A Game Of Myself
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
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
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.