Review by Philippa Warr
The first serving of a five course point-and-click feast, Kentucky Route Zero is an otherworldly tale in which an antiques deliveryman searches for an address which may not be real. The only way to reach it is via a similarly existentially challenged highway - the titular Route Zero. What follows is a meandering, dream-like journey through a rural nightscape, evocatively rendered in an aliased vector style and accompanied by swelling ambient score.
There are no explicit puzzles here - except for the meaning of the things you experience along the way or riddles proffered by your occasional companions. Characters fade from reality like apparitions, a radio booms out choral music in a deserted church, a burning tree marks a turning along the highway, and an old tannoy pings the depths of a disused mine, stirring memories of a forgotten disaster.
With words like 'magic realism' being yanked up Kentucky Route Zero's product description flagpole, you might fear a whistlestop nothing-is-what-it-seems tour through an is-it-isn't-it unreality. And though you do indeed get that, the game's creators are subtle, thoughtful and manipulative with it.
Rather than beating you round the head with philosophy, the game weaves a charming spell from the first moment deliveryman Conway's truck pulls into a gas station. Text actions shun the traditional minimalism of point-and-click language for more evocative options. An in-game computer, activated by clicking a symbol rather than selecting any "use x with z" syntax, does not do anything so mundane as turning on. Rather it "wakens from its reverie" and demands a piece of blank verse as a password which you yourself construct line-by-line from a succession of options. Delightfully, each combination creates a poem of pleasing sound and equal plausibility but of differing meaning.
Complementing the text are the carefully choreographed and animated visual shifts which push your focus from one space to another. An attempt to tune a malfunctioning TV-set causes the wall behind to disassemble, revealing more clearly the night-time landscape which is also depicted on the small, fritzing box. Elsewhere, blooms of distant music or the chirruping of crickets draw you further into this strange moonlit otherworld.
Around halfway through this first act Kentucky Route Zero's facility for creating contemplation reveals itself fully. Conway uses the echoes from a tannoy to check the structural integrity of an abandoned mineshaft (though quite how this works remains unclear). The player selects from dialogue choices as Conway mumbles into the microphone, and, regardless of which you pick, a groan reverberates through in the darkness. The selection isn't important to move the game forwards, nor does it have any impact on the events that ensue - it exists only to make Conway your own private creation. Later you describe Conway's thoughts in the same way, sculpting his inner life as he breathes into the microphone.
Creating an environment where the player falls so easily into introspection is Kentucky Route Zero's major triumph. But its succession of rich, poetic images might also prove a bewildering, perhaps even aimless, when so unchained from a sense of narrative causality. There are moments, too, when the rhythm of the narrative and the rhythm of the game come into conflict - segments involving wilfully slow physical movement test your patience, for instance - but its spell is rarely broken and the discord soon recedes.
Kentucky Route Zero funnels you along a prescribed path, sparsely populated with commands and with little room for maneuver. But there's considerably beauty in how it acknowledges these limitations and asks what sort of game choices are really the most important. Other adventures see you decide a character's fate, their successes or failures. Kentucky Route Zero makes a point of asking you to describe their interior instead - and, by extension, yourself as well. However you respond to its ethereal imagery, this is a game which makes a rare suggestion: who a player is may be more important than what they do.