Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Review
It’s the journey, not the destination
Spanning a seven-year development cycle, Kentucky Route Zero has enthralled and perplexed gamers for far longer than any normal episodic narrative game. This gestation period could only truly have been achieved by an independent studio, the kind that takes the George R. R. Martin approach to not giving a shit about deadlines, and instead releases its work when it feels damn well ready to. It’s a mentality that simply wouldn’t have fit with the likes of Telltale or Dontnod, but then comparing their games to Cardboad Computer’s weird epic feels akin to comparing a Dan Brown novel to one by Haruki Murakami. Now, with the fifth and final act completed after four years of waiting, the entire package — including its interludes — is available on console.
Your goal, as truck driver Conway, is to deliver a final package for a failing antiques company to an address somewhere off the titular Zero. Accompanied by your dog (which you’ll name), your job is simply to fulfil your goal and make your delivery. The problem is, no-one knows exactly where or what the Zero is.
The first thing to note is that the game is opaque as hell. In the first couple of episodes, travelling is done via a 2D monochrome vector map, where the formidable Route 65 splits the state down the middle. You’ll be directed to or stumble upon different landmarks of an increasingly weird nature — a TV repair shack, a burning tree, a road full of horses, an office floor filled entirely with bears — while trying to find the Zero. Very few of these elements are explained; on the contrary, the inhabitants make no reference to their bizarreness which in turn adds to the overall mystery. The game is described as a magical realist adventure, which it certainly is. Right from the off when you pull into a petrol station and find a group of D&D players sitting in a cave, not once acknowledging you, it’s clear that this won’t be a standard story.
Kentucky Route Zero is essentially a visual novel, with light point-and-click elements. Conversations are had with minor characters, where you’ll choose from a selection of dialogue options for Conway. There are no “wrong” choices here, instead you use the options to build out the backstory of the man you think Conway is. Occasionally you’ll come across other individuals who, through whatever twist of fate has befallen them, become companions to Conway on his journey. At that point their stories merge with Conway’s, and you will be able to choose to narrate from the point of view of multiple characters. For instance, while Conway is a muted, melancholic man, Shannon is a far more blunt and logical figure, and young Ezra is more inclined to flights of fancy. Each new travelling companion has a distinct voice, and while not all of their stories felt complete by the time the credits rolled, the writing for most of the character plot lines was pretty much flawless. Flawless, and yet incredibly frustrating.
You see, KRZ takes itself very, very seriously. It’s one of those games that will prove so bitterly divisive that heated arguments with fellow gamers will undoubtedly arise. There’ll be a friend that loves it (“Don’t you get it? It’s a metaphor! Everything’s a metaphor!”), a friend that thinks it’s artistically wonderful but substantially lacking (“One episode you play as a cat. For the entire duration. I didn’t really understand why, but it’s a lovely way of delivering narrative beats.”), and a friend who thinks that it’s pretentious guff which disappears up its own arse well before you hit the stupid game-within-a-game text adventure of the third chapter. Unfortunately, I’m going to risk the wrath of the internet and plant my flag somewhere between friends two and three. Kentucky Route Zero is an arthouse game which revels in its obscurity. For every wonderful scene there are three utterly dull ones. Crafting a vocalist’s song during a gig at a local bar becomes a moving, ethereal experience unlike anything I’ve seen in a video game. Conversely, one of the interludes sees you listening to a series of increasingly bizarre recorded messages on a telephone for as long as you can bear to continue cycling through the menu system.
Comparisons to David Lynch’s flights of fancy are inevitable, but don’t really do justice to the impenetrability of much of KRZ. It took me until the end of the third act to stop trying to decipher or understand a lot of what was going on. Instead, I found it more bearable to let each section roll over me in isolation. When approached in this way, the game is far more enjoyable. Each of the characters exists in a pocket of maudlin resignation, sharing their woes with each other through stories and conversations which are in turn humorous and deathly dull. The game’s linearity will save you from too much wandering around, although its determination to find new ways to convey the narrative often proves more interesting than what people are actually saying. You’ll watch characters through the playback of recorded videotape, navigate around the innards of a boat, or observe an actual play taking place in a theatre. Sometimes the threads will cross over, and a glimmer of connective story tissue will emerge, but the end of Act V may prove too short and too isolating for those who have waited four years to see the story complete. At its heart, KRZ is a game about struggles of ordinary people in the face of mounting debt — though that message is wrapped in layers and layers of philosophical musing and deliberately obtuse verbiage.
Even so, the game has a weird sort of charm which kept me playing on, even though I really wasn’t sure if I liked it. It’s not an enjoyable game to read compared to something like Disco Elysium, for example. The writing doesn’t crackle or engage in the same way. It’s a hard slog. Yet combined with the weird arty flights of fancy and the clunky control system (which really shouldn’t be a struggle given how little there is to actually do), the whole thing somehow forms itself into a game which deserves to be experienced. It’s the very epitome of a cult classic and, like many cult classics, some will love it and some won’t. But then, isn’t that the beauty of art?
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