By Marty Mulrooney
Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic point-and-click adventure game split into five acts. The game is being developed and published by Cardboard Computer, an indie studio consisting of Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy, using the $8,583 raised during their Kickstarter campaign in 2011. Featuring minimal puzzles and a constantly adapting narrative, the game follows a truck driver named Conway as he tries to make a delivery via a secret and mysterious highway located deep in the heart of Kentucky…
Kentucky Route Zero is a gorgeous video game from the very first scene, when Conway pulls into a gas station (Equus Oils) to ask for directions. Enjoy that beautiful sunset – it’s going to be one very long, very strange night. Although Kentucky Route Zero controls like almost any other point-and-click adventure game (look at something, talk to someone), the gameplay is much closer to an old-school text adventure… with a twist. There are no right or wrong answers and each choice made by the player shapes the narrative. Is your dog called Homer or Blue, or is it just some dog whose name you don’t know? Whatever the answer you give, that becomes the reality of your own personal experience within the world of Kentucky Route Zero.
The owner of Equus Oils is an old man named Joseph. When Conway asks him for directions to 5 Dogwood Drive, Joseph offers to let him use his personal computer to search for directions if he can fix the circuit breaker that supplies power to the station. Heading beneath Equus Oils with a lantern that shows off the game engine’s wonderful lighting effects, Conway finds his path blocked by three ‘basement people’ playing some kind of game at a table. They later disappear and Conway is able to restore the power. If you then ask Joseph about these mysterious people, he simply replies that Conway must have been hallucinating…
The ‘basement people’ are only the tip of the iceberg. As the game progresses, Conway encounters many more strange characters and you’re never quite sure if they’re real, ghosts, or something else entirely. There is an ethereal and dreamlike quality to Conway’s quest and the backroads he travels in his gently chugging van. This is the dark, eerie side of rural America, with its sprawling tarmac veins, that is often overlooked during the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Here, the quiet is deafening and there is a palpable sense of loneliness, isolation and sadness. Why is this delivery so important to Conway… and why doesn’t he react much at all to the strangeness unfolding around him?
As Act I draws to a close, Conway ends up with a bum leg and a companion in Shannon Marquez, who has been searching for something in an abandoned mine shaft. Interestingly, the player is also responsible for shaping Shannon’s dialogue choices too – the games has no puzzles and is therefore quite linear, but the true joy of Kentucky Route Zero is to be found through making internal decisions about who these characters are, rather than what they do. To say more would be to ruin what makes the game so unique, but it’s fair to say that Act II, which explores both the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces and the Museum of Inhabited Spaces, is even stranger and more intriguing than the previous act.
Kentucky Route Zero is the strangest game of the year, and it’s difficult to judge when it’s only less than halfway done. It doesn’t follow convention or logic and there is no challenge, only enjoyment and indeed bewilderment to be found. The lack of voice acting actually adds to the experience and the visuals, which convey a 2D look but often astonish with their 3D transitions, are a work of interactive art. The music is also very nice despite being understated and the sound effects add plenty of ambient atmosphere. Act I and Act II form only two pieces of a five-part puzzle. The payoff is yet to be delivered, but there are moments here – some on-screen, others no doubt taking place inside each individual player’s head – that will resonate for days after completion. Bizarre, beautiful and, more often than not, brilliant.
8.5 OUT OF 10