Short, sweet, surreal seven years in the making
Kentucky Route Zero starts out slow and simple. An old man named Conway pulls into a gas station to ask for directions. He has a rusting truck, rumbling away in the background, stuffed with antiques. But he cant find his destination. That road, hes told, is not easy to reach. What follows is a surreal road trip thats constantly changing. Kentucky Route Zero remains slow across its five acts (and multiple interludes). But with the exception of that opening scene, its never simple.
Its impossible to talk about this adventure game without discussing its development history. Kentucky Route Zero debuted in 2013 with the first of five planned episodes. Subsequent acts were expected to launch every few months but things didnt play out that way. While Act II came out later that year, the third act didnt appear until 2014, and the penultimate act came two years after that. Now, seven years after the game first debuted, it finally comes to a close.
So whats all the fuss about? Why have so many people been waiting for the better part of a decade to experience this story to its conclusion? Its not easy to explain. At its core, Kentucky Route Zero is a fairly simple point-and-click adventure game. You move through different environments, talk to other characters, and interact with objects. Theres no traditional challenge; the game doesnt ask you to collect objects or solve puzzles. You cant get stuck or lost. Its about being in this place and discovering its residents.
What makes Kentucky Route Zero so special is that space and its residents. Its a world thats both timely and timeless. Everything feels of the moment, speaking to the struggles of the last decade, and also like it couldve taken place a century ago. Its part Southern Gothic, part magical realism, part biting critique of capitalism and the people it leaves behind. The main goal to deliver some furniture to a house that is seemingly impossible to get to is really just an excuse to venture through this world. First, you do so by road, taking Conways creaking truck across twisting highways and side streets, searching for a path called the zero that isnt on any map. Later, youll ride on a boat alongside a mechanical mammoth, and eventually, a giant bird will fly you to your destinations.
A Murakami novel slathered in Americana
Each act has a different feel. The first is a road trip, as youre searching for the zero, following bizarre directions en route to an abandoned mine. The following act takes you to a strange office the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces and later a museum filled with buildings that were once homes but now sit in storage. At one point, youre given a guided tour of a whiskey distillery thats run by glowing orange skeletons who only continue to work because theyre in debt to their employers. Later, you meet a telephone operator who keeps coming into work, despite having been laid off years ago.
The writing and there is a lot of text does most of the narrative heavy lifting. Its at times melancholic, poetic, and inscrutable. It can read like a Murakami novel slathered in Americana. And because its interactive, with you choosing bits of text everything from song lyrics to details about personal relationships it often feels as though youre writing the story alongside its creators. Heres one of my favorite, particularly depressing, passages from the skeletal tour guide about a simple device:
Its an adding machine. This is where we come for our daily ritual: to calculate the days interest and repayment according to The Formula. I usually do so at the beginning of my shift, so I know how many hours I need in order to keep up.
At points, the game can be utterly bizarre, but the strangeness always has a hint of the familiar. Theres a floating gas station, for instance, thats always in a different space so you never quite know where to find it. Or a couple of singers who inexplicably make robotic sounds when they walk and travel around the area playing shows at virtually empty venues. When Conway injures himself and visits a doctor, hes patched up only to find his leg is now the same orange skeletal limb as the workers at the distillery. Just by getting hurt, he finds himself roped into a similarly dire financial predicament. Thats one of the atypical clauses, the doctor says afterward. I dont really have control over the bill.
For the most part, the strangeness serves to amplify the uncomfortably familiar elements. Many of us know what its like to be trapped in debt to some degree; its not that hard to sympathize with the skeletons stuck in an underground distillery. And the game gives you the time and space to sit and think about things and make those connections. It moves slowly, never rushing you, and at multiple points, you simply have to sit around and wait. Thats not to say that all of Kentucky Route Zero necessarily makes sense Ive played through it twice now, and I am still very confused about many moments but thats also not a bad thing. Life is strange and confusing. The game only amplifies that.
That brings us to the fifth and final act. The end of Kentucky Route Zero has been a long time coming, both for the worlds characters and the players who have been following along since 2013. Act V is also the biggest departure. The entire experience takes place in a single small town, home to the mythical Dogwood Drive where Conway, now gone, needed to make his delivery. Across the first four acts, the deliveryman assembled a motley crew, including the aforementioned robotic singers, a very curious young boy, a struggling repairwoman, and cooking-obsessed former academic. At the storys end, theyre here to fulfill the promise of a friend.
The story ends in a way thats both satisfying and heartbreaking
I wont spoil too much, but I will say that the tantalizingly brief final act ends the story in a way thats both satisfying and heartbreaking. In a clever twist, you control a cat, wandering around the town eavesdropping on conversations of both the main cast of characters and the residents of the town. Youll hear about how nice the now-abandoned general store used to be, listen to the dreams of artists and farmers, and learn about how the townsfolk take care of the plentiful ghosts. (The creators of Kentucky Route Zero took the phrase ghost town very literally.) They are tales of loss and struggle, personal and small to the point that theyre often difficult to hear. Toward the end, youll listen in on a funeral for a pair of horses, which is even sadder than it sounds.
If youre already immersed in the world of Kentucky Route Zero, theres really no question that youll play this final act. Youll need to see how things conclude. But if you were sitting on the fence waiting, know that, now that the saga is over, it was worth the wait. Theres really nothing like it. Its weird and confusing but in a way that only heightens the despair and struggle at the heart of its story. Its a long, strange trip where the destination is the least important part.
Kentucky Route Zero Act V will be available on January 26th; the game will also be available now on the PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch in addition to PC.
Short, sweet, surreal seven years in the making