Archives in Video Games: Kentucky Route Zero
[Author's Note: This article contains some spoilers for Acts 1 and 2 of Kentucky Route Zero.]
There's a fine line between intrigue and entertainment; an even finer line between the thrilling unknown and surreal familiarity. Somehow, Kentucky Route Zero manages to expertly walk these lines while guiding the player through the cavernous loop of shadows and puppetry that would make Plato nod in approval.
Developed by Cardboard Computer and published by Annapurna Interactive, Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure game that takes the player on a journey through the Bluegrass State via the Zero, a highway where everything is just a little bit off the beaten path. Throughout most of the game you play as Conway, a truck driver for Lysette's Antiques, making his last delivery to the mysteriously indeterminate location of 5 Dogwood Drive. You get to choose Conway's dialogue and actions, which can reveal different features within the game depending on how you respond to events and other characters. There's also an exploratory function to the game that encourages wandering the highway and backroads (using an actual map of the Kentucky highway for inspiration), taking you to various places that are "odd" or "off," but never outright horror. Most locations, however, are rooted in the imagery of poverty, decay, and disrepair, which provides a familiar backbone to the more uncanny events that follow.
The game itself is set during the 1970s recession and takes inspiration from Appalachian folklore and ghost stories as well as a hefty dose of magical realism from authors like Gabriel García Márquez, whose name is attributed to the Márquez cousins, Weaver and Shannon. I've heard others compare it to the podcast turned novel, Alice Isn't Dead, which takes a similar approach of exploring Americana and the horrors of the American highways that go unnoticed. There's, in my opinion, a very David Lynch aspect about the game that reminds me of Twin Peaks or Lost Highway. You know something isn't quite right, but all of the characters talk matter-of-factly and with such casual conviction that you end up accepting their reality even as it warps and fluctuates.
So, of course archives would have to feature in some way. Everybody loves a bit of off-kilter bureaucracy!
The first instance or mention of archives comes in Act I when Conway and Shannon come across a stage erected in the old mine that's degraded and damaged from what we learn was a flood that killed many of the miners. Shannon tells Conway that folk music archivists, who she describes as "academic, ivory tower types," would record miner's songs on the stage. The description is an interesting one when we later learn that the archivists were Weaver's parents, Shannon's aunt and uncle.
The miners, though, Shannon's parents among them, were distrustful of the archivists so they "stayed in the margins, observing, taking notes, and get someone on a lunch break to sing into their microphone." The work of the archivists apparently got the attention of executives in the power company the mine was attached to and gave the archivists coal scrip to pay the miners for their songs.
One of the dialogue options for Conway is to ask what the archivists were after, to which Shannon replies:
Data, I guess. Comparing intonation, subject matter, diction...you know, all those little details that no one really thinks about when they listen to music.
If you find the old stage, then you're most likely to come across a tape deck while backtracking through the mine. The only way to play it is to turn off your flashlight (there's a power issue), which plunges the characters and the screen into darkness while a distorted, static-filled song plays acts as a coda to scene.
There's something of a class disparity story in the midst of Shannon's exposition about the mine. Clearly, the miners are at the bottom, trying to earn coal scrip to keep the electricity going as well as the air flow. The executives of the power company are at the top, doling out scrip when it suits them to keep the miners in line, but generally just being your average evil capitalists. Then you have the archivists in the middle, which I find interesting because "academic, ivory tower types," as Shannon described doesn't necessarily mean more powerful. Academia is as hierarchical as any system, but through Shannon's narrative, the archivists are, at the very least, framed as "above" the miners, as if their status as academics made them better simply because they weren't working-class miners.
Given that Shannon's parents were miners and her aunt and uncle archivists, there's a pinch of unreliable narrator attached to the stories as well. The story we're given as Conway is entirely based on Shannon's experiences and how the world shaped her understanding of social hierarchy regarding her parents and extended family. That hierarchy seems to have extended to the second generation with Shannon employed as a mechanic and Weaver ending up a mathematician. It's an excellent lesson, for archivists and historians, about how narratives are contextual regardless of the source. Documents and people are products of their time and experiences, which makes determining "the truth" a much more daunting task.
The second instance of archives takes place in Act II where we find Conway and Shannon arriving at the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces in search of 5 Dogwood Drive's location. The Bureau, which is both inside and outside, is described as mostly concrete (possibly referencing the Brutalist architecture of government buildings), and was once a cathedral whose congregation was moved to an off-site storage facility.
That is one of the weirder sentences I've had to write. Moving on!
The pair are directed to see Lula Chamberlin, a clerk on the first floor who tells them that, once upon a time, there were a lot of Dogwood Drives, which were easily distinguishable by locals, but once the address needed to be entered into a database the computer couldn't account for the nuances. Therefore, every Dogwood Drive was given a qualifier like "Pale" Dogwood Drive or "Big Leaf" Dogwood Drive to account for the ambiguity. In order to figure out which Dogwood Drive is their Dogwood Drive, they need to consult the documents in Archives and Records on the fourth floor. What do you know, an archives not in a basement! Points to the Kentucky Route Zero creators! She "helpfully" tells them to check the road name changes log where they'll need to search under "O" for odonyms, "G" for generic, or "S" for specific, depending on what part of the street name was changed.
This is only one of several bureaucratic nightmares that occurs in the Bureau, many of which I'm woefully familiar with as a corporate archivist. This is where the game takes on a Terry Gilliam, Brazil-esque turn as Conway and Shannon are shuffled from clerk to clerk in a back and forth triangular pattern of form requests and filing issues. Thankfully, it's optional.
Also worth noting: the third floor of the Bureau just says Bears and, if you go to that floor, it's literally occupied by bears who do nothing but watch you walk around them until you leave. Why? Because they're bears. What else are they supposed to do?
Anyway, they find that Archives and Records is floor to ceiling covered in boxes and there's not a damned archivist to be found! Shocking, I know! Never an archivist around when you need them, right? Right?! As Conway and Shannon start searching, you find the aforementioned log book and discover this special nugget of a note:
Document staff, please do not transfer any more records from the storage unit until we get the new file cabinets in. We're up to F, and that will have to do for now.
I felt that in my archival bones.
So, it turns out Lula's "helpful" search parameters means the files they're looking for are still back in the old storage unit currently occupied by a church congregation. They're directed to the facility only to find that the congregation stopped meeting there a while ago and that the janitor, Brandon, has been playing old sermons while projecting a slide show of congregation photos acquired from the Bureau's archives.
I actually find this section rather sweet because Brandon's reasoning behind keeping up the idea of the church still meeting and singing is a way of keeping some form of history alive while also staving off his own loneliness. He's found use for archival materials that is both about preservation and connection even if the original community is no longer present. It's definitely a thankless form of outreach, but there's something beautiful about holding on to and retaining that sense of community even while the world has fallen into ruin.