Mild spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero
I’m standing in the parking lot of a darkened gas station in the Kentucky countryside, next to my dog and my van. I’m looking for an address so I can make this final delivery, but the turnoff is tough to find. The owner of the station – a former poet by the name of Joe – sits out front; he tells me the old computer in his office will have the address of someone who knows how to find the turnoff. I’ll just need to put the password in.
He knows it, the password, but only by muscle memory. He just feels it out. It’s kinda long, like one of those short poems, he explains. ”One of those short poems that really sums it all up.”
“You’ll figure it out.”
This makes me want to bawl. Not “me” – Conway the protagonist (at least, initially) of Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer – but Me: Mike Rugnetta. The implications here are subtle, but deep and heartbreaking. Not only is there a poem that can, and does, “sum it all up” but “it” is apparently such a concrete, knowable set of circumstances that two acquaintances might share a clear enough understanding that rendering it as language is feasible without much collaboration. It’s something you can just … feel out.
I direct Conway to Joe’s computer inside Equus Oils and sure enough, after entering a Username it asks for a password. The black text box in which much of the decision making of KY0 takes place presents me with three options, three short sentences. I select one. Three more are presented. And three more again.
I am granted access.
The trick is so simple, it’s not even a trick. Whatever arrangement of three lines is choose, the computer grants access. But KY0, the game, has seen Joe’s assurance through: I did figure it out. I did feel out the password-poem that “sums it all up”.
To look at this another way: I also told the game what poem sums It all up. I determined what It is, and my choice configured (or reconfigured) the fictional landscape of Kentucky Route Zero such that
The stars drop away.
The moon throbs.
It will only get later.
sums up It. I have made It, in a backwards kind of way.
This is a theme in Kentucky Route Zero. John Searle and J.L. Austin, developing a philosophy of Speech Acts, talked about “the direction of fit, of words to the world.” Searle describes word-to-world direction of fit as a description of things which are true. These are statements like “the sky is blue”. World-to-word direction of fit is where the world must change in order for the fit to succeed. These are statements of desire, like “Two scoops of mint chocolate chip, please”. World-to-word-to-world fit is where the world is altered by statements being made: “I now declare you man and wife.” “I sentence you to 30 months in prison.” “This house is foreclosed upon.”
KY0 purposefully overlaps directions of fit, over and over again. Dialogue options are, contextually, word-to-world. Characters are talking to one another, and describing what they perceive. But for the player, they are word-to-world-to-word fits. The player is selecting declarations which make the circumstances shift – often invisibly and instantaneously, in thought alone – to fit what is said.
One of the more powerful examples concerns Conway’s alcoholism. He begins the game with an admission of sobriety (if you navigate the dialogue tree “correctly”). But over time, and thanks to shifting plot-related circumstance, he relapses. The way this detail is solidified is not in a speech option spoken by Conway (at least, not in any way I’ve seen; but the game has a famously dense dialogue tree), but by his friend and travel partner Shannon. In the world of KY0, Shannon is remarking upon what is the case – but in our own world, outside the game, the selection of a dialogue options makes it the case. It feels something like a final nail in the coffin, a kind of confirmation. Conway has little agency here. He is twice removed from his circumstance. First through Shannon, then through us. He has no control over his addiction.
Cardboard Computer describes Kentucky Route Zero as ”a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it”. There is a lot in it that’s magical – extra-dimensional roads, subterranean rivers, debt so severe it prevents full transition to death upon the expiration of the human body. But playing through I can’t help but think of its dialogue options and their resemblance to spells: incantations which reconfigure the (often unseen) substrate of the environment, fitting the world to what has been said.