Published on March 11th, 2013 | by Steven Hansen2
Kentucky Route Zero (Act I, Equus Oils)
You pull the truck up behind him on the side of the road, headlights illuminating the dust his flat steps kick up, muddling the air. You get out and approach. He doesn’t seem to see you. With the waning light from the truck you can read only the scribbled top of the legal pad. It reads: “KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO REVIEW.”
You screw up your eyes to try and read more as the notepad flutters to the ground. The man is gone.
You get back in the truck.
Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic, point and click adventure game bred with a text adventure. It eschews genre staple logic puzzles — and I use “logic” loosely — in favor of exploration, ambiance, and intrigue.
You begin at Equus Oils, a bizarrely horse head shaped establishment from which Act I draws its name. I’m noticing this retrospect, but I wonder why this didn’t stand out to me as odd from the onset. It looks like a chess piece. A man named Conway walks out of a truck, dog in tow. Apparently he is on a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, an unfamiliar address. The gas station attendant, sitting out front between two pumps, tells you you need to find The Zero; Kentucky Route Zero. That’ll take you where Conway needs to go.
The encounter at Equus Oils gives way to a “world map” that reads with the geometry of the map. You’ve been given your bearing, but you’re free to aimlessly drive around the different highways en route to your ultimate destination. Along the way are strange encounters or locales delivered in a traditional text adventure format, while the stark visual style is reserved for the main segments. The excellent writing sells it. Pithy, but full bodied.
This first, ethereal encounter sets the tone for the rest of the act. You’ll spend your time not only exploring, but defining. During the — notably well written – dialogue sequences, various responses or choices crop up. Unlike most games, however, you’re defining a past more than making definitive future actions, or at least doing both at once. You’re playing both the role of actor and director.
In the beginning, for example, you can examine the slumped gray dog. It’s an old dog with an old straw hat. “Both have seen better days.” A bit later, the gas station agent asks you about the dog. There are several options. One of which is to disavow the dog, to mention it’s just some stray. Two other options involve claiming it, naming it. In either, you are defining Conway’s relationship to the dog. Deciding it was my dog, naming it, gave me a stronger connection to it than had I just been told it was mine. Deciding it was Conway’s dog and considering its name or gender serves to characterize Conway. Perhaps myself — yourself — by extension.
Kentucky Route Zero‘s surreal atmosphere, which is engrossing, allows it to create this ambiguity and mystery. The sense of mystery helps these idiosyncratic dialogue choices carry meaning. There are no pretensions. You’re not buoyed by a particularly exigent underlying goal (I’m about as driven to make the delivery as I imagine actual delivery people are, which is not very), nor are you confined by pre-established backstory or characterization. Even the minimalist, iconographic art style helps remove pretension and gives you not a blank slate, but a proper surrogate. So too do the moody soundtrack, stark sound effects, and one particularly unexpected, magical song.
That’s what was most surprising about Kentucky Route Zero. As you author Conway’s tale, even in just this first of five acts, it reveals so much more about yourself than other games do. There’s more of me in Conway than my good hearted Lee Everett or my gallant Commander Shepherd and her fiery red hair. Perhaps it’s the game’s pensive nature and less extreme stakes that allow it to feel more real and thoughtful than most games. It goes beyond moralizing and more binary choices.
I had anticipated liking Kentucky Route Zero. I was digging the art style, atmosphere, and music. I didn’t expect something so arresting and enigmatic. Almost profound, though I might want to wait for another episode or two before I heap too much praise. It’s not “what would you do when/if…” so much as “who are you?” Where are you going, yes; but, more importantly, where have you been?