Kentucky Route Zero
Nintendo Switch version
Retro Digital Americana
* Distinctive visual style
Contains all Acts and Interludes
A truly unique experience
* Dull as a conventional game
Narrative eventually loses its focus
May be too abstract and interpretive for some players
The Bottom Line
Kentucky Route Zero might just be the most difficult game I’ve ever tried to review. Not because the game itself is impossible to beat, far from it in fact. Rather, Kentucky Route Zero is an experience that, while utilizing the language and platforms of video games, also exists so far outside of the video game sphere that calling it a game is simultaneously incredibly reductive and overblown. It can be best described as something of an interactive art piece which happens to run on a console, something to experience and think about rather than simply finish. Even if you compare it to some of its contemporaries in the adventure and interactive fiction genres, it clearly is set apart thanks to its unique setting and interpretive, dreamlike nature.
Taking influences from literary genres such as magical realism, American folklore, and southern gothic literature, Kentucky Route Zero is an interactive drama which initially casts the player as Joseph Conway, a truck driver in Kentucky who is making his last delivery before retirement. He is tasked with delivering antiques to “5 Dogwood Drive”, an address which seemingly doesn’t exist anywhere on the map of Kentucky. After exploring around for a bit, he learns that the only way to complete his delivery is to follow the Zero, a mysterious, circular inter-dimensional highway which makes seemingly no logical sense. Along the way, Conway will interact and build relationships with several fellow travelers. These include tv repair woman Shannon Marquez, Johnny and Junebug, a roaming pair of robotic new wave musicians traveling to Nashville, and Ezra, a young orphan boy whose brother is a giant bald eagle named Julian.
Kentucky Route Zero draws inspirations from sources not typically associated with video games, and its hard to think of any other game with a setting like this. The setting is highly unusual, mixing mundane bars, gas stations, and rest stops, with fantastical, seemingly impossible locations, such as an office building with bears on one floor. The game has a strangely timeless feel, as the technology, designs, and fashions in the game make it difficult to pinpoint a decade as to when this is taking place. All of the game’s computers use tape and cathode-ray displays. The truck Conway drives looks like something out of the 1940’s, while the televisions resemble those of the 1950’s, and VHS tapes are still commonly used. Yet at least one character has a cell phone. It’s another intriguing layer to the game’s setting.
Unusually for the point-and-click genre, Kentucky Route Zero is definitely a game that is much more about theme rather than narrative. so right away this will only appeal to a certain set of players. It deals with the plight of America’s forgotten places and downtrodden blue-collar workers, who try and move forward with grit and determination. Perhaps its an tough love letter to red-state America, or perhaps its a bleak social commentary on capitalism and the recession. There’s so much going on in each act that it can be difficult to determine exactly what the game is trying to say. Every player will no doubt see different things in Kentucky Route Zero. Rich in symbolism and metaphor, Kentucky Route Zero sometimes forgoes logical sense and standard narrative tropes entirely in order to emphasize certain ideas or catch the player off guard. Nothing in this game was what I really expected it to be. At a certain stage, it almost feels like finishing the delivery is less important than what is happening with the characters and how the process certain events.
Kentucky Route Zero is constantly shifting perspectives, and during conversations you will be asked to make dialogue choices not just for Conway, but these other characters as well. These choices don’t change the plot too much, but they do allow the player to fill in a backstory and characterization for each of these wayward souls as the game progresses. You will also take control of these characters during certain scenes. Much like the Telltale games the developers have clearly taken influence from, there are no real puzzles during the game although there might be a few moments where you get lost figuring out what to do next.
On console, playing the game works extremely well. You move your character using the analog stick and select clickable objects with the right stick, while pressing a button to interact with the object. It is all very intuitive. On Nintendo Switch, you also have the option of playing the game utilizing the touch screen controls, which gives the game a more traditional point-and-click feel. This is a very nice touch from the developers.
Kentucky Route Zero is divided into 5 acts which follow Conway and his friends, although there are interludes between each act which follow other characters and events happening in the title’s universe. These interludes were originally released for free as standalone downloads, but are now integrated as part of the main experience.
When discussing Kentucky Route Zero, its protracted development time will inevitably be brought up. Originally Kickstarted around 2011, the game was released episodically on PC beginning in 2013, when the PS3, 360, and Wii U were still the dominant consoles. The developers had planned to finish the entire game within a single year, although that obviously didn’t happen. Instead, Kentucky Route Zero became a target of awe for some internet fans and frustration for most, as the developer would often be completely radio silent for years between releasing each act. It’s hard not to look at certain aspects of this game and see how the development time helped or hurt them. Even looking at the game’s original Kickstarter page reveals a vastly different art style and synopsis for the finished game, indicating a ton of changes behind the scenes. You can clearly see the developers getting more confident with visuals and camera tricks with each episode, but you also have to question what exactly took so long to develop in the first place. Act V is easily the game’s shortest, yet it took almost 4 years to finally release!.
Graphically, Kentucky Route Zero has a simple but striking art style, mainly consisting of flat-shaded polygons with a few textures. The character models have a low-poly feel not unlike the early cinematic platformer games such as Another World, although unlike that game they have no visible facial features. This is augmented by some of the best camera work and transitions I’ve ever seen in an adventure game. The way the camera zooms in on objects only to have them fade or cut out to reveal new things is a wonderful feeling. Many areas have a dynamic camera which travels all around, making for a unique experience. Map screens and menus utilize a sort of vector-graphics style. Together these two styles give the game a distinctly retro vibe, but the kind of retro that is rarely invoked rather than merely pixel art. On the Switch Kentucky Route Zero runs mostly fine although there are a few places, mainly act V, with some light stuttering probably thanks to the game’s use of the Unity engine, which seems to have optimization problems on every console. I wouldn’t let that put you off from the Switch version though, since its portability allows you to consume it like the book that it is.
There is little voice acting in the game to speak of outside of a few radio broadcasts or as part of the ambient soundscape. Much of the game consists of the sounds of rural Kentucky: the roar of the highway, the chirping of crickets, and the crackle of flame as it lights darkness. There are a few ambient tracks played during the map screens. During gameplay, you’ll get to hear some absolutely wonderful songs with vocals, which perhaps evoke the game’s strongest emotions. Most of the songs have a folk or bluegrass style, though there is one that has more of a soft pop style. I was always in awe whenever a song would come on, as it usually signaled that an Act was drawing to a close. These songs bring a sense of warmth and humanity to a game which mostly consists of silently reading character dialog and picking responses.
If you can’t already tell, Kentucky Route Zero is definitely not for everyone. When the curtain closed on the final act I wasn’t even really sure if I actually liked it. Perhaps its not the kind of game that wants to be liked. It will infuriate traditional game fans with its lack of anything meaningfully challenging or conventionally fun, while narrative lovers may be put off by the game’s insistence at being more interpretive than literal. Its themes are depressing and sad, and the ending doesn’t really offer much in the way of closure. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that there is indeed something truly one-of-a-kind here. For proponents of games as a form of interactive art, it’s another example to use, and its story and themes will likely be discussed for years on end. If you’re up for that kind of experience, then you can turn left onto the Zero. Otherwise, most gamers should just stick to the main highway.
by krisko6 (813) on March 5th, 2020