Need to know
What is it? A point-and-click adventure game about a group of characters traveling through Kentucky
Expect to pay: $25 / £19
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Link: Official site
It's taken seven years for developers Cardboard Computer to release all five episodes of its otherworldly adventure. It was first Kickstarted in 2011. Chapter 1 was released in 2013, and the following acts have dropped sporadically ever since. Where games like The Walking Dead or Life is Strange will drop episodes at most months apart, Kentucky Route Zero would wander into your life with two hours of surreal, evocative story before disappearing once again—slinking back into the aether until it was time for the next episode.
It's strange having to review a game that I've been playing for over seven years. It's a weirdly nostalgic experience, a reminder that I'm a completely different person from when I started playing back in 2013. While I think many will have the same realisation, Kentucky Route Zero's message about the struggles of rural America and the working class are as relevant today as they were back then.
The story follows Conway, a truck driver and self-described drifter who delivers antiques. After the small antique store he works for shuts down, we follow his delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, a place that noone seems to have heard of, but apparently lies somewhere along an ethereal highway called the Zero. As Conway searches for his destination, he is slowly joined by a number of fellow wanderers. The group travels across Kentucky together, looking for a place that may or may not exist.
Their road-trip is far from just tire on tarmac. KRZ takes you through a number of surreal pit stops throughout its five acts. A majority of the story is told through character dialogue and exploration as you point and click your way through different scenes. Rather than puzzles, though, the focus here is on weaving an evocative atmosphere and memorable scenes. An old cathedral that's been converted to an office building where you're not quite standing inside or outside. The basement of an empty gas station that's shaped like a horse. An eerie museum of suburban neighbourhood houses called the 'Museum of Dwellings'.
On KRZ's ethereal highway, a building is never 'just a building,' there's always a little poetic twist. I felt like I was a tourist, sightseeing Kentucky's strange little corners and the people who lived there. Although never fully sure where the story would land me next, I always looked forward to what was next down the road.
As Conway's group grows bigger, each character fades in and out of the foreground. In the first act you control Conway, but as the story progresses you'll play different characters as they take centre stage. As you chat with different NPCs you're given choices that reflect a character's inner thoughts and, as you decide which of these will be expressed, it's like you're slowly moulding the character. These choices aren't just simple replies to a question, like your opinion on what's happening in the moment, but deeper and more meaningful. You get to decide if a character is completely over a lost lover, or still shaken by an event from their past. I always felt like I was making meaningful choices. While the road that KRZ takes is linear, but the decisions you make for these characters make them feel like your creations, their stories becoming yours.
Kentucky Route Zero is mainly an anthology of these small stories and you'll hear many of them through building descriptions, ghost stories, lore and mythos. They can be as simple as a description of a haunted arcade to as complex as a character's entire family history. The small and the big all together conjure up a bleak portrait of rural America and people trying to survive times of economic hardship. The stories of KRZ are from regular working-class people; bar staff, electricians, store clerks, truck drivers, and many more. It's not often that these stories get explored in games, and KRZ handles the topic with respect. Even with it's magical realist visuals, KRZ stays firmly grounded in its careful consideration for its stories. If anything the dreamlike, surrealist visuals actually enhance the message.
In one early scene, Conway's search for the Zero brings him to an abandoned mine where he meets a young woman named Shannon, the first character to join your group. As you chat with Shannon she begins to explain how she came from a family of miners, and how, due to corporate greed and neglected worker's rights, the mine collapsed, killing all of the miners inside including her family. As you explore the abandoned mine shaft, you can hear the ghostly sounds of metal hitting rock and there's a radio broadcasting the haunted singing of the workers within its static.
It's these moments that really grip you when you're playing. They're quiet, unexpected and steer clear from baseless bizarre weirdness. But, there were times when I got lost in KRZ's stories. A character would mention a name that I felt like I'd heard before or a place that rang a bell at the back of my mind, like remembering a dream after you just woke up. Following all the different narrative threads can be a bit disorienting but it never was frustrating—especially now I'm not forced to recount a story event that happened two or three years ago. I never felt that KRZ ever wanted anything from me, that I was just a casual observer in its ethereal world.
This ties in with the group that joins Conway on his search. They're drifters, pilgrims, loners, and wanderers. People with nowhere to go, no home, no boundaries. This wanderer lifestyle almost sounds romantic, but in KRZ these drifters reveal ugly truths about rural America. Stories of unpayable loans, never-ending debts, and people forced into difficult financial situations. These characters are individuals who, through choice or not, have been cast out or are in disarray with society, now left to wander the lost highways of Kentucky.
Kentucky Route Zero tells the stories of people and their collision with social or natural forces that they are powerless against. But KRZ isn't completely melancholy. The last chapter is warm, hopeful, and a finale that feels good regardless of whether it took you seven years or seven hours to get there. Its storytelling is slow but purposeful and blends fiction, history, lore and the supernatural to conjure up an intricate portrait of America and its wanderers. Kentucky Route Zero is a compelling tragedy that focuses on the smaller, but no less important, stories of its characters.