Kentucky Route Zero is a five-part road trip through the soul-sick nighttime highways of the Bluegrass State.
I don’t know if I can describe the game in any especially specific way, so let’s just use developer Cardboard Computer’s elevator pitch:
Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it. Gameplay is inspired by point-and-click adventure games (like the classic Monkey Island or King’s Quest series, or more recently Telltale’s Walking Dead series), but focused on characterization, atmosphere and storytelling rather than clever puzzles or challenges of skill.
That’s about it, but it’s just about right. If anything, really, it kind of undersells itself. It might end up being difficult to talk about the game without waxing poetic and getting all purple and stupid, so as precaution, I’ll say this up front: if Act I is any indication of the remaining four, Kentucky Route Zero is great.
But then of course, caveat emptor and all: we haven’t seen the rest of the game yet—each act is to be released every few months, over the next year. With how much yt. loved the first part, it’s going to be a long wait. And everything might just fall apart with the next episode and ruin everyone’s hopes forever.
But this first part! This first part. There’s a ton to like, here, and a ton plot-wise/thematically that’s lurking just under the surface—one assumes it’s likely to emerge, fully formed, in some later episode. Protagonists Conway and Shannon hint at sad and troubled histories that feel only just scabbed over. The music’s this blend of calm Brian Eno-synthy stuff and ambient noise; it very occasionally dips into creepy territory (and once, when you least expect it, into bluegrass gospel), but most of the time it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear if you were gawking at the sky in wonderment. There’s the lovely, lonely line art of the overworld (just enough to recall the beautiful angular aesthetic of the main gameplay) where the player drives around between the game’s various scenes and vignettes. And then we have the big story hook, that question that no one asks but that everyone takes for granted: What the heck is the Zero?
To get any closer to the answer—at least until the rest of the game is out—the player actually has to go out and get all metatextual by playing the pseudo-demo, Limits and Demonstrations.
Limits isn’t a slice of any particular part of Act I or Kentucky Route Zero proper. Instead, it’s a short stroll—maybe fifteen minutes—through a museum and stars the three Greek chorus-like characters that appear (in a couple of unexpected ways) in Act I. But in addition to hinting at things to come, it’s a great distillation of what makes Kentucky Route Zero so good. In the game (as in the demo), the player travels between meticulously crafted scenes, each tinged with the supernatural. (The game’s self-described as magical realism, after all.) The sights are all foreign and yet nostalgic; gleaming but choked with grime.
But like all good magical realism, it remains grounded, in a stoic that-was-strange-but-I’ve-seen-stranger type of way. And like most good road trips, the oddities of the road—the Zero—are just a MacGuffin for exploring the peculiarities of the people along the way. Its themes lie squarely in the human condition. (Whatever the heck that means.) It comes through more in the game proper—I mean, fewer limits, less demonstrating, more doing, obviously—but one does get the sense that the entire experience of playing the game reflects that of spying on fleeting, private moments while traveling between Point A and Point B. Starting a conversation with a stranger seems harmless enough, but pretty soon you’re getting sucked into something intimate and personal and tragic. And. Well. Even a little dangerous.
It’s definitely the case that Kentucky Route Zero has more in common with interactive novels and movies than traditional adventure games—there’s only one “puzzle”; it occurs at the very beginning, and it hardly counts as puzzling, really. The rest is exploration and writing. The game’s clearly reaching for literary heights, and it makes no bones about its goals or influences, or how long the creators have spent thinking about them. Allusions abound; Homeric comparisons are particularly apt, I think.
There’s a ton to unpack in each scene—I mean it about the “meticulously crafted” thing. Of course in the intertextual kind of way; it’s a smart game. But just emotionally, viscerally, too. Not rarely did I get something a little funny in my throat—some vista, maybe (that television!), or a secret let slip in the midst of conversation. It’s not all tragedy and heartbreaking beauty, either; I loved the quiet, easy traveler’s rapport between Shannon and Conway—particularly the casualness with which they searched for the Zero’s onramp, in a mine cart of all things, Conway resting quietly, Shannon relaxed in her seat. These feel like dense characters who know and feel much more than they let on. And yes, I know, I know—I keep banging on this lofty-but-grounded/supernatural-but-human drum, but seriously, with Act I, Cardboard Computer has done it so well.
It’s some of the the rarest, highest praise that I can give when I say that I wish I could play a game for the first time again, but I can safely say that of Kentucky Route Zero’s opening act. (There’s an upshot to the episodic model here, at least—there’s four more to look forward to.) Act I is so odd, so beautiful, so thoughtfully realized; it’s a story made by game developers who possess a powerful control over their craft and have the confidence to use it in subtle and sparing ways.
I opened by saying that I didn’t know how to describe the game. Having written all this, I think I’ve failed to do it any justice. But something does comes to mind—the game happens speak for itself:
That’s about it, but it’s just about right.
Don’t call it new theatre, Charlie; call it real theatre. Call it our theatre! ↩
Conveniently, a list of the latter is made available if the player is willing to do a little extended exploration. Names and mediums range, unsurprisingly, far and wide. ↩
Yt. keeps thinking back to a certain moment in a certain coal mine. Could be that this’ll spoil something, here, but: “My parents sang for coal scrips” hit me right in the gut. What sort of desperation do you have to be in to trade that kind of beauty for something so small? Or: that diner. Or: That joy when that song kicks in. Or: Or: Or: Or: ↩
Another example, and a thing I like: the members of the chorus are above the action, but rather than being a bunch of snarky assholes loitering in the peanut gallery, they do things like go to museums and play tabletop RPGs. ↩