Kentucky Route Zero (2013)
Developer: Cardboard Computer
I listed the date of release as 2013, as this is the official release date listed for the first act of Kentucky Route Zero, but it should be noted that the last act and therefore final version of the game was released just earlier this year (2020).
Kentucky Route Zero is a game I've been playing here and there before the last game I reviewed, but I needed to take some breaks in between. This review was perhaps one of the most difficult for me to write, as you'll learn further down. Kentucky Route Zero is a "magical realist" point-and-click adventure game in five acts that tells the story of a cast of characters traveling along a strange highway. Kentucky Route Zero is unlike any other game in the way it plays in that it tells a tragedy in a sort of "play", but unfortunately, the journey through that story wasn't always interesting or enticing to me.
Kentucky Route Zero starts out with a delivery man named Conway stopping at a gas station to ask for directions. Right away, you get several dialogue choices that affect how the conversation plays out. You even get to name your dog by picking between choices (I chose Blue since it reminded me of Blue from the anime Wolf's Rain). It soon it becomes apparent that finding "5 Dogwood Drive" is not going to be straightforward. The gas station attendant, Joseph, advises you to see out a woman named Weaver Marquez who will be able to help you find that location. Many encounters in this early part of Act I left me wondering if I'd just spoken to a ghost or a living person, setting me up for a mysterious journey. The game is broken up into Acts separated by shorter Interludes in between, and each of these vary quite a bit from one another even as you continue on this mission to deliver a package through a twisty and confusing road. The game constantly sways back and forth between a starkly real and perhaps "future" United States and a more abstract and fantastical realm that is never quite explained. It was hard to tell at times what was normal in this world to the characters and what wasn't, but it did help me start understand what this genre of "magical realism" refers to.
I have never been as conflicted while writing a game review as I am with KRZ. Even now, I still can't pinpoint quite how I feel about it. On one hand, the story it tells and the themes it focuses on are more relevant to the state of American society than arguably that of any other video game that's come before. On the other hand... It was a long, bumpy ride where I found myself pushing through. KRZ carries a level of significance for many people that it didn't for me, so I know there's got to be something special there and I'm not discrediting it. However for me, the game said so much - literally, pages and pages worth of dialogue - that within all of that, the meaning and important beats were lost on me. The periods of long conversations were also often not well enough spaced out to the point where I would lose the energy to keep reading. This would be a good time to take a break from the game, I thought. Yet, if you quit during those parts often time the game would start you back at the beginning of the scene. It was like reading a book but without the ability to put a bookmark in your precise last point. My partner found me asleep on the couch one night during a long portion of reading in Act IV after I'd tried to keep playing well into getting too sleepy. Act I and II were no problem, they were intriguing and new enough for me to keep me interested. Act V and "Un Pueblo De Nada", the 4th interlude, were probably the some of the best parts of the game but by then, the game had exhausted me so much that I found myself just pushing through to make sure I could finish and/or stay awake.
KRZ is unique in that it is probably better understood as an interactive play, or even a choose-your-own-adventure book with various different narrators. I tended to see it, however, as an animated text adventure game. Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of text-adventure games. Honestly, I despised the part in Act III where you use a computer called Xanadu. I took about a week gap from playing while I was on that part. This was a text adventure with all the visual elements pretty much removed, and it had a fail state where it kept making me do it again. For much of its gameplay, KRZ operates as a point-and-click adventure, which is fine by me. However, when it does allow you to move about the world, it sometimes feels more limiting than point-and-click gameplay. Despite having a seemingly open area to run through, you'll often come upon a "somewhat" boundary. By that, I mean that it seems you can't walk in one direction, but if you push it more or from a certain angle, you'll probably get to where you're trying to go. Other times, though, it actually is a barrier and you can't move further, or you push and end up on the opposite of where you meant to be due to the three-dimensional space. I know the focus wasn't the movement, but at times it felt sluggish just to take a couple steps or move to the right spot. The last episode with its new freedom to explore was still slightly held back due to these weird somewhat-boundaries.
The music in KRZ was perfectly set for the characters and the setting. A lot of this game was tremendously quiet and solemn, too much at times, but it made up for it with its unexpectedly touching and riveting lyrical performances. These were most successful at immersing me in the atmosphere and, in the case of the concert in Act III, making me feel a part of the story. Even thought this folksy style of music is not at what I would normally seek out, it really stuck with me and left me with heavy feelings of loss more than the writing did. My personal favorite is "This World is Not My Home", which was probably the moment where I was closest to tears. Check out the soundtrack here, worth listening to whether you've played it or not.
The art style is purposely simplified and has definite artistic style, purposely leaving us with no real details on any of the faces we see. I don't mind that at all, but when the art style isn't telling enough about the wide cast of characters to distinguish them from one another I do expect the writing to do so. Often times new characters were quickly brought into the story and I wasn't sure if I'd seen them before or not, as so many names had been thrown around. Since KRZ reads more like a script than a book, you get very little between the lines of dialogue to properly portray details or emotions of the characters. It felt like there were too many characters, all with their own stories, to try to keep track of them and their connections to one another in a medium that didn't allow for much distinction. Shannon, who joins Conway in Act I, was the most relatable and interesting to me as she mentioned her parents being immigrants and the issues stemming from that. It's possible there's more details to this backstory, but through my one playthrough I understandably didn't get to see every dialogue option.
All my personal critiques aside, KRZ does make it clear that the characters in this story are real people, or at least that their struggles are very real somewhere in our world. The pain that all of them carry, the burden of crushing capitalism that weighs on them until their very death, was pretty clear to me. It came across a parody of the United States with no punchline, just humans serving a life sentence to a never-ending debt. I understood enough of this to respect the story this game was trying to tell, but it was there within what felt like thousands of inconsequential conversations. It's because I consider this message to be incredibly accurate and important that I wish I had enjoyed KRZ more. I've shed tears for the cruel effects of capitalism in real life, but somehow KRZ did not move me to tears.
One thing I can say about Kentucky Route Zero is that it's successfully taken up space in my mind, as I seem to keep thinking back to it over and over, for better or for worse. I'm left with a lot of thoughts about whether I missed out on something grand that others saw along the way. It's okay, though, because not every game will affect every person in the same way. It's harder for me to recommend it, but I still want to do so. If you play KRZ, go into it with a more patient mind than I did. Take in the writing and the environments at a gentle pace, so it doesn't feel overwhelming. Consider it an interactive play or perhaps a new form of art. It isn't my favorite game by any means, but it was a worthwhile experience and will hopefully leave you with much to think about as well.
Kentucky Route Zero is available on PC, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.
Played on: PC
Playtime: 14 hrs