Kentucky Route Zero Acts I, II, and III
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Release: Episodic, 2013–2014
In the opening moments of Kentucky Route Zero, a truck rattles down a hill and comes to a stop at a gas station. The truck purrs, looking lethargic and unsettled in its own frame. Out steps your character, Conway – and with no prior instruction of any sort, the story begins.
This is an endearingly simple start to a game. A dusky, Cormack McCarthy-esque setting; no lengthy cutscenes; control handed over to the player as soon as possible. The premise, when it is revealed, also appears very simple: Conway is making a delivery for Lysette’s Antiques, and he has lost his way while looking for the address. To make the delivery, he will have to navigate a legendary highway known as the Zero.
The game’s initial simplicity belies the fact that it has some very interesting and unconventional ideas about player choice. It does not dabble with the sort of causality popular in modern games, as barely any of your choices across the first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero affect the action of the story.
As you talk to the characters around you, you make tweaks to the past and present. When asked questions about your dog, your answers change your dog’s name, its sex, and whether it’s your dog at all. In the first ten minutes of the game you might decide, amongst other things, that Conway has a lightly kleptomaniac streak and has no connection with the dog he brought with him – or that Conway has had a female dog called Blue for a long time, and is preoccupied with an accident from long ago. There is no algorithm readying consequences for your actions, no log to record your choices, no clever morality system. Rather, your computer presents you with the dialogue options and the information, while your mind is left to construct Conway’s past.
Later on, you begin this process with other characters too. While Conway remains the protagonist, it is hard not to relish changing perspective and getting into other characters’ heads: you get to see Conway from the outside, and you get to see the game’s twisted puzzle of a story from another perspective. Like a good book or a sophisticated film, Kentucky Route Zero collaborates with you to create its characters and build atmosphere.
It’s always been effective to switch perspective in games. Done sparingly, it’s served to create a sense of vulnerability in Mass Effect 2; allow the player some much-needed distance from Cole Phelps in L.A. Noire; even add a certain relativism to, of all things, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. But it’s a different sort of perspective shift that takes place in Kentucky Route Zero, because it’s not just for effect: as you head through the game’s dialogue, you shape pasts and personalities. This could be a text-based game with no graphics at all, and it would still be compelling (on that note, it is not a coincidence that the dialogue in Kentucky Route Zero is handled by Twine).
How rewarding it must have felt for the developers, then, to chance upon a visual style which complements the dialogue so well. It’s a very good-looking game with crisp, low-polygon vector graphics, charming character models, and scene transitions which take place effortlessly. Intimate details abound. Click on the ground to prompt Conway to walk somewhere, and a small glowing peg is thrown there from thin air, a horseshoe spinning down it. Shannon, who ends up travelling with Conway, has a lazy and voluptuous gait to her walk. Houses feel lived-in and run-down. Old cathode ray tube monitors struggle to life.
So crucial to the feel of the game is this aesthetic that it’s quite bizarre to look back at early concept footage, some of which can still be found on the game’s Kickstarter page. In its early days, it looked more like a Rare platformer: its jerky, steampunk style, jump button and 2D point of view were close to diminishing the effect of the script rather than enhancing it. Now that the first three acts have been out for a while (the final two are apparently still set for 2014), it seems unthinkable that those muted colours, economic character models and austere black-and-white maps of the Zero might have looked any different.
Oh, and the sound design is great too. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way a particular roadside barrier clicked whenever the lights changed, or the bassy, revvy sound your truck makes on the map screens as it navigates the Zero. There are also some beautiful Kentucky folk songs in there.
I’m not talking about the story in detail here, because so much of Kentucky Route Zero will be particular to the player. See, it’s managed to elevate itself to that weird lost-in-the-woods plain of storytelling, all bleak scenes in troubled landscapes and a sense of hard mystery. But it marries this with oddly domestic situations and endearing characters. These are not Scooby Doo mysteries whose outcomes you can predict, but they’re not Doctor Who arcs trying to catch you out with cheap tricks either. It’s more like Samuel Beckett writing about a road trip.
Indeed, the stage-like framing of most scenes in the first three “Acts” of the game, and the many self-conscious allusions to Beckett, show that avant-garde theatre was no small influence. Kentucky Route Zero clearly wants to create that general sense of dread, and to tempt you into scratching the surface away to peer at the darkness underneath. The free “Interludes” which sit between the episodes make explicit the developers’ love of installation art and theatre by creating virtual performances and exhibitions. However, the remaining two acts look set to return to David Lynch – that other great influence on the game – if the most recent interlude is anything to go by. Here And There Along The Echo is basically a downloadable telephone which can only dial one number; once you’ve dialled it, an information line provides you with meticulous coverage of a strange river and the land around it, not too far removed from Dale Cooper’s fastidious voice memos to Diane in Twin Peaks.
Although styled in the mould of an adventure game, Kentucky Route Zero is unashamedly conceptual, literary, and un-gamelike. It remains incomplete, but the first three acts have been delivered with such confidence and urgency that even if the final two acts were terrible (or were never released) it would still be one of my favourite games to have come out in a very long time.