Once in a while, you stumble upon a game that absolutely blows you away. Maybe the graphics set a new industry standard, maybe it’s really funny, or maybe it’s evocative of a mood you didn’t know you wanted in a game until it hit you. This is where dev Cardboard Computer comes in, with its fascinating journey more than seven years in the making. For those unaware, Kentucky Route Zero began as a Kickstarter back in 2011, with the first of five planned episodes dropping in early 2013. As the series progressed, the gap between episodes would get increasingly larger as development grew more elaborate, but the small team’s efforts would pay off splendidly. Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition is unlike anything you’ve ever played before.
On its surface, the game appears to be a text-based title mixed with a traditional point-and-click adventure style, but this does a disservice to the title. While this may be a way to describe it in the broadest sense, the manner in which the game conveys its story is wholly unique, and unlike anything to grace the medium. That may be how the game plays, but the actual structure of the game is so varied that it becomes harder to quantify. Many of the set-pieces have more in common with that of theatre than a normal video game. The game is even broken up into acts and scenes, and on occasion the camera pulls back in such a way that it feels like you are about to see the literal stage pop up.
You play as Conway, a delivery man tasked with making an important delivery for an antique shop alongside your dog, whose name will be different depending on choices you make in-game. Upon getting lost, you find that the way to accomplish your goal is to locate and use the fabled “Zero”, a surreal highway set in rural Kentucky. It is here your journey starts in earnest, as you begin hooking up with a motley crew of interesting characters, each with their own quirks and baggage.
Kentucky Route Zero is a lot of things, but straightforward isn't one of them. While this ultimately sets the game up to be an exquisite journey of personal discovery, intrigue, and fascinating strangeness, it doesn't give the game much of a broad appeal. You should be prepared to put some of your own work into the game to get the most out of it. All of the requisite info is presented to you right from the start, but the connective tissue in many cases will be threadbare, or entirely absent. If you don’t read every word, you may find that some things go from being major narrative payoffs, to mere random, disconnected oddness.
It will be obvious pretty much immediately if this game will be for you, though. We were enraptured from the opening frames, but this is absolutely not a game for all tastes. The opening moments already feel as if you are being lulled into some weird Lynchian excursion. While the game generally doesn’t get quite so abrasively strange as the works of David Lynch, it does retain certain proclivities of the famed filmmaker. The whole game feels as if it takes place in a world ruled by dream logic, and many encounters that Conway has are vaguely inarticulate.
This feeling is heightened by the game’s striking visual presentation, one that is highly stylised with a non-pixelated, low-poly look that again is incredibly unique. This spreads to just about every corner of the game’s visual design too. Rather than render entire cities for instance, you explore each “open world” via a monochromatic map, with Conway’s vehicle represented by a tire travelling across various roads in the area. It’s an interesting means of conveyance, and it helps break up the monotony of just having Conway walk everywhere. The style extends to the title’s use of colour too. As you progress further through the Zero and things keep getting weirder and weirder, you’ll start to see colour spring up much more as well. Things are mostly shades of black and brown early on, but as your mind starts to expand, so too does the visual splendour. And expand it will, as virtually every single environment in the game is an interesting and memorable one. Whether it be a gas station with a monstrous horse head adorning it or a distillery run by glowing skeletons, these environments will stick with you long after you finish the experience.
This memorability extends to the music as well. A curious combination of droning synth ambience and rural Americana folk, Ben Babbitt’s score is every bit up to the task of providing a soundtrack for this wondrous adventure. It’s also the catalyst for a standout moment not just in Kentucky Route Zero but in gaming in general, where Conway gets to see a band perform at a bar. This moment really leans into the surreal aspects of the game, but it’s a joy to behold, even if the gameplay during it amounts to branching dialogue.
Ultimately the gameplay is why we struggle to quantify what the game truly is. While it looks like a text or point-and-click adventure title, that genre generally emphasises puzzles, of which this game has very little -- in a traditional sense, that is. The dialogue and text adventuring by-and-large represent the gameplay, as in a rather genius move, even the things you don’t choose for Conway to say in-game help to characterise him in a way that no other game ever quite accomplishes. Things left unspoken give you a feel for his personality, and greatly enrich the experience.
As we said, you’ll know early on whether or not this is a game you’ll want to stick around for, but it’s hard to argue that the game does anything other than absolutely bull’s-eye what it set out to accomplish. What begins as a game with what seems to be a rote, mundane endpoint quickly devolves into one of the most satisfyingly bizarre deep dives into subject matter hitherto untouched by gaming.
Even with a downright cavalcade of triumphs, Kentucky Route Zero’s strongest asset is its ability to redefine itself from episode to episode. The deeper your journey goes, the stranger things get, but the more they make sense too. While the game will definitely be a bit too bizarre and densely obtuse for some, this is a game unlike anything you’ve ever played before.