Kentucky Route Zero : Act I
Best described as an old school point and click adventure game. But thinking that is all Kentucky Route Zero is sells the game so very short.
Kentucky Route Zero could be described as an old school point and click adventure game. That’s a fair starting point for getting to get to grips with the kind of game that Kentucky Route Zero is, although there’s very little in the way of the puzzles one might expect to find in a title filed under that particular heading. As is stands, only the first of five episodes is available to play, so perhaps we will see more puzzles introduced as time goes on, but I doubt it. I doubt it because Kentucky Route Zero is a game where enjoyment is to be found not in brain teasers and lateral thinking, but in soaking up the game’s expertly crafted atmosphere.
The atmosphere I speak of is one of slight melancholy, tinged with the surreal throughout. Dialogue tends towards the meditative and the narrative is more about suggestion than it is about exposition. Excellent audio design provides an anchor to Kentucky Route Zero’s surreal and mysterious tone, its brilliance naturally most noticeable in short text adventure sections, but incredibly important throughout in eliciting an emotional response. Indeed, in those moments where Kentucky Route Zero strays into the unsettling, audio is perhaps the most vital part.
That’s not to say that Kentucky Route Zero isn’t visually appealing as well. Its simple and distinctive in its aesthetic, primarily sticking to blacks and greys which suit the games moody tone. Each section is introduced as a ‘scene’ within the ‘act’ and in line with that somewhat filmic language, many of these scenes certainly feel as if they are controlled by a director more than they are instanced by the player. I can see why some might be turned away by that; in most cases I probably would too. But for a game like Kentucky Route Zero, it works. The game’s measured pace allows the designer to maintain an authorial grip on the feel of each scene in a way that enhances and maintains the atmosphere on which Kentucky Route Zero relies, without ever feeling at odds with the player’s enjoyment of that world.
For the vast majority of the episode, the player takes on the role of Conway, an antiques delivery driver whose motivation is nothing more complex that the desire to find an address and make his delivery. In order to do so, it quickly becomes clear that he will need to find the eponymous route zero. It is the search for this mysterious highway, along with the strange circumstances which throws the game’s characters together, that provides the motivation for exploring the world. This first episode keeps its cards close to its chest, so its difficult to see what threads might be developed in future episodes, but this is no bad thing. Kentucky Route Zero does a good job of intriguing.
While Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t foreground it, its interesting to note that this is a world which seems to be populated exclusively with victims of debt and poverty, with tales of working class exploitation further adding to the game’s sense of class consciousness. It obviously chimes with the current financial climate and while Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t offer any comment on these circumstances, the theme fits nicely within a world which feels tinged by tragedy.
If I’ve made the game sound macabre, then I’ve misled you slightly. Often, Kentucky Route Zero’s surreal moments feel more playful than they do foreboding – entering a poem as a computer password being one example. While there are times when the game strays into mildly unsettling, for the most part, the world of Kentucky Route Zero is just enjoyably askance.
I’m not sure how long Kentucky Route Zero will be able to maintain the sense of mystery which makes it intriguing in future episodes, or whether the strong sense of atmosphere which makes the game so appealing will continue to make the player forget about the lack of any real gameplay, but I’m certainly not going to judge something which I haven’t played yet. All I can say is that this first episode is a beautifully constructed atmosphere piece which feels unique enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend giving it a go.