Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Review
Of all the arguments I’ve heard about games: that they make kids murderers, or melt your brain, the most outlandish is the contention that games aren’t art. It’s provably false, thanks to games like Gris, and Inside, and heck, even Breath of the Wild. I’m not sure what kind of superiority complex you have to carry around to make such a brazenly wrong statement in the face of the evidence, but I would double dog dare the most steadfast non-believer to experience Kentucky Route Zero and tell me it’s not a work of art.
*This review avoids story spoilers, but does mention a few locations you’ll visit and characters you’ll meet*
Seven years ago Cardboard Computer – a three man team – put out Act One of Kentucky Route Zero, an experimental exploration of people, interactions, and design. It landed on the scene just as the games-as-an-experience renaissance was about to begin, with Act One even predating critical darlings like Gone Home and Papers, Please. I played that first act all those years ago, and was no doubt intrigued, but also decided not to touch it again until the work was complete. A year, I thought. Hah. I’ve been waiting seven years to write this review.
Kentucky Route Zero tells the story of Conway, an aging delivery driver for a small Antique seller. He’s trying to make a delivery. Along the way he meets a truly bizarre cast of characters, some of whom join him on his journey to find 5 Dogwood Drive. The thing is he’s not sure where that is, and the game uses that as the vehicle to carry the narrative forward.
Loss, and being at one of life’s crossroads is a central theme. The thing is, nothing is as it seems. Everything has a really wispy quality to it, like it might well be imagined. From the characters to the dialogue, every detail is carefully crafted to hint at some greater purpose or grander scale. Kentucky Route Zero has a lot of things to say, and you’ll be both exhausted and begging for greater understanding by the time you see The End.
From the very first scene, Kentucky Route Zero has an aura of strangeness around it. Something is off. Mysterious even. Conway’s interactions with others are somehow peculiar, and the script is well written enough to make identifying why an ongoing process. Other characters will often seem to appear or disappear unnoticed by Conway, while the world itself seems to have eyes and motivations of its own.
That strangeness becomes more overt as the tale progresses. The mechanics of the story drift toward the absurd steadily, but the allegorical meaning follows right along, maintaining a firm gap between expectations and what gets dished out. Without giving too much away, what seemed to be a world broadly similar to ours just… isn’t.
I promise I’m not overhyping the vibe in Kentucky Route Zero either. One particular scene in the third act had me utterly entranced with its combination of haunting music, blatant rejection of my expectations, and jaw dropping visual style.
Though simple in construction, Kentucky Route Zero’s visuals blew me away. Other games are similarly successful with styles like this, but the sheer variety of locations, design motifs, and use of color, light, and perspective is both unexpected and delightful. The pastel shadow art of Act 1 gives way to clinical sharpness in Act 2, while later acts incorporate other clever visual styles I’ll not spoil here.
It’s a rare example of a game where simply seeing how the next scene will play out visually is motivation enough to press onward.
Fortunately, the story and writing keep pace at every turn. This is ostensibly an adventure game, but it does away with tedious fetch quests and matching of items to progress. So, instead of exhaustively exploring a tangled flow chart of conversational options to figure out what to do next, your decisions are driven only by what you’re looking to get out of the experience. It’s brilliantly freeing.
You’ll decide on the flow of conversations frequently, and from the perspective of almost every character you encounter at one point or another. At times I’d see dialogue choices as branching paths where I got to decide on an important piece of context, but equally often the choices read as the myriad things floating around a character’s mind. Whether that was intentional or not, distinguishing the two and building my own head canon for characters like Shannon and Ezra was a stimulating mental exercise.
“Stimulating mental exercise” isn’t a phrase you’ll see often in a game review, and don’t worry, the experience is far from work. I grinned, furrowed my brow, and set the controller down to process things in equal measure. Kentucky Route Zero has next to no voice acting, minimalist music and visuals, and walls of text, and yet it moved me in ways these words can’t exactly grasp. It’s truly magnificent. Sure, not all the characters have the same depth, but you’ll come away from Kentucky Route Zero with a deep seated understanding of who they are, and what pulled them into the fold. Circumstance, duty, even whimsical curiosity.
I can only imagine the untold hours of introspection and analyzing people must have undergone between the original act releases, wondering what the next chapter might bring. For me, I was rapt from tip to tail, but particularly during the palette cleansers between acts. Even more experimental than the acts themselves, these interludes fill in some of the narrative blanks while trying out storytelling vehicles. One takes the form of a modern art exhibit, while another has you dialing in to a ludicrous nature hotline with hilarious results. As confused (and satisfied) as these interludes often left me, they kept me refreshed and fully engaged in a back to back playthrough, suddenly making sense at precisely the right moment.
Not to be outdone by Acts 1-4, Act 5 ignored what I thought I wanted to an even greater degree. For a few minutes I sat quietly, considering what had happened. I wanted… more. More of something. But what? The feeling faded. The conclusion was a statement of what I already knew deep down: Kentucky Route Zero was about the journey, and that journey was immensely enjoyable.
Downsides? They’re minor. The Switch version hitches a bit during Act 5, and the designed-for-a-mouse control isn’t always perfect with an analog stick, but these things barely even hit my radar. That said, if you’re looking for precision movement, combos, or in depth mechanical structure, you won’t find them in Kentucky Route Zero. That may matter to some, but not me. Not in this game. Kentucky Route Zero is a brilliantly told story that takes chances, and unapologetically is what it is. Sounds suspiciously like art to me. Damn good art.
*Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher*
- Ignores expectations
- Fantastic design
- Brilliant story and structure
- Some minor hitching in Act 5
- Not-always-perfect controls