Kentucky Route Zero
Kentucky Route Zero, developed by Cardboard Computer, is described by its creators as “a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it.” The game is being released in five acts, and acts one through three are available now. For those with a fondness for adventure games, strong writing, or haunting imagery, Kentucky Route Zero is a game that’s easy to recommend.
The game has many fascinating characters, but the story is centered on Conway, a furniture deliveryman who loses himself on a highway in Kentucky looking for an address. The driving force of the narrative is Conway locating the address to make his delivery, though, as the story goes on complications obscure this simple goal. While many games put forward clever challenges for players to overcome, Kentucky Route Zero is more interested in showing off its eerie world and introducing the player to interesting characters. The game won’t push back as the player tries to make progress towards the end and as a result, those who simply play the game to beat it won’t have as memorable experience as those who take their time and poke around each section of the game.
Kentucky Route Zero takes the form of a point and click adventure in the tradition of games such as Monkey Island, King’s Quest, and Maniac Mansion. Conway posses no special skills or tools and his two primary ways of moving the story forward are investing the environment and talking to the right person. At various points the player is tasked with making a decision about what Conway has to say on a particular subject or what his past was. While the decisions the player makes in Kentucky Route Zero aren’t earth shattering or dramatic on a grand scale, they do pull the player into the world and the characters. For example, when Conway is trying to calm himself down does he imagine a warm meal or a cold drink? Does he feel more at ease picturing his home or the open road? What’s his dog’s name? Conway and his friends aren’t dealing with an oppressive government, war or a world ending disease. Most of them are just trying to get by in life, and that in and of itself can be incredibly poignant and endearing.
Each act is divided into a series of scenes and this format provides a great sense of flow. Much like an episode of television each scene ends with the player wondering, “What happens next?” As the characters bond and become closer more of their background is revealed or cleverly hinted at. The game keeps a steady stream of new environments and memorable characters coming in to prevent anything from becoming stale.
By far the strongest elements of Kentucky Route Zero are its style and its writing, both of which invite quiet introspection. It’s the kind of game best experienced by yourself in a quiet room with the lights turned off. This is a world where characters give directions like “Turn left as soon as you see that ugly tree that’s always on fire,” and don’t think twice about it. Gas stations are adorned with giant horse heads set against the setting sun. Endless caverns echo with sounds from lifetimes ago. Barely visible figures move in the dark as sparks from a mine cart briefly illuminate a hidden cave. All the while bluegrass musicians sing sad, timeless songs. The game’s color palette is populated mostly with blacks, browns, and dark blues, but are accented by the occasional red, orange, or white to great effect. The text that the game uses for its descriptions of the world and the people in it is a joy to read, like a piece of great poetry. While inspecting a seemingly abandoned house, Conway investigates the kitchen and observes “And abandoned spider web stretches across the bottom of a saucepan. A skillet is seasoned with dust.”
Conway and his crew are anomalies in a strange world. Kentucky Route Zero mixes its themes and moods as though it was a perfectly balanced soup. A foundation of wondrous Americana and mystery gives way to shades melancholy and introspection. There is even room for exquisite moments of fear and unease. This is a game filled to the brim with beautiful treasures that shines a light on mystifying landscapes that will stick with you long after you’ve stopped playing. Buy the ticket, take the ride.