Kentucky Route Zero - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Ah, Kentucky. The rolling green hills; the endless ribbons of highway; the billboards plastered twenty feet high on the side of the road telling passersby to REPENT OR BURN IN HELL. Truly the heartland of America, in more ways than one. I don’t know if Kentucky Route Zero has anything to do with the actual state or character of Kentucky, but basically everyone who’s into indie narrative-based games at all has been telling me to try this one out. That’s been especially true since I publicly expressed my ardent love for Disco Elysium, which seems to have a sisterly relationship with this game. Or at least cousin-ly, what with their shared point-and-click style. Regardless, the game looks interesting enough on its own, so I’ll dive in.
As grizzled trucker Conway, I have been tasked with finding the eponymous Kentucky Route Zero in order to complete my delivery drive. Conway also has a dog, which I love. Every game should give you the option to have a companion dog. I’d play through at least a few hours of Conway just feeding jerky to Blue and telling her about his day on the road. She’s a very good girl.
The controls for Kentucky Route Zero are smooth and easy to manoeuvre on my Nintendo Switch; it lacks the slightly gummy feeling that other Switch ports have (looking at you again, Disco), and sports a refreshingly sparse UI. The characters are blocky splashes of colour in an equally polygonal world, but the simplistic style works in favour of the game, allowing me to focus more on the text and atmosphere.
And man, there is a hell of a lot of text and atmosphere. It’s abundantly clear that this game thrives in the deeply surreal – there’s almost no hint of reality beyond that first moment at the gas station. The second you’re told to turn right at the ugly tree that’s always on fire, you’re firmly in David Lynch-land, which is compounded even more deeply when the TV makes the wall melt and my first human companion disappears. This Conway guy must be having the weirdest day of his damn life.
There are some other things that happen – my second companion Shannon and I get stuck in a mining shaft which results in my leg getting crushed, for one – and yet the game feels like it still hasn’t really begun yet. Maybe it’s because we haven’t reached the titular Zero yet, but the story doesn’t feel like it’s truly picked up, or like it’s drawing me in for more. Maybe that’s the nature of the game, but I hope not.
Kentucky Route Zero, at least so far, is not a very “fun” game. There’s no real pleasure in my physical actions within the game (which, intentionally, lag due to Conway’s current limp), nor is the text particularly exciting other than the occasional moment of surreal intrigue. Maybe that’s the point, but it isn’t a feeling that I as a player love.
The Zero on which we find ourselves seems to exist in some sort of pocket dimension within the hills of Kentucky. It’s constructed (for lack of a better word) through endlessly-changing caves and tunnels. An interesting concept, to be sure, but the lack of explanation makes it a little too confusing for my tastes.
The mechanics are also constantly changing and, therefore, more than a little confusing. There’s one point where I take a wrong turn and get miserably lost on the Zero for several minutes; I am quite literally driving around in circles, as the “route markers” (named esoteric things like “The Crystal” and “The Antlers” and “The Knife”) aren’t morphing into new markers as they usually do. Eventually, I find my way to where I’m going, but it takes way too long.
However, surprisingly enough, I don’t dislike the game. The story’s beginning to expand, with multiple playable characters and disparate narratives. There’s also a sense of bittersweet loss that permeates the game – faint nostalgia for days gone by, regrets that haunt the characters like ghosts. Also some distinctly leftist undertones, which is interesting. (Who says politics have no place in video games?)
And the weirdness. Oh, all this weirdness. The plot is often as nonsensical and meandering as its fictional namesake, which makes this game incredibly hard to write about. In many ways, it defies the language it’s written in and sits in my mind as simply a feeling.
But there are some places where the weirdness is more delightful than anything, like when I stumble upon a conference room in a mysterious office building that’s occupied only by bears. The bears seem friendly enough, but there’s nothing else to do there, so I move on. Sometimes, shadowy musicians will appear as silhouettes in the foreground, and provide a soundtrack of lonely bluegrass. I find myself missing them when they’re gone.
Finally, by the end of this episode, I feel like the plot is starting to pick up a little bit – and frankly, make a little bit more sense, albeit in a very opaque way. I don’t think I’m hooked yet, but I’m definitely intrigued. Kentucky Route Zero has made clear that it is fundamentally a long meditation on how corporate America dehumanises working-class people in the USA’s Rust Belt, and I’m interested to see where it goes.
Episode 3 begins – or, rather, its interlude begins – with another homage to one of Kentucky Route Zero’s stylistic influences: the theatre. The descriptor of the “play” being performed, in which I am an unnamed actor, seems like a self-aware joke on the part of the writers – they call it “intriguing but unfocused”, or something like that. The game is definitely starting to grow on me.
Also, Conway’s previously-injured leg is now that of a glowing, radioactive skeleton. Extremely cool and normal thing to happen.
The best moment of the game, so far, is when I step into the bar that previously only existed as a set for the previous fictional play, confirming that said play exists in the same world that I do. It gives the story a wonderfully metanarrative quality – reminds you that you are just watching a story, after all, but that you’re an active participant, too. And then when I get to play as the android musician Junebug, performing a slow synth-pop song (with lyrics I get to choose myself, at least partly), the sky opens up, the music seems to soar into the night, and Conway and company are transported into another reality. It’s a magical moment, and a sign that the game is starting to come into its own after the muddy first episodes. The game is still far from perfect (I have no problem with slow pacing in games, for instance, but Kentucky Route Zero frequently drags in a way that isn’t just attributable to atmosphere) yet it feels fuller and more realised here than before. It helps that a bit of the absurdity of the previous chapters was dialled back, lending aspects of the story a slightly more grounded feeling.
There’s also a hypertext adventure game-within-a-game, an abandoned church, and an undead whiskey distillery that wants to lay claim to Conway’s soul. I think I could really get into this.
One of the best parts of the game is the tidbits of myths and lore we get about this strange parallel universe – like, for example, the sisters that hated each other so much that they bought houses right next to each other, and tried to outgrow the other in sunflowers until the flowers grew so tall that the houses couldn’t be seen anymore, and finally moved out when the houses and fields were infested with moths. The fables I hear on the proverbial road are strange, but familiar, somehow.
Kentucky Route Zero now switches between its multiplicity of playable characters so seamlessly that I barely notice it’s happening; it isn’t accompanied by any indication that the perspective has shifted. I’m suddenly just someone else. Maybe that’s part of the surrealism of the whole thing, letting you slip between characters seamlessly. But unfortunately, the game is still inconsistent in its mechanics, especially as our cast of “playable characters” (so to speak) expands. The mechanics feel somewhat disjointed from one episode to the next, especially when the designers suddenly throw in new elements like having to listen to verbal messages on a phone to progress the story, or driving a boat forward in a scene that changes the game’s normal side-scrolling format to a three-dimensional view. However, the pervasive atmosphere keeps the design and the plot in a state of relative harmony.
The game is definitely more ambiance-minded than it is character-minded – when Conway was suddenly whisked off by the radioactive-skeletal distillery men during this chapter, it was appropriate for the game’s themes, but still pretty jarring. There’s some metaphor to be had there, sure; Conway succumbs to his crushing debt and the alcoholism that comes with it, and finally loses the last shreds of his humanity under the boot of capitalism. Still, I was attached enough to Conway that just watching him disappear out of nowhere was confusing and not at all narratively satisfying. But maybe that’s the point.
Kentucky Route Zero is an imperfect game, especially in its mechanics; I think it could have benefitted from an overall clean-up before its re-release as a completed game, just to cut down on some of the ludic issues. But Episode 5 does an excellent job of clarifying the previous threads of the story and bringing as much closure as it can to the narrative. Even when there’s not much closure to be had at all.
The idea of “haunting” is big here – our small party, now sans Conway, climbs up into a near-abandoned ghost town after a flood, and helps hold a funeral for two horses that died during it. The player now controls a cat, and acts as an outside observer to the concluding conversations and emotions of the narrative. The illusion of control over the story’s events is gone entirely; after all, what can one little cat do to change a person’s fate? But control was never the point.
This is a game about history. It’s a game obsessed with the loops and ghosts of the past, both literal and metaphorical; it references pieces of older art like Colossal Cave Adventure and The Iceman Cometh and drags them firmly into the present, as if to say: “Look at this! This is still here!” The final chapter cements this theme, forcing the main characters to contend with their own pasts and their own futures. Do you leave the ghosts under this old town to rest, and let them die? Or do you rouse them again, try to heal them however you can? There isn’t a correct answer. But there often isn’t a correct answer to anything, and that space of ambiguity is where Kentucky Route Zero lives.
After some time off to fully absorb the entirety of Kentucky Route Zero, I’m here with the final verdict. It’s pretty weird, it’s pretty good, it’s not perfect but it’s still definitely worth playing, especially with a mere 9 hours of run-time. It even made me get a little misty-eyed near the end – old bluegrass hymnals and the ghosts of the past made material will do that to you.
Because this game is, more than anything, about the absurdity and grief and love that courses through America and its working class. The game itself cuts to the heart of Americana, and what that idea even means – the open road, or endless debt, or a merry band of misfits, or the ravages of alcoholism, or everything at once. After all, it’s a country built on top of a mass grave. This game doesn’t let you forget that.
But as Kentucky Route Zero says, the whole world is built on top of graves. At this point, all that matters is what we build there.
You can subscribe to Jump Chat Roll on your favourite podcast players including:
Let us know in the comments if you enjoyed this podcast, and if there are any topics you'd like to hear us tackle in future episodes!