Wot I Think: Kentucky Route Zero Act I

By Adam Smith on January 11th, 2013 at 10:00 pm.

Kentucky Route Zero tells a story about an underground highway and you can experience that story by pointing at things and clicking on them. So is it a point and click adventure? Sort of. But it’s also a weird and wonderful bluegrass ballad, a poem about play, and a showcase for intelligent writing and gorgeous art. Here’s wot I think.

I had a dream about Kentucky Route Zero a couple of nights ago, which is an entirely appropriate reaction to its magical realist landscape and locations. In the dream, the dilapidated farmhouses and cut-away basements were stranded with seaweed and rotten fish, having been lost underwater for years. The sea that covered the state eventually retreated when the tide went out one day and never stopped going, whispering away over the horizon. I’d conflated its world with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch. That’s grand company to be in and the game sits comfortably there. Both works sashay around surrealism, in an emotionally and intellectually cohesive fashion.

Even if all you’ve seen is the trailer, you may have thought to yourself, ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’. When I finished playing, I was left thinking that they never did. With The Walking Dead’s unexpected quality a recent memory, it’s fascinating to play another game that is essentially a point and click adventure of old, favouring drama rather than humour. But while Telltale’s game favours the melodrama of a grim horror serial, Kentucky is a more literary work. It’s one of the few games I’ve played recently that, were it a book, couldn’t rightly be placed in the genre section. It’s ‘Fiction’ and if the level of quality is maintained across all five Acts, it’s destined to be a modern classic.

There’s something of Another World and Flashback in the graphics, stylised 3D that conveys more varied tones in just a couple of scenes than most games attempt in their entirety. The issue of length will be a sticking point for some but rest assured there are several lengthy scenes and smaller events to discover on the roads that criss-cross this imaginary Kentucky. I’d be surprised if anyone could finish the first Act in less than an hour, even if they foolishly rushed it, and my own playthrough was at least three hours, although I did spend time just looking and listening. I’m planning to play again as well, not because I want to choose different dialogue options but because I want to explore every corner. I’ll also enjoy experiencing some of the breathtaking moments again, exactly as they were, because this really is a game of exquisite moments.

The walls of buildings fall away to allow a view inside, suddenly resembling Edward Hopper paintings, though of rural isolation and dilapidation rather than the more celebrated urban melancholia. Kentucky does maintain its fourth wall, although it brushes against it occasionally by means of its words and smaller visual details. The barrier between player and game flickers into view most notably whenever concepts of ‘play’ are mentioned or alluded to. Clicking the ground to move causes a small stake of light to shoot up and a horseshoe rattles around it. Is that game one of lead character Conway’s memories as well as a reminder that the player’s interaction is a playful act in itself? For all that it address inner nature – and this is soulful game if ever there was one – there are still minor puzzles to solve and we propel Conway toward solutions and targets.

Everything is beautiful and soaked in meaning, images and words that speak directly to the heart and mind. There’s a fair amount of text, both as conversation and description, with one location acted out as a text adventure, which pissed me off at first. When a game is so beautifully constructed, I want to see more of it, but then I realised that I wanted to read more of the game as well, and accepted that there was a reason I couldn’t see that particular interior as I fumbled my way through it. It’s a very reasonable game and one of the most proudly intellectual that I can remember.

Perhaps that’s an odd observation to make, but I think it’s important. I’m accustomed to games that have a point to make or an agenda driving their narrative, and that can be well and good, but it’s incredibly rare to feel such so comfortable in a designer’s ability to challenge and surprise with their own imaginative intelligence as well as references and quotes. When the game started, I immediately clicked on Conway’s dog, to test how interaction worked as much as out of any specific curiosity.

“An old dog in a straw hat.”

The words hang for a beat.

“Both have seen better days.”

I feel like I’m in capable hands when I read that. First of all, it’s awesome to be accompanied by a dog wearing a hat, but that small pause is a comedian winding up an audience and a small catch in the throat at the same time. Note that the dog’s hat isn’t silly in any way. If anything, it’s dignified. There is a bleak humour in the game and while it’s not quite delivered from the gallows, it is at least in their shadow. Mostly it’s just delightfully and consistently sorrowful and serious-minded, although with a jaunty crick in its step and a sense of wonder and fun in its environments and characters.

When the whole thing is complete, exploring its themes – memory, loss, love, travel? – should lead to exciting and lengthy conversations, but for now there’s a fragility. I don’t want to squeeze too hard because until the next part comes, and the one after, I worry that by looking too hard, I’ll botch my instinctive reaction, which is to just let it be. For now, at least. There’s one scene in which the camera pans toward a television, except it doesn’t, defying the scripted line of motion and discovering something else instead. It’s one of the most mind-tingling, heart-fluttering things I’ve seen for months, in any form of media.

It’s astounding how this one managed to creep up on me. I’d seen the trailer and there was something special in that but I’m staggered by how effective the mysteries and meanderings are. The story is mumbled, a shaggy dog story as told by hobo Umberto Eco, but there’s such a grace in the idiosyncrasies of the telling. In the first scene, a truck drove past in the background, one of several vehicles, and it was only later, when I switched to the top-down map and began to drive, that I questioned it. Kentucky doesn’t have a population beyond Conway’s immediate perception, I became convinced of that, but there had been signs of life and of other journeys right there for me to see.

The worst thing about this first Act is the frighteningly high bar it sets for the next four. The second has immediately shot to the top of my ‘most anticipated’ list and I’m grumpy about having to wait, although at least the episodic releases mean the game will stay at the front of my mind for the next twelve months.

Don’t take the trip for the puzzles because they are few and simple, take the trip because like all the best it’ll turn the horizon into an experience and surprise you every time the path twists or turns. Smart, thoughtful, sweet and incredibly well crafted – it’s the perfect game to play in the small hours of a lonely night. Be warned though; it’ll leave you hungry for unknown roads and longing for an invitation to the blues.

Kentucky Route Zero Act I is available now for $7, or you can buy it as a package with all five Acts delivered as they are released for $25.

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47 Comments »

  1. Terragot says:

    Damn, the trailer had me hoping this would be a 2d experience with some faux-dimensional depth (not story, but literally D for depth!). It looks rather flat and mechanical in those screenshots, will wait for a peer review before I take the plunge.

    re-read my comment and it seems overly negative, maybe even narcissistic? I should clarify this is a lovely looking game, I was just thrown off by the ambiguous trailer.

    • gschmidl says:

      Giant Bomb has a lengthy Quick Look of it (I hope it’s ok to mention that here). They both love it, too.

    • breadman017 says:

      The engine is 3D, the player interaction is 2D. Don’t let the technicalities scare you, it’s beautifully done.

  2. durruti says:

    i’m not going to read more than the two opening paragraphs since my decision was all but made after i’d seen the aesthetic/listened to the sound – kinda as if it’d already promised what you’ve spelled out there. so… anybody know if i have to register for this pay with credit card via stripe thing?

    • gschmidl says:

      Nope, they accept PayPal.

      • El Mariachi says:

        It’s also been Greenlit on Steam, presumably to be released fairly soon now that it’s been released in real life, in case the former is your preferred vehicle.

        • ZIGS says:

          Next batch is greenlit on the 15th this month. Will this game be among it?

          • Hoaxfish says:

            No, the 15th thing is additional greenlighting… KR0 has already been greenlit. I assume the delay to an actual Steam release is about getting it to work with Steam’s distribution system.

  3. Lanfranc says:

    “The story is mumbled, a shaggy dog story as told by hobo Umberto Eco…”

    SOLD!

  4. MadTinkerer says:

    “It’s one of the few games I’ve played recently that, were it a book, couldn’t rightly be placed in the genre section. It’s ‘Fiction’ and if the level of quality is maintained across all five Acts, it’s destined to be a modern classic.”

    Okay, yep. We’re done here. Not reading another word on this until I’ve finished the last chapter. I made the mistake of reading about The Walking Dead before I played through it (or even bought it). I avoided all the “major” spoilers, but I really wish even the “minor” spoilers had remained unrevealed until I discovered them for myself.

    So I’ll be back (to comment on this) after the last chapter is released and I’ve played it. Until then, total media blackout on KR0 begins now.

  5. Lev Astov says:

    That’s about the most glowing praise I think I’ve ever read in a WIT. Sold. But if I don’t bleed rainbows by the end of it, I’m coming for you, Adam!

  6. DickSocrates says:

    What I’ve seen looks really great, right up an alley really near me if not my actual alley.

    However, I don’t like episodic gaming, or really understand the point. I go hot and cold on things very quickly and would need to experience the entire thing in a week. So, I will definitely get this, but only once it’s all released.

    • UncleLou says:

      The point is: earn money reasonably regularly. A pretty valid point for a small indie developer.

      And you can buy the first episode and try if you like it rather than having to buy the full game.

      Anyway, wonderful article, wonderful looking game. Buying now.

      • DickSocrates says:

        I suppose it doesn’t make much difference to me how they choose to publish as the release date for the final episode wouldn’t be different from the release date of the entire game if it wasn’t episodic. My main point is I don’t personally want to play episodic games one episode at a time with a month or longer between each one, but if it makes sense financially to them then that’s their business.

        • mwoody says:

          You’re not alone. I’m sure I’ll end up getting this eventually once it’s already done, but seeing “episode 1″ on anything causes me to ignore it, and not just from bad Star Wars memories.

  7. roguewombat says:

    Having hailed from Kentucky for 15 years, I can testify to the fact that you actually do move about the state (and especially its underground highways) by pointing at things and walking toward them.

  8. Lucas Says says:

    Having played it twice, it is absolutely startling how fascinating this game is. It’s subtle, tells its story in a remarkably novel manner, and impresses with its sheer audaciousness.

    I’ll probably like other games released in 2013 more, just because there’s so many, but this is a wonderful way to start.

  9. Hoaxfish says:

    So is this basically a lot like Sword and Sworcery? Walking, talking atmosphere and some minor puzzles?

    • Premium User Badge

      Arren says:

      No offense to Sword & Sworcery or its adherents, but comparing these gorgeous visuals to the ungainly pixel art of S&S is unfathomable.

      (No accounting for taste, etc.)

      • Premium User Badge

        jrodman says:

        S&S looks fantastic, not ungainly.

        This looks fantastic, not like S&S.

    • Premium User Badge

      cqdemal says:

      In terms of “gameplay,” yeah, but Kentucky doesn’t have any combat of course.

      The mood is very different. Kinda like a warm, comforting blend of Lynch and Murakami.

  10. Zeewolf says:

    I read stuff like this, and I feel that I missed something. The Kentucky Route Zero that I played was weird, a bit mystical, certainly atmospheric, but … I don’t know. It just was, and then it was over.

  11. breadman017 says:

    When I first booted this up I got 60 seconds in then immediately exited. I then went to the living room, installed it onto the media box hooked up to my projector, turned all the lights down and the sound up, and just sort of sank into the experience.

    Fair warning: the game is, much like the Kentucky it hails from, slow paced. Oftentimes you might be tempted to call it a text adventure with some added visuals. There are some beautiful scenes though, and I got a serious melty feeling the first time I right clicked to move somewhere. It just fit so perfectly, everything fits so perfectly.

  12. bad guy says:

    Reading? This is my free time we are talking about here!

  13. benh128 says:

    Obviously it’s early days yet, but does anyone who’s played it have any opinions on how this game suits the episodic model? The Walking Dead worked perfectly for me purely because the story was too intense to be digested all at once, but as lovely as this looks I’m a bit concerned that I’ll be drawn into the story/world and be left pining longingly for the next act for months, and eventually just forget about it. A similar thing has happened with waiting for Chapter 4 of The Dream Machine (the first chapters of which are amazing, just by the way!).

    • Premium User Badge

      cqdemal says:

      Just finished Act I a few minutes ago. This could be a problem, but I wouldn’t mind replaying it once Act II is out. You won’t forget it though. You may forget the dialogue choices you made the first time around, but you won’t forget what you went through. It really is that good.

      • JakeNova says:

        I fully agree. Played through it again when Act II came out, and found many more things I missed in the first play through. MANY. Like, a whole new character. And a poet at that. Guess I will do the same thing I usually do with deluxe editions of comics, read the older ones I have then read the new one I recently purchased. Works out well, especially for amazing ones like Ex Machina.

  14. The Random One says:

    Wow, I was interested in this already; you didn’t need to drop both Eco and Marquez on me.

  15. benshares says:

    LOVED it – looking forwards to playthrough two.

    At first I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to quit after I found the onramp? And I wanted more country music overall (there’s just the one song sung after you meet weaver, right? – especially with the tape player lying around, the reels of tape on the mine cart, and the recording studio! Still great overall though, MORE LIKE THIS PLZ.

    • Premium User Badge

      cqdemal says:

      Very minor and barely comprehensible spoiler.

      Question: Does anything happen if you go from the mine to the bait shop before the house?

      • sub-program 32 says:

        Not much, but it is different than when you go on your own. It is it’s own event.

        • JakeNova says:

          Go from the mine back to the gas station! That is a must. You will open up a new side mission among discovering other things.

  16. Eight Rooks says:

    I’d love to try this, but I was stung pretty badly by The Dream Machine – cannot understand the love for that, with its mediocre writing and crippled scope and scale, and people praising that game alongside this one have me very wary. $25 on a niche indie title is a lot for me right now, and I hate buying things piecemeal…

    But sweet Jesus it really does look and sound absolutely gorgeous. Hmmm. We’ll see.

  17. Brainkite says:

    25$ AWAY of my pockets please !

  18. Tei says:

    I watched this 2 days ago, and I can’t close my mouth, I am :-OOOOOOOOOOOOOO with more oes.
    http://www.giantbomb.com/quick-look-kentucky-route-zero/17-6940/

    Probably is better to just buy the game, but the payment method confuse me because I am not a smart person. whachawith dollars for act 1,…. How big is act 1?

  19. Ross Angus says:

    OK, Adam: sold. I particularly liked this line from the README.txt:

    “If you start to feel bored, just stay with that feeling. Really own it.”

    • Unclepauly says:

      Yeah that just about sums up how to approach playing this. God I wish my attention span didn’t shrink to fruitfly size in the past decade. I used to be able to enjoy taking it slow with games….. I blame society.. YOU HEAR THAT SOCIETY?! GO SHOVE A BUCKET OF…… ya I’m still having trouble calming down sorry.

  20. TheIronSky says:

    I played this a few night back (just had a gut feeling about how fantastic it was going to be) and I must say that this review is absolutely spot-on. I couldn’t have said it better myself; and considering my own journalistic endeavors, I’m actually somewhat jealous of your masterful literary skills that must come with years of experience. Brilliant work, Adam.

    I loved playing this game, and I too will be returning to its harrowing landscapes and visual themes once again just to pick up on the little details I might have missed. The way that this game leaves the player alone to find and experience its weird and wonderful fiction made me want to continue searching the sprawling cross-section of Kentucky in search for more, and luckily, it’s never too hard to find. This is one of the few games in recent memory that has given me physical chills (frission, I believe), and it’s refreshing to see so much praise for it here. Cardboard Computer has certainly earned it, and I know that this game has inspired me to create weird and wonderful things in the near future. Thanks for the wonderful read, Adam.

  21. Premium User Badge

    ffordesoon says:

    Worth noting that this was a Kickstarted game.

    Whether we can call it a “Kickstarter success” is down to sales, but it is apparently quite good, soooo…

    Anyway, I bought the whole series just now. Even if I end up hating the tits off it, this is exactly the kind of unclassifiable effort I want to see more of in games.

  22. noodlecake says:

    I saw the giant bomb playthrough and it looks absolutely beautiful. Every single scene is a piece of art I would have on my wall and the way that the scenes transition from the foreground to the background is just astonishing. I am definitely going to buy this, even if in the end I might find the game boring in terms of it’s mechanics. It’s pure eye candy and definitely unique.

  23. cuiagaha says:

    before I saw the paycheck which said $4153, I did not believe …that…my friends brother was like actualie bringing home money part-time on their apple labtop.. there uncles cousin has been doing this for under ten months and resantly repaid the dept on their mini mansion and purchased a new Honda. I went here, http://www.Cloud65.com

  24. mybanana says:

    Before playing this make sure you set aside more time than you think you’ll need to play it. I turned all the lights off and tried to set the mood, but I played this in an hour’s time between freelance work with business on my mind. I wish I hadn’t played it then. This is a quick game that requires a slow pace to fully enjoy. It’s like a Dear Esther with text. I enjoyed Dear Esther because instead of wishing I had a run button and walking straight to the end I took a good 3 hours to stroll through it when I had nothing else to do that day.

    At times the text seems unrelated to the task at hand, and the “objectives” and story seem to be two different things. All said and done I’m still glad I bought it and plan to take the time to actually slowly play through.

  25. joeytheboy says:

    wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait… wait a damn minute here. You mean to tell me i can get a dated side scroller like Monkey Island, except it wont have any of those pesky “cleaver puzzles” or self esteem destroying “challenges of skill” in tiny installments that i have to wait (indefinitely) for, probably within the year(what year? 2176?), AND i get to pay for it? Oh wow, were do i sign up!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

  26. BrokenButterfly says:

    Well, I finished it in a bit over an hour, and I was left feeling a bit cheated. I didn’t find it very profound or engaging at all. I had this tingle inside me the whole time:

    “C’mon dude, this is a great beginning to a great story, just wait for it, you like, you really like it, don’t you? Right?”

    There were elements I liked of course, the driving around and finding a guitar player, entering a dark diner and watching two guys push a Cessna on the road were intriguing, but at the same time too “observationally” out there for me.

    I think I’ll wait for all five acts to be released, look at what the consensus seems to be and then possibly give it another shot. But as an interactive short story KRZ was lacking in substance.

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