My fellow fanatics, as we are still dipping our feet into the waters of 2020 and acclimating to its stinging temperature, it has been made all the more cold by the lack of any major games to really enjoy lately. For those with massive backlogs, that is a comfort, and for those focusing on the next big thing, delay-pocalypse aside, they will need to learn patience.
But I always try to take a look at underappreciated experiences, or at the very least ones that can use a slightly higher profile, and help give them some extra love, hence the introduction of this new series of features titled “You Should Play It.” Not everything I recommend is going to be completely great or polished or entirely conventional, but hopefully it will help expand your horizons when it comes to what you sit down to play.
And what better way to start this inaugural installment by recommending an episodic game that started in 2013 and only recently concluded it’s five-chapter narrative. Let’s get into the weird side of Americana with Kentucky Route Zero.
The first thing to note is that my exposure to Kentucky Route Zero happened during the manic rush to recount not just the best games of 2019 but also some of the most impactful games of the 2010s, and seeing this unassuming indie game topping several trusted pundits’ lists. This did preload my expectations for the experience since it did seem on the surface like a game aimed to make certain players feel smart and engaged. A linear story-driven game with a focus on text and minor dialogue options with a simplistic but highly expressive minimal art style that muses on the ennui of life and the depressing march of progress? The only way the game could be anymore interactive shorthand for a prestige darling would be if it was an artistically vibrant platformer meant as an allegory for navigating depression.
But a lot of that cynicism melted away within minutes as I started the game’s first act and by the time I finished the third chapter, I was completely absorbed and invested in all of the characters and the strange world they inhabit.
In Kentucky Route Zero, you play as Conway, a middle-aged truck driver trying to make one last delivery for an antique shop that is in the final stages of collapsing, only to discover that the address he has been given isn’t shown on any modern roads or maps. It is during this trip through the American Midwest that he hears talks of a mysterious road known only as The Zero, a bizarre collection of underground roads and mysterious side streets that defies conventional spatial reasoning while also bringing Conway to unusual and downright impossible sights. It is through this picturesque narrative that he meets Shannon, a wandering analog television repair woman, a young boy with missing parents, and a pair of traveling musicians. All the while, there appears to be an encroaching sense of unease around a seemingly omnipresent electric power company and their unsettling enforcers.
The term “Lynchian” tends to get thrown around a lot when it comes to games that observe dreamlike logic or surreal imagery, but for Kentucky Route Zero, it is very appropriate. There is a palpable sense of unease regarding the time period the game is set in. Very real things in American history are cited in various locations throughout the game like the horrific treatment of coal miners and the presence of company-backed village economies, or the presence of southern gothic spirituality as it crashes against the hardships suffered in The Great Depression. But at the same time modern developments and utilities like smart phones or social media or conspicuously absent. Furthermore, Conway’s reaction to the more inciting things he sees along his journey like trees perpetually on fire or the possible presence of ghosts, is perplexingly matter-of-fact. As if his long-term life on the road has eroded his sense of the normal or believable to a constant haze of somnambulic banality. Easy potential to paint the entire experience though the lens of an unreliable narrator…if it weren’t for other people in the cast commenting on and interacting with the odd happenings as well.
Which does lead to how Kentucky Route Zero plays. As mentioned before, the game uses super basic backdrops and geometric shapes and a lot of masterful art and atmosphere to give the impression of the current scene, while a large amount of text conveys the specifics of what certain characters are doing. This does lead to several dialogue options you can choose at various intervals, but they aren’t exactly moral choices. They are meant more as a light form of role-playing, giving you a chance to express what you think the characters should be feeling at the time in their current situation. The absolute stand-out of this feature shows up during a musical number in Act 3 where a singer enraptures a bar with a song where you choose the first phrase of each verse, each one with different levels of melancholic reflection that fits the tone of the song.
Unfortunately, because of this emphasis on linear progression and attention to atmosphere, pacing, and character interplay, Kentucky Route Zero can be seen as a very arty game with no real replay value or conventional mainstream appeal. There are no branching paths in the story for picking certain dialogue options, a classic case of the illusion of choice, and once you have experienced the whole thing, there’s not much else to it. Also, if you have a cultural background that isn’t steeped in American folklore or midwestern turn of the century kitsch, some of the game’s more unsettling moments might not work as effectively.
Yet, every single time I finished a section of Kentucky Route Zero, I turned the game off, shut off my television and actually meditated on what had just happened. The turns in the plot, the ramifications of the newfound wrinkles in the journey, the downright disturbing persistence of Conway just wanting to get this darn job over with, and kept finding more intellectually engaging layers to it. The talented people over at Cardboard Computer have clearly put a lot of time and love into this game over the seven years they have developed it, and a lot of that is on display. The complete edition of Kentucky Route Zero is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, and if you enjoy a more story-driven experience and can tolerate a lot more reading than playing, then you should absolutely give this one a look.