Elkhorn Creek (Hey, I grew up with that creek in my backyard!). Eventually I wind up back at the same destination I recently left. I trudge back up the hill, a bit more slowly this time, and return to the house — only to find the girl I talked to a short while ago is gone. In fact, things are so undisturbed that I'm not sure she was ever there in the first place. Did I dream this? Did it happen? Or did I just read about it in a story somewhere? You never can tell with this sort of memory. If it is, indeed, a memory.

The window still entices me with the same ethereal pallor as before. I look through it and finally find that which I seek. Maybe I mistimed it earlier. Maybe the weather was bad. It's hard to tell in this hanging moment, in which the world seems to forget itself in the transition between light and dark. In all my youthful journeys through this moment, transient though they were, I never really stopped to take in the view. Flying by the picture at 55 miles an hour is more conducive to the pondering of the future that I was doing at the time, the damp breeze whipping through the truck cabin.

Now, later in life, I feel as though I can finally stop the car and take in the view, perhaps cement the memories into more than fleeting images impossible to describe in detail. But the past memories, those from the other self that lives on the other side of the silver pool, remain stubbornly vague. In this brief moment in which I now sit, it is not hard to imagine me taking my fresh memories, the ones so bright and vivid in their relief, and passing them on to some other me in some other twilight.

Comments

A fantastic essay, congratulations.

I really love this site! - a site about video games... but from a thoughtful and mature perspective. Plenty of good writers too - good ol' Elysium has always been one of my personal favourites, but you sir are now getting my attention as well

Keep up the good work, guys. It's a pleasure to read your work. We grown-up gamers need more sites like this.

[edit - oh, and good choice: Walt Whitman. I once read 'Song of myself' and loved it. It was a Spanish translation though, so I guess most of the original writing's depth was probably lost or at least watered-down. Maybe I should try and read some of his work in English]

Figured I'd hold out until the next Steam sale for this one. But you make it sound very inviting.

Grew up just a few miles north on I65 of that area you're describing. I remember those nights cruising around in my teens too. Definitely something magical about my old Kentucky home.

Stele wrote:
my old Kentucky home.

A considered title for this article

Minarchist wrote:
Stele wrote:
my old Kentucky home.

A considered title for this article :)

The state park? Took me forever to figure out what those highway signs were going on about.

The state song. Written by Stephen Foster, whose home can be toured off of the Bluegrass Parkway.

I know the song. It was just weird driving in through Louisville and seeing all the signs pointing to "My Old Kentucky Home" as something other than a song, and with the assumption that anyone from out of state would understand that they're talking about the home referenced in the song.

And there's a wonderful summer play series, the Stephen Foster story, where that and many other great songs are featured. Runs in Bardstown at the previously mentioned state park.

Looks like it just ended Sat. for this season. But if you're ever in the area June-Aug, it's worth the time. I think one summer we even got season passes, and went back with different pairs of guests a couple of times.

And it all just happens to be smack dab in the middle of the Bourbon Trail. Coincidence? I think not.

Oh! Um, article ... and stuff.

Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.

Kentucky Route Zero, as far as most people are concerned, could probably be set in Saskatchewan to no ill effect on the plot or beauty of the game. But as I sat playing it, it dredged up old, half-formed memories that made me wonder if the designer wasn't me, in another age or another lifetime, transported through those silvery pools of a broken twilight. That isolated stretch of Interstate 65 roughly between (if my geography skills are serving me correctly) Bowling Green and Cave City could be nearly any isolated stretch of interstate. Those tiny, little country roads that run like a spiderweb away from the interstate could be any little country roads.

Growing up in rural Central Florida I have to agree with you. This is the paragraph that hits home with me. In fact much of it does, minus the coal mine :). Great article!

Growing up in this area myself, now I'm really interested in picking this up!

Kicking myself for not getting it on the last steam sale. Moved to the top of my list now.

Strange how many folks here, are from the KY area, but now in Central Florida.
I too moved to the Orlando/CF area about 10 years ago after living in KY (Lou/Lex area my whole life)

We should have a meetup soon!

Andon wrote:

Strange how many folks here, are from the KY area, but now in Central Florida.
I too moved to the Orlando/CF area about 10 years ago after living in KY (Lou/Lex area my whole life)

We should have a meetup soon!

Indeed. Right after I moved here I think there was either a Lexington S&T or maybe it was the "go to Cincinnati and go to the movies" S&T... one of those happened and I was a little sad that I missed it. But there's definitely a few people down here. It's just that "living in Florida" can still make you an 8-hour drive apart depending on which part of the state you are in.

Not sure if anyone has tried to organize a meet down here, but there might be enough interest.

Great job, Minarchist. This is the article I wish I could've written. The sense of nostalgia and melancholy for things that were only imagined permeates the game and is so achingly familiar, growing up almost exactly where you did.

Our very own Wanderer interviewed the game creators and they described it as a "exploration of what people's experiences are like when they're marginalized".

On the central Florida thing, I think everywhere in the South has a little from everywhere else. I know there was a decent little KY crew in SC when I lived there.

Beautiful piece, man.

Thank you kindly.

EDIT:

PyromanFO wrote:
Our very own Wanderer interviewed the game creators and they described it as a "exploration of what people's experiences are like when they're marginalized".

The "magical realism" bit that was mentioned in that article really gets at the heart of this game. After reading up in it a bit, I can really see how it influenced their design, and how that feeds into what I felt above.

Beautifully written, Minarchist. Elkhorn Creek runs through my hometown also. (It's a really long creek!) I've spent many hours playing and/or fishing in its waters.

You say this game could be set in any other isolated stretch of highway or rural area, and if it were, this article would make me want to play it. But the fact that it's set in KY makes me want to play it even more. Of all the things KY is not, it is a beautiful, magical landscape.

Wordsmythe wrote:
Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.

I love it when people quote The Muppet Movie. I do so quite often myself.

Excelent! im new here

SillyRabbit wrote:
Beautifully written, Minarchist. Elkhorn Creek runs through my hometown also. (It's a really long creek!) I've spent many hours playing and/or fishing in its waters.

You say this game could be set in any other isolated stretch of highway or rural area, and if it were, this article would make me want to play it. But the fact that it's set in KY makes me want to play it even more. Of all the things KY is not, it is a beautiful, magical landscape.

Wordsmythe wrote:
Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.

I love it when people quote The Muppet Movie. I do so quite often myself. :)

I was on the fence between that quote and something from "Going To Go Back There Someday."

If you haven't read (and if this were not partly inspired by) the new Neil Gaiman novel, The Ocean At The End of the Lane, I highly recommend it. An amazing book about childhood and ephemeral experiences.

Lots of great articles being written about this one. That was another. Always wonderful when a game extends into personal and digressive reactions of its players. Mythological when it happens.

A heads-up, this is 50% right now off during the Greenlight sale at Steam.