Within the first few moments of Kentucky Route Zero, a gas station attendant asks the player’s character, Conway, what the name of his straw-hat-wearing dog is. Three options are given: “His name is Homer”, “Her name is Blue”, or “Just some dog; I don’t know his name”. So begins the first episode of the game labeled as a magical realist adventure that has grabbed several nominations in the 2013 Independent Games Festival.
Story & Gameplay
The bulk of Kentucky Route Zero is played out this way. A few bricks are in place for the foundation but not much else. Players take control of Conway and through a dialogue choice learn that he needs to make a delivery but doesn’t know how to get to the address. To get there he needs to take “the Zero” and it’s up to the player to figure out the rest. The brilliance of the narrative lies in how it turns the player into a gameplay mechanic. The story provided in the first episode reveals as much as the player is willing to explore. It is possible to make Conway into a man interested in getting to know people or one who is more concerned with getting the job done and being emotionally distant. There are even a choice few opportunities to select the dialogue for other characters.
Games like Mass Effect or The Walking Dead have players make life or death decisions where the ramifications might not even be apparent until much later in the story. Trying to juggle who to save and who to sacrifice in these moments can be emotional but can also simply boil down to what will benefit the gameplay in the future. While it may be too early in the episodes to judge, Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t seem as concerned with this. Dialogue decisions reflect who the player is as a person more so than as a gamer. That isn’t to say that Conway doesn’t have a few interesting encounters. Without spoiling anything, there are some very surreal and strange moments in the game that will leave players scratching their heads and wondering what the relation to the overarching plot may be.
Though Kentucky Route Zero is labeled as an adventure game, it possesses very few elements from what many are probably familiar with. There are no real puzzles to solve and definitely no action sequences. Pointing and clicking gets players everywhere in the game. A few items can be collected but not much else. The “driving” section of the game allows players the (mainly optional) ability to explore the various back roads and highways of Kentucky. Along the way, points of interest may pop up which will lead to little snippets of text or even open up a mini text adventure. The text adventure portions are very well done, full of ambiance, and contain some of the game’s creepier moments. Being bathed in a subtle but expertly written and executed narrative is truly what makes the experience as memorable as it is.
Graphics & Sound
Remember the game Another World/Out of This World? It could immediately come as a comparison to part of the look of Kentucky Route Zero. Being reminiscent of a game from the early ‘90s certainly doesn’t make it look archaic at all, though. In fact, the game has some very gorgeous moments that owe a lot to dramatic camera angles and scene reveals. Lighting is another element that plays an important role when it comes to setting the scene. A slow journey through a darkened cave will reveal some surprises in the foreground and background as a small lantern passes. Watching the dark exterior of a house become illuminated and then suddenly dissolve into a distant barn will leave any player in awe. It’s actually quite difficult to explain some of the more stunning visual cues and moments in the game. Just know that the transition from the sunset in the beginning of the game to the dark of the finale is littered with visual treats.
Those expecting a barrage of Bluegrass music to tie in with the “Kentucky” atmosphere will be mostly disappointed. Kentucky Route Zero’s sound design is as subtle as its narrative. The use of sound is actually makes the world more realistic and grounded (and sometimes a bit scarier). Depending on where the player is during the “driving” section, the road might be full of night sounds or the noise of passing cars. The text adventure moments are enhanced by noises depicting the actions described. After one of the many weird moments (and before the transition of a scene) bluegrass music will begin to play and the camera will pull back to reveal a small band’s silhouette performing in the foreground. It’s certainly strange because the player will more than likely want to press on in their travels to see what lies in store for Conway; but the song is so captivating and lovely that it’s easy to just sit back and listen. A few hints during the game lead one to think that music is going to play a more prominent role in the story.
As mentioned, Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic title. Currently, one episode/act out of a planned five is available for purchase. More than anything, this first act serves as a taste of what is to come. It only lasts between an hour or two during the first run. Curious players will obviously want to go through it multiple times to see how different choices play out. Right now, it’s hard to judge how or even if player choice will develop through the different acts. With that in mind, though, the brief time with Kentucky Route Zero is an incredibly fresh experience and will leave players wanting more. The game is a great start for adventure titles in 2013 and shows how the genre can branch off in unique and inventive ways.
Note: A copy of the game was provided to Gaming Illustrated by the developer for the purpose of this review.