Digital Media & VideogamesDreamsMagicMystery

Kentucky Route Zero: Act One

This review was ori­gin­ally pub­lished on Gam­ing Daily.There’s some­thing to be said for the idea that art can find expres­sion in any medium. For Jake Elli­ott and Tamas Kemenczy of Card­board Com­puter, their medium is the strange blend of audio, video, text, and inter­ac­tion of digital games. As their earlier game Ruins showed, the stu­dio has a pen­chant for the poetic and the dream­like, and you’ll find those ele­ments in spades in their latest (and cur­rently ongo­ing) work Ken­tucky Route Zero. It’s an adven­ture game in five parts — the first released in Decem­ber 2012, with later instal­ments to fol­low this year.

Firmly on the quiet, con­tem­plat­ive end of the game spec­trum, Ken­tucky Route Zero is a twi­light exper­i­ence, a theatre of sil­hou­ettes, head­lights, and ghostly Amer­ican coun­tryside. It is to a great extent “magical real­ist”, as the design­ers state, with infirm bound­ar­ies of time. A group of people that was here one moment might be gone with the cov­er­ing and uncov­er­ing of a lan­tern. Some people are younger than they should be, until they too sud­denly dis­ap­pear into thin air. The past is also present through more con­ven­tional arti­facts: a mys­ter­i­ous fam­ily grave­yard, field record­ings of miner’s songs. The game bends time in more ways than one.

This world is painted with stark and dark visual tones, most shapes out­lined with shadow and back­light. The occa­sional washes of bright­ness, whether com­ing from flood­lights or sun­sets, provide beau­ti­ful con­trasts to the twi­light atmo­sphere that pre­dom­in­ates. In all, it’s a visual poetry that is more subtle, but as poignant as the shad­owy Friedrich cathed­ral in Ruins. There is true poetry in the game’s text, too. The lines are meas­ured, and down to earth until you are hit with some­thing uncanny and out of place, some­thing which hap­pens at many points in the game.

Music plays a sporadic — but import­ant — role in estab­lish­ing the mood of Ken­tucky Route Zero, flit­ting between key scenes from Ben Babbitt’s eth­er­eal elec­tronic ambi­ence, to things like a coun­try duet by The Bedquilt Ram­blers. The games sound, though unob­trus­ive, is con­sist­ently drawn with the same sure hand — whether it’s the buzz of fish tanks in a bait shop, or the strum­ming on the gui­tar of a road­side trav­eler.

So, it’s damn pretty, but what is it all about? Well, so far, it’s about deliv­ery­man Con­way and his dog, who struggle to find their deliv­ery address and even­tu­ally have to go driv­ing around night­time Ken­tucky in search of the under­ground high­way Zero. This isn’t straight­for­ward, of course, and the first instal­ment of the game sees Con­way vis­it­ing a couple of places near Equus Oils, the gas sta­tion where he starts, and end­ing up in an aban­doned mine with a woman called Shan­non.

There are a few key loc­a­tions you have to visit to get on with the story, but around the game’s roadmap — as well as inside the mine — you can find some optional loc­a­tions to visit, adding a degree of free explor­a­tion which I hope will be present in the future chapters as well. These loc­a­tions are home to one-screen vign­ette and mood pieces, or even a few minus­cule text adven­tures. All of them add more (sur­real) fla­vour to the game’s world, and are little poems in them­selves. One that really stayed with me is the scene of two men just push­ing a small air­plane for­ward, its wheels and their shoes slowly wear­ing through.

Ken­tucky Route Zero evid­ently has some of the trap­pings of more tra­di­tional adven­ture games, but stripped down. Drop­ping the puzzles, what’s left of the form is explor­a­tion and con­ver­sa­tion, and a touch of role­play­ing in the choices you make. The back­story and per­son­al­ity of prot­ag­on­ist Con­way, his dog, and to some degree that of Shan­non, are determ­ined by the con­ver­sa­tion lines you pick, a method as effect­ive as it is straight­for­ward. How these choices will affect the pro­gress of the story remains to be seen, but at the very least it allows you to write small parts of the char­ac­ters your­self.

Obvi­ously, it’s impossible after one epis­ode to say any­thing about the over­all story of Ken­tucky Route Zero, but at least I’m already thor­oughly gripped by its atmo­sphere and style, and the prom­ise of what is to come. Act One is short(ish), and the wait for the next one will seem very long, but I’ve got a hunch that it will be very much worth it.

Ken­tucky Route Zero is avail­able DRM-free from http://​www​.ken​tuck​yroutezero​.com for Win­dows and Mac, with Linux and Steam ver­sion to fol­low soon.