It’s twilight. Only the stars and sunlight morphing into each other are visible. Fluorescent lights on their last legs are the lone source of warmth in the fall landscape. An airy song plays, emphasizing the emptiness of the country side. For a moment, the player watches the stars fade away. Only for a moment though. This is “Kentucky Route Zero.”
What is “Kentucky Route Zero?” Created by developer Cardboard Computer, “Zero” is a point-and-click adventure game, with a de-emphasis on the point-and-click part. More accurately, it’s a video game version of punk rock, although set to the tunes of banjos and bluegrass. The game breaks all the rules, creating something new in its wake.
The mixture never feels too overwhelming, but, also never too relaxing.
There’s no real objective to “Zero,” other than story progression. The plot follows deliveryman Conway as he travels the highway the game is named after. At times, “Zero” seems annoyed that Conway and the player keep pressing on. Gameplay elements are picked up and dropped at random. The only consistent mechanic is the constant wandering. Players travel a mostly barren landscape, finding scraps of human interaction as they go. The result is “Shadow of the Colossus,” sans the menacing colossi. The lack of direction creates an aimlessness that’s both daunting, and soothing. The mixture never feels too overwhelming, but, also never too relaxing. The road trip down the Zero is more of a ride than a game at parts. The player is often relegated to the role of hapless mouse monkey, whose only job is clicking forward down a long forgotten road. This lack of control might be a hinderance in other games, but here, it’s a selling point. The game portrays the backwoods people Conway meets as individuals that time, and the world, have passed by. They fit in perfectly with the game’s odd tone.
The redundancy of technology is a central theme too, highlighted by the post-industrial south setting. The first act of the game is a hunt for the rural highway. However, once Conway finds it, things only get more complicated.
Soon, Conway is forced to deal with the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, a government organization based along the Zero. Here, the game takes a dramatic shift in tone. Gone are the beautiful stars and the folksy small-town people. They are replaced with bureaucratic red-tape and fluorescent lights. In these moments, the wide open outdoors are a distant memory. These sections are one of the few missteps the game makes. Though not bad, these sections aren’t as engaging. Luckily “Zero” doesn’t doddle there very long.
“Zero” is happiest when the player stops clicking, and just listens to the music.
At its best, the setting, gameplay, and stubborn attitude, are inservice of “Zero’s” counter cultural message. Conway isn’t the center of the universe, he’s not the last hope for humanity, and his quest really doesn’t matter to anybody, besides himself. The world reflects this. Both player and character are tiny parts in this Edward Hopper-like land of loneliness, and their travels are a small story in a world overstuffed with small stories. Perhaps this ties into the constant detours Conway’s journey takes.
From the start, progress is impeded at every click. Neither the characters, nor the game itself, are concerned with how quickly the story is finished. Emphasizing this, Conway’s journey is sprinkled with turnpikes to nowhere, scattered relics of Americana, and starts to stories that never get endings.“Zero” is happiest when the player stops clicking, and just listens to the music. Which, by the way, is great.
This trek through the heart of the American wilderness is scored with the backwoods beats of blue-grass and folk music. Songs of old-time religion and Jesus drift about the road, working their way into the tale. Not all of the music is rustic. Tracks like “The Stars Fade Away,” a personal favorite, are filled with ambient lulls, similar to the works of musical groups like Washed Out. The soundtrack is a selling point, regardless of which style is at the forefront.
“Kentucky Route Zero” sticks out like a teen wearing a tuxedo t-shirt to prom. Thanks to its uniqueness, the game is an absolute joy. A dour, melancholy, moody, joy. The biggest problem with the game is that the final two acts aren’t done. A vague release window is set for 2016, but the game has been a work in progress since 2013. Funnily enough, the forced hiatus feels in-keeping with the stories themes of patience and time. Still, what’s been completed has been magnificent. Another issue is the price. Is it worth the 25$ dollars it costs on Steam? Yes. But, it’d be lying to say that value felt fair.
Regardless of minor flaws and pricing problems, “Zero” deserves special recognition. Cardboard Computer is creating a wonderful game, filled with magical realism, sadness, and southern twang. Waiting for the next act might be tough, but, if “Kentucky Route Zero” teaches one thing, it’s that waiting isn’t always a bad thing.