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.kentuckyroutezero.com for Windows and Mac, with Linux and Steam version to follow soon.