You Might Have Missed: Kentucky Route Zero (Act I and II)

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Conway’s been driving down quiet Kentucky roads for hours looking the elusive Dogwood Drive, hoping he can make his delivery and return home soon. But the sun is setting and he’s lost, that is, until an old gas station attendant tells him there’s only one way to get to Dogwood Drive: the Route Zero.

Kentucky Route Zero is a part of a growing movement of challenge-less, artistic “games” like Proteus, Dear Esther and Journey that are more about exploration and setting a mood than creating obstacles for the player to overcome. Route Zero sways subtly into a great American mythos, existentialism and the nature of conversation. It’s really a perfect example of the “magical realism” genre in videogames. Its ultimately mundane settings are peppered with bizarre improbabilities: the Bureau of Unclaimed Spaces has a floor dedicated exclusively to bears, an old computer requires a poem to serve as a password, and a tape deck sits alone in an abandoned church playing hymns to rows of empty pews.

Route Zero gives the player dialogue options that are really unlike any game I’ve played. The words aren’t there to effect the narrative like in Mass Effect, they exist to reflect a character and to include the player into a natural, flowing conversation. The words may be rambling and mysterious but they’re framed like mundane small talk. An old man gives directions to a house using an eternally burning tree as a landmark, and this bothers neither our main character Conway or the man giving the directions. It’s all just part of the magical realism genre. The writing itself is also of considerably higher quality than that of most games as well. For example, you’ll find Joseph’s computer doesn’t just turn on, it must “wake from its reverie.”

The game has a very distinct look similar to what you might have seen in Out of this World. The game world is made up of sharp, flat, geometric shapes that create a sort of abstracted look. It’s really quite cohesive, even beautiful at times, seriously, it’s enough to make a cinematographer’s pants explode. Though it can occasionally lack enough detail for you to really figure out what you’re looking at. For instance the very first shot of Act II shows a foot in the upper left corner of the screen occasionally swiveling back and forth. The way it’s set up, it looks like the foot is floating above the character at the center of the frame. It isn’t until the camera zooms out that you realize that the foot belongs to a person just behind the aforementioned focus, and they are in fact sitting on a swivel chair. The shoddy perspective isn’t a frequent problem, however, and I never found it to be distracting.

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There’s a specific question that’s asked in every review of games like Kentucky Rout Zero and Dear Esther: are these really games? Short answer: no, long answer: the term “game” has been problematic for years, for various reasons and this game shouldn’t get marks against it because it’s not Pac-Man. However, if this sort of thing doesn’t interest you, if there’s no room in your life for a game without a little healthy murder, then steer clear; this might not change your outlook on what constitutes a “videogame.”

Overall, it’s a fantastic game so far. It’s not life changing, it has a few pacing issues in the second act. But it’s beautiful, thought provoking and occasionally heartbreaking. You might call it pretentious, you might say it’s the sort of game appreciates the view of its prostate, but if this sort of thing interests you, it’s more than worth the price of admission.

By: Mathias Scarborough

You can find the game here: