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It feels appropriate that Round Trip, a long-dormant editorial series about coming back to titles we’ve missed, would be roused from its slumber for Kentucky Route Zero, a game which is very much about (re)treading through (un)familiar spaces and finding what lies beneath. While I’m sure quite a few people have been up to date with Kentucky Route Zero from the get-go, the iron-clad contract presented to me by John “Big J” Michonski generally requires I wait at least two years past a game’s initial relevance to finally play it. So, when I heard the much-anticipated fourth act of Kentucky Route Zero would be released in July (over three years after the game’s initial episode), I knew that I should dive in sooner rather than later. Life, however, had other plans. Nonetheless, I’ve finally traveled the Zero, or at least, what’s available of it.
It’s true that Kentucky Route Zero isn’t finished, but the website of developer Cardboard Computer promises the fifth and final movement of Kentucky Route Zero “throughout the next year or so.” Considering the erratic and prolonged release schedule of the previous four portions, it wouldn’t surprise me if Act V is on the long side of that estimate. I had considered waiting it out until I could get the whole package at once, but a handful of glowing reviews regarding the game’s fourth act convinced me otherwise. Aside from those sparse words of praise, I was completely unfamiliar with what to expect from Kentucky Route Zero. For that, I am glad. Kentucky Route Zero is a masterwork of story-based games, and these first four acts put the hook in me like precious few games ever have.
I’ll do my best to leave as much unspoiled as possible in my discussion of the game, which includes staying away from mentioning any of the game’s themes or underlying symbolism. Thankfully, the basic premise of Kentucky Route Zero can be conveyed simply enough. You are Conway, an aging truck driver for an antiques store making a final delivery to a place on “Dogwood Drive.” It’s a location that no one seems familiar with, but the owner of a gas station tells you the street can be reached by taking “The Zero,” a mysterious, possibly dangerous route which may or may not exist. On your way, you meet Shannon, a woman who knows a thing or two about repairing antiques, and circumstances, or perhaps fate, lead to the creation of a new dynamic duo. I won’t say much else, but it’s from here the narrative of Kentucky Route Zero gradually begins to unfold.
This antiques delivery which starts the story, however, takes a backseat to the growing cast of characters. In one of the many genius moves of Kentucky Route Zero, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine the true protagonist of the game, as player control switches between characters often and without warning. Reality becomes subjective as previously played moments can be handled differently in flashbacks. Scenarios become branching paths, with concrete options that affect what parts of scenes players are privy to. Whole portions are experienced through points of view outside of the cast, as ambiguous figures observe the travelers through security cameras and collect data from secondhand verbal accounts. As the narrative grows denser, rough pasts and questionable futures enter the spotlight, and that damn delivery becomes a MacGuffin compared to the magnifying glass Kentucky Route Zero places over Conway, Shannon, and the rest. Exposition becomes self-reflexive and indirect, with one of the most harrowing moments in a character’s backstory mentioned offhand from a different perspective by one of the aforementioned observing figures. With all things considered, Kentucky Route Zero should collapse under its own weight by the end of Act IV, but instead, its gamble pays off thanks to rock-solid writing, and the narrative soars instead.
The beauty of Kentucky Route Zero comes across both figuratively in the poignant dialogue, and literally in the game’s visuals. The minimal, geometric aesthetic manages to surpass the widely reviled stereotypes of “simplified” indie graphics, largely thanks to how unified and sustained the design choice proves to be. The almost cinematic understanding of visual narrative demonstrated by Kentucky Route Zero helps as well, and even serves to subvert the screen-by-screen conventions of the point-and-click genre. Spaces which are understood in flat, 2D, or isometric perspectives will suddenly unfurl like flowers as the camera beings to pan, pivot, or otherwise perform its dance in order to reveal new dimensions and information previously unseen by the player. A forced-perspective room which seems only to contain a help desk and an exit door blossoms into an impossibly large and looming museum as the camera slowly turns around the characters, opening up a wealth of environmental information and a three-dimensional area of movement. Kentucky Route Zero is, above all, a mystery, and one of its greatest strengths lies in how the camera itself is able to select what information is available or hidden to the player. This isn’t even to mention the imagery and visual cues, which feature everything from a thematic fixation on horses to a subterranean grove which is a dead ringer for Arnold Böcklin’s famous Isle of the Dead.
In addition to the wonderful visual direction, Kentucky Route Zero owes a lot of its mood to music. The game features a haunting, feedback-laden ambient score which simultaneously feels as light as a feather and as imposing as a monolith. The influences are clear. A character makes an indirect reference to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops as both the score and scenery tear themselves to pieces around him. However, Kentucky Route Zero injects itself with musical cues from almost every genre at every opportunity. A folk band appears as a Greek chorus in transitions to pluck the guitar and sing wistfully about Americana gone by. A conversation takes place during an experimental performance with found sounds and theremin. A Faustian whiskey distillery intones distant, forgotten ballroom music not unlike scenes from The Shining. Perhaps most notably, a literal showstopper in Act III falls somewhere between the ethereal pop of Beach House and the hypnotic torch numbers of Julee Cruise by way of Twin Peaks. Comparing aspects of a game to other sources can admittedly come across as reductive, but the music of Kentucky Route Zero is presented in such an appropriate and cohesive way that it’s clear the developers are well-informed and well-inspired in regards to the world of music. As a method of indirect storytelling, the audio of Kentucky Route Zero tells just as much about characters and locations as the written text.
That audio includes the broader sound design as well. Much like the camera and music, the sound effects in Kentucky Route Zero are crucial in indirectly conveying information. A moment in Act IV has your small boat drift away into the darkness while you speak with someone- thanks to the dim lighting, your only indication is the slow fade of the boat’s engine during your conversation. Each character has distinct footsteps, from the earthen plod of an old man to the energetic tip-taps of a young child. The sparse moments of voice acting are often distant, distorted, and dreamy. One of the most inspired moments of Act I finds your characters discovering an old tape reel machine deep in a mine shaft. In order to play the machine, you must divert power from your mine cart- which requires you to switch off your only source of light. As you do, the reels sputter to life, and the long forgotten voice of a coal miner who is surely now a ghost warbles out to you in pitch darkness. It’s haunting, and completely representative of the game’s conflation of dusty Americana with the dark and otherworldly.
The worst thing I can think to say of Kentucky Route Zero is how the pacing occasionally stumbles as the acts grow longer. Acts I and II are well-honed machines which get in and out and tell their stories in about an hour each. Act III, though no less enjoyable, feels as though expositional fat could have been trimmed in sections regarding the aforementioned whiskey distillery and an ultimately rambling quest featuring a simulation in a mold-filled computer. Thankfully, when Act IV hedges its bets on a slow burn boat-journey up river, it largely works thanks to the hypnotic pacing and the increased focus on characters instead of plot. Some players might find Kentucky Route Zero to be boring or tedious, considering there’s not much “gameplay” to speak of. As far as I’m concerned, the minimal gameplay works in Kenucky Route Zero’s favor in the way it removes the focus from action, and places it on the narrative experience.
There’s still so much I could say about Kentucky Route Zero, and the final act hasn’t even been released. I haven’t even mentioned the stark white-on-black beauty of the game’s maps, or or most of the characters. Nor have I proffered any theories on what’s “real” within the story, or dug up any of the countless other aspects that make me love this game. This is a testament to the dense nature of the four current acts of Kentucky Route Zero, a game which I’m sure will be theorized upon and dissected for years after the release of its final movement. I, for one, am feverishly awaiting Act V, and unless Cardboard Computer truly drops the ball, it’s likely that Kentucky Route Zero will go down in history as one of the great narrative-based games of our time. It’s high praise, but the game has set a high bar. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the conclusion can clear it.