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Genre: Adventure & RPG
Min OS X: 10.5

Kentucky Route Zero
January 15, 2014 | Justin Ancheta

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Mac OS X: 10.5 |CPU: 1 GHz Intel | RAM: 512 MB | HD Space: 250 MB | Graphics: OpenGL 3.0+ Compatible


I've had a recurring dream, that is one of the only dreams I can consciously remember with any sense of concrete lucidity. I'm underneath a massive tree, with sprawling limbs that cover the sky above me in a wide, expansive canopy of leaves and branches. It lets in just enough illumination from the sky overhead to stream down in spotty rivulets of light. I don't know if it's the sun in daytime, or the moon at night. All I do know is that I'm here for some reason, and that I can't stop looking up at the slivers of lit sky through the leaves above me. The sky is like a puzzle, teasing me with shards of it's body that beg to be pieced together in rational, repeatable patterns.

A truly effective narrative, to me, is like that dream: a set of connected, disjointed pieces that leave the connections up to the perceptions of the observer. The connections don't have to be too overt, nor do they have to have the subtlety of being hit with a baseball bat. An impactful story should work in such a way that all of its elements resonate with what its pieces are each trying to say, even if it isn't very clear. Kentucky Route Zero is such a story. It's not so much an effective game, as it is an effective story. And all of its pieces have something to say.

"You'll have to take the ZERO..."
The first time he tells me about "The Zero", I notice something odd about the way the type is rendered on my screen. At first I wondered if it was an error in my display or some kind of screen artifacting resulting from something related to my Vsync setttings; no, instead, the word "Zero" is rendered with a crawling, undulating background texture. I don't know what it is, but it makes the word look like it is swirling and pulsating, browns, greys, whites and blacks pulsing to and fro just behind the light afforded by the word on my screen. This happens every time someone refers to the Zero, even showing up on "Limits and Demonstrations", the interactive art piece that serves as the demo-cum-standalone-backstory-filler for the game. It eerily reminds me of the way "house" is referenced in the infamous book "House of Leaves".

The pattern repeats itself in other ways. Turning your light on and off in one section in Act I of the game reveals things invisible, things unseen while in plain sight. Elements of the world around the characters come to life in unexpected ways. Textual elements in other conversations reflect the slipping away of consciousness, or the unique harsh coldness of a character's tone. At certain points, the background fades away into nothingness as characters converse about seemingly routine and banal topics that at the same time, are presented in ways that seem very much askew: a janitor's hobby takes on a very surrealist, abstract bent, while a young woman's issues with debt serve as a backdrop for her life as a cipher to those around her.
There are moments of amusing surreality, such as the basement puzzle at the start of Act I, and moments of poignant horror, such as the mine near Act I's end.

Kentucky Route Zero proudly wears its humble grass-roots origins on its sleeve, while at the same time reaching for a height of narrative storytelling with an resulting effort that could almost be considered pretentious; originally a Kickstarter-backed effort, the episodic game billed itself as being centered around a mysterious secret highway in Kentucky, and the lives of those who travel on it. The aesthetic of the game feels like it is steeped in the unique culture of the American Appalachians - musical interludes come with almost Gospel-sounding bluegrass songs that waft about in the foreground air. The character models and art design of the world carries a stylized, minimalist flavour that invokes the style of Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP, while at the same time being distinctive in its simplistic earthiness. It's easy to see the substantial change between the artwork of the game at its inception and the art of the game now, and it's definitely a change for the better it's a change which has firmly planted the game in a setting mired in the working class struggles of blue-collared debt and unemployment, from its humble flattening of detail to its heavily muted color palette.

When you're not walking around specific locations trying to gain your bearings, you're out on the road, travelling from place to place via a minimalist wireframe map. Seemingly random encounters and references to bizarrely described landmarks help to define the unsettled absurdity of the world around you. It immediately reminded me of the absurdist screen saver Hotel Gadget minimalistic windows into frozen scenes both disturbingly incomprehensible and immediately relatable at the same time. It helps the game settle into an tense uncanny valley of realism. A traffic jam looks like an ordinary traffic jam until you leave the truck and understand what is happening. A museum at first resembles a customary commemoration of local culture and history, until you look closer at what is the real audience and what is the real exhibit.

The characterization and dialogue of a game's writing are at the core of its ability to tell a story well, and it seems like a marvel that the game is able to do so much with so little. Conversations sometimes do have a tendency to be long-winded with secondary characters -- leaving the audience wondering what the point is to having the characters talk about seemingly inane details about their lives at length -- but the writing has the uncanny ability to keep you engaged and involved, and even the longer dialogues don't outstay their welcome.

In a style akin to a visual novel, you are given choices that help determine the path of the conversation. Disappointingly, there doesn't seem to be a huge impact on the gameplay based on your choices, but you're given a choice over not just what you say, but what others say too. That goes a surprisingly long way to add an extra layer of depth to discussions, and it really feels like you really are directing the flow of the conversation, even though the true level of control you have is seemingly perfunctory at best. This mechanic really shines in Act II, culminating in an end game change of perspective which I can only describe as being nothing short of completely mezmerizing.


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