Along with our group-selected 2016 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen one game to commend as a personal favorite of the year. We'll continue to post new Staff Picks throughout the rest of 2016.
I came late to the Kentucky Route Zero party. So late, in fact, that I was only barely aware of it until the summer of 2014. My inauguration was a long time coming—I'd lost count of the number of glowing reviews I'd read for the first three of a proposed five acts, and while I reckoned it sounded like my cup of tea on a cursory level, I'd decided its narrative-leaning nature would echo that of Gone Home, Dear Esther, and The Stanley Parable.
These were (and still are) some of my favourite games, therefore I can't really tell you why it take me quite so long to join Conrad, Blue and old-timer Joseph in the forecourt of the Equus Oils station, but that it just did. It turns out Kentucky Route Zero is nothing like Fullbright, The Chinese Room or Galactic Cafe's seminal works. Kentucky Route Zero is like no other game I've ever played.
Which feels like a strange thing to say about a game whose story isn't finished. Of those five planned acts, developer Cardboard Computer released its first three between January 2013 and May 2014. It wasn't until July of this year that Act 4 landed, and its fifth and final chapter is without a due date entirely. This year has been a questionable one for a number of reasons, yet it's been a very good 12 months for videogames. Nevertheless, my favourite game of 2016 is Kentucky Route Zero's penultimate episode—a small portion of a game which on its own makes little sense, but against what's come before it is arguably the most important.
In a sense, KRZ's fourth act is the runt of its litter. It tells a similarly disparate tale which pays no less deference to storytelling, self-reflection, and the series' Americana lineage; but its structure, tone and outlook is distinctly less overwrought compared to its forerunners. It feels like the calm before the storm as it swaps the open road for life at sea—yet how it turns itself inward to better examine the quirks of its idiosyncratic cast is nothing short of wonderful.
Choices again govern the direction of the story, yet, this time more than ever, outline its past. Every decision carries weight, and can vastly alter you and the character you've vouched for's outlook. Likewise, interlacing narratives is a series staple among its cast of interchangeable and equally playable characters, yet number four spends much of its time exploring these networks further still. This in turn prompts a shift in tone: one which eschews the familiar dread of previous installments to instead focus on the minutiae of each scenario—the personalities, the foibles, the less obvious imperfections of this broadly dysfunctional, or, at the very least, disjointed, crew.
It's difficult to dwell on what Kentucky Route Zero does best because it's how you play it that matters. While each game will typically wind up with similar conclusions, how you get there is what makes it interesting—something which is interminably subject to change. Sidestepping the open road, the gospel churches, the bureaucracy of the Big City, and replacing it with the Mark Twain-esque story-focussed lazy Echo river is a masterstroke which sets the stage for the series' fifth and closing act. By dwelling on its specifics, its relatable vignettes, and its whimsical anecdotes and metaphors, Act 4 is perhaps the least developed of the lot as far as overarching narrative in concerned, but is nonetheless crucial to the story's progression.
The indie renaissance, for want of a less hackneyed term, of the last several years has opened the door to games like Kentucky Route Zero—yet at the same time KRZ is a game which recaptures the text-heavy, parser-reliant classics of yesteryear. With a stunning, minimalist art style, Kentucky Route Zero is a story-heavy game whereby you're as much the author as you are the reader and the player. Act 4 not only serves to frame its curtain call, but also celebrates all that's come before it.