The Road Less Raveled
HIGH Some of the moodiest atmosphere around.
LOW It’s a bit of a chore to actually play.
WTF Third Floor: Bears?!
It took a while, but there was a point during Kentucky Route Zero that I realized I was playing something special, and that the last seven years of waiting for the whole thing to come together were worth it.
Halfway through the second (of five) main acts, the first of the lead characters, Conway, is a little closer to completing one last delivery before the antique store he works for closes its doors. He’s looking for the elusive address of “5 Dogwood Drive”, a place in rural Kentucky only accessible by driving “The Zero” — a hidden highway deep underground and far from any ordinary method of navigation. He’s not alone, though. Over the course of a long night, he’s gathered a small group of companions, all on similar paths for reasons that are their own.
By this time I had gotten used to Kentucky Route Zero‘s unusual approach to player control and agency. I was aware that the choices and control over what happened in the story of Conway and his fellow travelers were deliberately limited. I was more an observer than an inhabitant of the world Cardboard Computer had dreamed up.
I had some power, of course. In conversations, I could select who answered from among the participants, shaping the tone of the exchanges in search of whatever mood I felt appropriate. I was also accustomed to the way just whom I was controlling could shift, almost at a moment’s notice. This wasn’t just Conway’s story, as it turned out.
Getting back to my initial point, I realized I was playing something a bit different when I noticed an unusual whining and whirring sound. At first, I thought it was ambient noise, but the sound cut in and out as I walked through different areas. I muted other sources of sound around me, thinking it was external. Then I realized the noise was coming from one of my companions. I was confused. Why was this woman buzzing and whirring as she walks? Then it hit me. Thinking back to offhand comments and hints, I had a realization that I won’t disclose out of concern for the spoiler-averse.
Suffice it to say that this epiphany was momentous enough that any other game would’ve put it front-and-center. Kentucky Route Zero, on the other hand, was content to let me find it out on my own as a reward for my attention — or perhaps as a test of my comprehension. More importantly, it wasn’t a big deal when I found out. Knowing this new fact didn’t help Conway further his quest or solve a mystery. Instead, I knew more about my situation and in that newfound insight, the actions, words, and journey around me felt a little more real as the game went on.
Little mysteries and moments like this lie at the heart of Kentucky Route Zero, which is less concerned with a coherent narrative throughline than it is evoking a set of moods and feelings. Dominant is a sense of decline.
In its stretch of rural Kentucky along Interstate 63, the aptly-named “Consolidated Power Company” has taken over much of the region’s infrastructure and has settled in to squeeze the life out of what’s left. Though the game is set in an ostensibly modern time period, the derelict offices used as campsites by drifters and modern factories left abandoned after the tax breaks dried up lend KRZ a persistent, haunted atmosphere.
Details in the background also suit the storytelling’s coy, mystical leanings, perfectly complementing a narrative that’s fine leaving some things unexplained.
For example, it’s never mentioned why Equus Oils (a gas station with a giant horse’s head as its main building) has a basement shaped like the rest of the horse, or why the people living in the “Museum of Dwellings” insist on staying. It’s in these contexts that Kentucky Route Zero knows that clarifying a detail or trying to tie the content to the main plot isn’t necessary. Many of its seemingly extraneous scenes, including one of the most moving live concerts I’ve experienced since Final Fantasy VI‘s famous opera, help establish a sense of place and character that stays with the player long after the credits roll.
The strong sense of atmosphere compensates for fairly rote controls and mechanics. On a basic nuts-and-bolts level Kentucky Route Zero plays most like a traditional point-and-click adventure game. Players navigate a character around each scene, highlighting interactable objects and triggering them to read some text or engage in conversation. Between scenes, players will navigate a spartan map between destinations. Conversations can be steered by selecting a response, but this isn’t the kind of Telltale-style narrative where a player’s actions directly alter the story. If anything, it’s more about influencing the tone and texture of an interaction.
KRZ gets more experimental in the “interlude” chapters between each main act. These depart dramatically from the structure and mechanics of the main story. One act has several side characters visiting a metafictional art gallery to have lengthy discussions of philosophy. Another, originally designed for VR, has players observing conversations in a local dive bar as characters try to put on a play. The interludes are a high point in the storytelling, and should be considered essential playing.
The interludes aside, Kentucky Route Zero plays its intriguing aspects a little too lightly in the early acts, causing the initial experience to meander before diving into meatier themes of debt, guilt, shame, and the debilitating effects of capitalism. This slow start is unfortunate, as the minimal inclusion of puzzle-based play can grate on impatient players. Thankfully, KRZ‘s gorgeous visuals and killer aesthetics will keep most folks hooked long enough for the storytelling to sink in. Flat-shaded polygons and haunting style make any frame worthy of being a desktop wallpaper or poster.
It took the better part of a decade to happen, but I’m finally in a position to say that when everything was said and done, Kentucky Route Zero came together beautifully and has solidified itself as essential for anyone interested in games that have plenty to say and share their message in a beautiful way.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Cardboard Computer and published by Annapurna Interactive. It is currently available on PC, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. This copy of the game is based on retail build provided by the publisher and reviewed on PlayStation 4. It was tested on PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. There is no multiplayer mode. The game was completed.
Parents: At the time of writing, this game is rated T by the ESRB, with descriptors for Language, Use of Drugs. The official ESRB description is as follows: “This an adventure game in which players follow a story about a secret highway running through underground caves in Kentucky. Players explore a variety of environments while engaging in dialogue with other characters. One scene depicts a doctor administering an anesthetic drug (Neurypnol) on player’s character; the screen/text blurs and distorts from the effects of the fictional drug. The dialogue references painkillers and pills (e.g., “…unless you’re planning to sell painkillers on the side…”; “She offered to share the pills…I didn’t want to stop taking them.”). The word “sh*t” appears in dialogue.”
Colorblind Modes: The game has no colorblind modes selectable.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue and narrative are presented using onscreen text, though some songs played in-game have lyrics that are not captioned. Sound effects have caption options, as well as text size and auto-advance options. There are no audio cues needed for gameplay.
Remappable Controls: This game’s button controls are not remappable.