Blog Post

CSI Skill Tree: Kentucky Route Zero

A screenshot from the video game Kentucky Route Zero, showing a cabin, viewed from above, under a floodlight in what looks to be a museum or gallery space. In the foreground, we can see shadowy beams holding up lighting. Superimposed on the image are headshots for the special guests at this event, Zoyander Street and Rachel Carr.

The CSI Skill Tree series from the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University examines how video games envision possible futures, build rich and thought-provoking worlds, and engage people as active participants in unfolding stories.

In our latest episode, we discuss Kentucky Route Zero, a magical realist adventure game about a secret, paranormal highway running through the caves beneath Kentucky. The game was released in five acts between 2013 and 2020, and it takes a mind-bending artistic and philosophical approach to themes of labor, debt, alienation, rural disinvestment, automation, the collision of the digital and physical worlds, and how history haunts our experience of the present and our possible futures.

Our guests are Zoyander Street, an artist, researcher, critic, and ethnographer who works on video games, media art, and other (mis)uses of technology, and Rachel Carr, a scholar of Southern U.S. and Modernist literature, as well as Women’s and Gender Studies, at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky.

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1 comment

I loved this analysis of KRZ! The discussions of KRZ’s description of utopia intrigued me, and I was inspired to play though the game myself.

These mediocre utopias really resonated with me, in a sorrowful sort of way. As mentioned in the episode, KRZ portrays the systemic forces as inescapable, and electing to merely to stay and survive is the only option to outright leaving (which serves as an abandonment of ancestral knowledge and land). Within America’s corporate domination, the idea that one could potentially create a mediocre utopia without dissolve the existing, invincible exploitative system is as powerful as it is disheartening.

I think the bat sanctuary from act four serves as an interesting microcosm for KRZ’s mediocre utopias. It seems to fall into the same pitfalls of the utopias KRZ establishes in act five, in that it is colonial and upheld through exploitative technologies. The bats themselves are not natural to the cave, they have brought here from another location for the purpose of preservation (which is mentioned to upset the ecosystem of their original spaces, as one of the signs mentions that artificial traps had to be implemented to balance the food chain). Additionally, their survival is dependent them eating the Little Gray Nothing Moth, which was artificially created. The grayness and artificiality draw comparison to Junebug and Johnny, two androids created for the specific purpose of exploiting their labor. On top of this, they are Nothing Moths, a title that seems to devalue their bodies to something not worth considering.

The unnatural and exploitive systems of the bat sanctuary invite the player to compare this place to both our own world and the world of KRZ. However, whereas the utopian aspect of KRZ’s world and our own are obfuscated, the utopian aspects of the bat sanctuary are made a little more explicit. The guano produced by the bats are used to negate some of the agricultural impact made by their presence. This isn’t to say that the bats improve their space, instead they merely minimize their presence. Conway points out that this is a lot of work, especially as the work is not done by the bats themselves. So how does one interpret the bats? They are unnatural and exploitative, yet at the same time their systems are integrated and inseparable with those of the cave’s. To the bats, this system is inescapable, as they would simply starve without the Little Gray Nothing Moths. To remove them from the cave might benefit the cave, but at this point the bats are part of the cave. I feel as if the comparisons to Kentucky’s colonial development are present here, and to interpreting the bat sanctuary may be indicative to interpreting Kentucky’s trauma.