The mourning in Night in the Woods and Kentucky Route Zero

[minor spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero and Night in the Woods]

Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) and Night in the Woods (NITW) are games about decay. They’re both focused on small town America, and the slow death of rural communities as a consequence of corporate consolidation and changing times. There’s a clear pattern in indie games here. This isn’t unique to American games. Disco Elysium, from Estonian developers, too is about the slow death of societies.

In NITW, Mae returns home from college to find the town she grew up in and loved altered irrevocably. The local mines have shuttered, and most of the younger populace have moved to cities for opportunities elsewhere. The town residents are aging. Small businesses are closing. Infrastructure is breaking down.

Similarly, the town at the edge of the Zero in KRZ is dying. Jobs disappeared as businesses closed or were absorbed by the Consolidated Power Co. People have left, and those that haven’t are deep in debt, slowly dying or already dead. The Power Co. pulled out of the town when it stopped making business sense. The infrastructure they were supposed to build left incomplete. As a consequence, torrential storms have flooded it, destroying many of the houses – a final death blow to the already precarious town.

For Mae, the decay is unfamiliar. She is in the prime of her youth, privileged enough to attend college, with the freedom to move beyond the town into the cities where opportunities still exist. The decay is a shock to the system – A reminder that the childhood she knew was long gone, far in the past. for the people in the Zero, the decay is all too familiar, a constant throughout their lives, a state of the world they had to live through.

Despite their similarities, NITW and KRZ are remarkably different in tone. NITW is steeped in child-like nostalgia – a longing for the world of the past. During her time at home, she relives childhood memories with the few friends who have remained. In KRZ, the nostalgia has faded. We are left with a mourning and a silent bitter anger at the powers-that-be. The residents of the Zero live in a liminal state. The world has not ended, but it looks like it might soon. Days are dedicated to mourning the past, not reliving it.

NITW’s reflects a very young perspective. The decay started before we were ever around. It lurked in the background, ignored by our youthful naivety. KRZ has an aged perspective. They have seen the tides change. They have been drowning in them. KRZ mourns the world that was. NITW mourns the world that could have been.