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Genre: Adventure & RPG
Min OS X: 10.5

Kentucky Route Zero
January 15, 2014 | Justin Ancheta

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The dialog choices are engaging because they create a sense of mystery and intrigue, and asking about details seemingly unrelated to your initial mission only creates more breadcrumb trails that invite you to follow. Even when you ask about aspects that you think may be of more direct importance to what you need to do, the way that you ask them drives you to learn more. It really plays well on the human psychological need to see patterns and piece together puzzles, but it also risks alienating players with its frustration-bearing obtuseness. Why can't you give me any clear directions on where I need to go? Doesn't anyone have a map in this place? "Hmm, I think I passed a Best Buy on the Interstate; maybe I should double-back to see if they've got a good GPS on sale..."

Other reviewers have talked about your dog, and how even though the dog has zero lines of dialogue, your conversations with your haggard pet go surprisingly far in adding depth to both your character and her (or him). However, this isn't just limited to the dog; this also rings true for other characters and companions you meet along the way as well. For all of the parsimony that the game exercises in visually presenting its characters and world, the game's dialog and writing develop the depth of the characters because of – not in spite of – its artistic sparseness. This especially comes across near the end of Act II, with one sequence involving distant characters who speak entirely off-camera, in an almost fourth-wall breaking manner. This continues on in developer Cardboard Computer's two meta-narrative companion pieces to the game, both of which involving an in-game character who may or may not have actually existed.

"It's dark and raining, and I've got to go home..."
I've been using the word "game" to describe Kentucky Route Zero, but I have to say that I'm not sure if the term is appropriate. At many times, the game feels more like a classic text adventure gussied up with fancy typographical effects. At others, it feels like I'm passively eavesdropping on an intimate conversation about topics both within and far beyond my experience. However, throughout my experience, there's none of the usual trappings of what seemingly makes a game, a game. There is no failure state. Dialogue options are plenty, but they do not seem to make any significant impact on the game's progression. Sure, there is a "mission" with "objectives" to follow, but that "mission" quickly fades into the background as more pressing, immediate concerns impress themselves on the player. Yes, there is a significant amount of interactivity, but the interactivity is almost purely exploratory, making any appeal to a player's sense of agency a mere illusion at best.

At this point, this is where I need to observe how the traditional metrics that we've relied on to quantify the quality of products in the video game market have been outstripped by "games" such as Dear Esther, Gone Home, and Kentucky Route Zero, and what they attempt to accomplish. Based on the standards by which people would judge a more "conventional" dialogue-driven point-and-click adventure game like Resonance, Kentucky Route Zero almost fails in that it is almost a non-game. Yet, I strongly feel that if were judged on the strength of its storytelling, literary narrative, aesthetic, and design, Kentucky Route Zero is an tale that any gamer interested in narrative must experience in its entirety (including "The Entertainment" and "Limits and Demonstrations", the two freeware companion pieces released in 2013 by Cardboard Computer). Because of this, I sincerely feel that it isn't hyperbole to state that Kentucky Route Zero has one of the most original and unique stories to emerge in mainstream interactive media. It simply has to be experienced. Like House of Leaves, I don't think I've ever seen a game quite like it. I don't think I'll ever see anything like it again.

The only problem I have with the game is the concern I always have with games released episodically. Act I and II have both set the bar high for the game's narrative and aesthetic development; with three acts left to follow, it almost seems like it's too early to tell if the tremendous momentum that Cardboard Computer has built up will continue. According to the original plan outlined on Kickstarter, Cardboard Computer was to follow a three-month rolling release schedule, with Episode V to be released in January 2014. Act II's release slipped into May 2013, and apart from The Entertainment, we haven't seen much information about Act III, let alone Act IV and V. If comments from developer Jake Elliot (or what we see in The Entertainment) are any indication, the delicate balance that the game strikes between dream-like fantasy and creeping dread is going to change. For now though, we will have to wait and see how fast and far down the see-saw is going to tumble.

Amidst all of the discussion over the almost arbitrary definitions of what makes a game, Kentucky Route Zero doesn't seem to care. Its cryptic and inviting world asks us to pull up a chair and listen to what it has to say. Come in, and make yourself at home. Yes, you can pet the dog. No, don't worry about the rain and the trees. Did I tell you the story about the day my town was swallowed whole by the lake? Did you hear the one about the tree that doesn't stop burning?

In face of such an invitation, Kentucky Route Zero doesn't seem to care if it can be called a game. And as we're being asked to politely check our suspension of disbelief at the door, neither should we. Instead, we are beckoned inward, to turn on the TV and continue our gaze skyward, appreciating the disjointedness of the story we are told.


• A uniquely told story with distinct tone and visual aesthetic
• Dialogue, writing and characterization are uncannily engaging
• An incredibly atmospheric soundtrack


• A seemingly opaque and surrealist plot may be offputting
• Conversations can be frustratingly cryptic and almost absurdly obtuse
• Ultimately limited amount of player interactivity
• Uncertain episodic format

Kentucky Route Zero


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