Kentucky Route Zero, currently four acts through a five-act story that began over three years ago, knows how good its writing is. This is important, especially as games are much more likely to be the opposite — reaching for something but lacking the craftsmanship to really pull it off. The culture around games can be so insular. It’s an art form which tends to ricochet off itself when it comes to where inspiration is drawn from. As such even the best-written games tend to be ‘about’ games. Even Portal 2, funny as it was, was fundamentally about challenging the player’s notion of what a ‘game’ should be. Games are an arbitrary test of abilities too specific to be meaningful. That’s the joke of Portal 2.
I don’t think it’s any surprise that the games genuinely praised for their writing, story, and worlds — games that aren’t just well written ‘for a game’ but stack up well compared to film, literature, etc. — draw strong inspiration from a world outside of games. Games like Grim Fandango, or nearly any old LucasArts game, for that matter. Games like Kentucky Route Zero.
Kentucky Route Zero is about a lot of things. It’s about architecture, psychogeography, gentrification, Americana, labour rights, the post-industrial landscape. It’s about outsider art, the insider world of installation art, the perils of identity.
It certainly takes systemic cues from older games. Specifically, choice in games, in genres from old-school text adventures through to the point-and-click games of LucasArts, even through to the ‘light/dark’ morality of games like Mass Effect. Except it’s never just as a ‘tip-of-the-hat’ act of fan-fondling. Instead it uses these devices to highlight and question the priorities of those games, and asserts its own way of doing things in stark opposition to them. Through a familiar format, it investigates the way in which we create and recreate ourselves from moment to moment in each social interaction. That last bit is important, I think, because too often Kentucky Route Zero is really thoughtful and in a lot of ways wildly ambitious, and this far into the project I still can’t quite believe how successful it is in this.
Kentucky Route Zero follows Conway, an ageing delivery man out on assignment. He’s looking for Dogwood Drive, out in the Kentucky countryside. It quickly becomes apparent that he can only get there via the Zero, a strange, circular highway which exists only in the loosest sense of the word and is nearly impossible to navigate. As the acts progress, Conway assembles a crew of people: bureaucrats, experimental musicians, researchers, a lost child. Things only get more surreal from then on. The whole thing is seriously visually striking — characters and objects feel like actors in an immaculate diorama. Every prop and animation has a thoughtfulness to it, a muted precision which every now and again erupts and expands in dazzlingly stylish ways. In the newest act, someone is playing a theremin. A theremin!
There aren’t really any puzzles to complete in Kentucky Route Zero. You can drift through the game relatively effortlessly. The real trick is that the game is constantly tantalizing you with dialogue choices when you know you can only pick one. These rarely, if ever, affect your overall path through the game — but they do have a profound effect on your understanding of the game, and constantly force your hand, making you complicit in the game’s storytelling — and again, reinforce this whole idea that how you choose to respond to your surroundings says a lot about how you choose to form your own public identity. Your character might be asked a question about how something looks, or sounds, or tastes — it’s up to you to pick one. And because you know that this won’t sway the direction the game is taking you, unlike in Mass Effect or The Witcher, you end up thinking about why you picked what you did. The real genius of Kentucky Route Zero is how it makes you pause and go ‘huh’ before you choose an option. And, somehow, it can do this even when there’s rarely any mechanical consequence to those choices.
Let’s be clear – I’m somebody who agonizes over choices in games like Mass Effect out of fear of missing out on some big narrative thread, or gameplay mechanic, like a new crew member or area to explore. With Kentucky Route Zero, the absence of consequence makes choices both more interesting and less stressful. And, somehow, more meaningful, because you’re choosing them for the right reasons. You don’t need to thumb through a wiki site to figure out which route to take. There are some light ramifications here and there — in the opening scene, a dialogue choice you make establishes whether your pet dog is male or female — but that’s more or less it. You’re not choosing a path; you’re filling in the blanks. And the game knows this full well, dialogue options tantalizing you with context. Do you let a character talk about their old boss, their old job, or their old home? All the options will go some way to helping you pierce through the game’s enigmatic plot, but in most instances you can only choose one. And when it comes to choosing a response that in other games might be some moralistic choice — your paragons and your renegades — Kentucky Route Zero pushes you to choose not the most moral option, but the most interesting one.
Rarely, if ever, do you find yourself in a situation where the choice is between the good and the bad. But the choices still feel philosophical, ideological even. What do you prefer, and who are you to prefer things a certain way?
Act IV, which was recently, finally, released, kicks this up a notch. You’re chugging along the mysterious Echo River on an immaculately detailed tugboat. The boat’s operators, who, like everyone else in this game, are inexplicably bearded hipster postgraduate types, have other business to attend to along the way. At each stop you’re presented with a choice: do you see what’s happening landside, or what’s going down with whoever’s staying put on the boat?
Even then, it’s constantly pushing the bounds of what’s possible with a set-up like this, making it feel like more than a visual novel. The narrative constantly turns in on itself in ways I mostly refuse to spoil. But here’s a small example: the game constantly plays fast and loose with whose dialogue you are choosing. Sometimes you’re choosing Conway’s response, sometimes it’s the person he’s talking to, sometimes it doesn’t seem to belong to anybody at all. The game doesn’t care about you embodying or having complete control over one character — it just wants to make everything you’re doing moment-to-moment as interesting and rewarding as possible.
And did I mention all the free ‘interlude’ pieces Cardboard Computer has released in the increasingly wider gaps between episodes? There’s the one where you wander a gallery showing of art pieces by a character from the game you haven’t met; another where you’re watching an am-dram stage play, which takes place in the world of the game but also inexplicably depicts a scene directly before one in the following episode.
Oh, and you absolutely must play Here and There Along the Echo, an audio choose-your-own-adventure disguised as an automated helpline, playable via a phone keypad. You can play it on PC as an executable, separate from the main game and free to download, but if you’re in the USA it is a real, actual phone number which you can call. It’s voiced by Bonnie Prince Billy and is absolutely hilarious. They’ve made it fun to explore the directory tree of an automated phone line. Play Kentucky Route Zero, play all the ephemeral stuff around it.
Oh, and the music’s great, too.