Kentucky Route Zero – Review

In Kentucky Route Zero, we attempt a delivery to a mysterious address. Did we get lost in magical realist America? Here’s what we think.

Kentucky Route Zero starts at dusk, in waning daylight. The bulk of the game takes place over the following night. The final act returns the sunshine to us. This means that for most of the game, you’ll be in the dark. The only light you get is artificial: headlights, floodlights, lamps, slide projectors, even the melancholy glow of a CRT.

Kentucky Route Zero will mean different things to different people, the way most poetry works. To me, the game was about these lights that we carry—both for ourselves and for others we care about. Even if they’re complete strangers. Especially if they’re complete strangers.

It’s also a game about a more personal light: the light that tells us we’re home.

Home is a safe place. It belongs to us, but more than that, we belong to it. And yet, home isn’t immutable. It can be uprooted, whether you want that or not, whether you know you want it or not.

At a certain point in the game, a character makes an observation that encapsulates the soul of the game. “All people need is enough to pretend we’re home, and we can make it anywhere.” In a rural America ridden with debt and displacement, home is exactly where you pretend it is.

Kentucky Route Zero starts with a character named Conway, an older truck driver looking to make his last delivery of antiques for the night. The address is an elusive ‘5 Dogwood Drive’. Conway’s only companion at the start is a very old dog wearing a hat.

As the game progresses, he meets Shannon, a young woman who takes solace in fixing old cathode ray television sets. More people join this impromptu family eventually. The motley family of Kentucky Route Zero is bound together by each character’s sense of responsibility to another.

It’s a kind of indebtedness that’s the brick and mortar of relationships. At the same time, there’s another kind of indebtedness that’s hanging over the characters: a real, physical debt to organizations and corporations. These artificial institutions borne of capitalism threaten to take the place of relationships and home, and sometimes, they really do.

Kentucky Route Zero is mired in magical realism. As you follow the story, you encounter things strange, improbable, and sometimes plain out impossible.

The people, places, and objects of Kentucky Route Zero can throw you off-balance, but the game’s resolute and calm melancholy will always catch your fall. It’s a perfect game to play in the dead of the night, with as few distractions as possible. That’s a great time to contemplate the poetry of the game’s writing, its carefully-chosen words and the atmospheric music.

The gameplay resembles a point-and-click adventure most of the time, but it’s really more of an interactive play. This is most prominent in one of the game’s intermissions, where you actually witness an experimental mash-up of two plays, one of which involves characters from the game.

Kentucky Route Zero screenshot

There’s narrative things Kentucky Route Zero does so effortlessly that it’s a wonder they’ve been rarely done before. There are times where the game will nonchalantly change the character you’re controlling, for example. It should be disorienting and frustrating, but the game handles it with such natural panache that you don’t have the time to be mad.

Another is how the game treats dialogue options. Rather than giving you major narrative choices, you are instead tasked with something a lot more important: determining nuance, history, meaning, and tone.

Much of the time, dialogue options won’t even be contradictory. They’ll reveal different facets and knowledge that the character already has. You get to decide what’s pertinent to the situation at hand.

Kentucky Route Zero screenshot

For me, it will be impossible to forget the game I played. Even if I forget the words, the characters, and the names, I will always remember the mood of the game, the atmosphere it invokes, and the themes it expresses.

There’s nothing quite like Kentucky Route Zero. With its sombre mood, innovative narrative design, and deeply poetic writing, Kentucky Route Zero is one of the most unique and important games ever made.

Developer: Cardboard Computer
Country of Origin: United States
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release Date: 28th January 2020 (PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The PC version of the game was played for this review of Kentucky Route Zero.

Thank you for reading this review of Kentucky Route Zero! For other interesting articles on Into Indie Games, check out the links below:

This Article was written by: Rahul Shirke

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