I’m always looking for video games that attempt something unique. There are only so many unimaginative sequels to Call of Duty or Halo that I can take. For inventive games that break out of the tired mold of big console bestsellers, you really have to look to indie developers. They’re not afraid to break from the monotony.
The recently released Kentucky Route Zero is a perfect example of a small game maker stepping out with something different. This episodic game from developer Cardboard Computer describes itself as a “magical realist adventure game in five acts.” The creators claim inspiration from classics like LucasArts’ Monkey Island and the current Walking Dead series from Telltale Games. You can buy Act I of Kentucky Route Zero to play on Mac, Windows, or Linux for $7. There’s also an option to pay $25 upfront for all five acts. You’ll get the remaining installments as they are released “over the next year or so,” according to the website.
Kentucky Route Zero is set along the real roads and byways of the Bluegrass State. The game stars Conway, a deliveryman who must transport antiques along a mysterious stretch of road. You guide Conway through various point-and-click scenes, interacting with people and items you encounter in this dimly lit game. Conway follows your mouse clicks as you navigate around a set. Each click creates a neat little horseshoe-and-stake animation to which the character moves.
Labels mark the notable items and personalities you find. You can click the eye icon to examine or the square to interact with them. In the first scene Conway and his dog companion reach a gas station. You communicate with the proprietor by choosing from three stock phrases, a common occurrence throughout the game. I found little difference in making these choices. Each phrase gets you to the same endpoint, it seems. It’s forced interactivity but it helps bring you into the game’s world.
If it’s not already clear, this game exudes an eerie feeling in its vaguely supernatural atmosphere. The slow and methodical nature of a point-and-click game enforces this vibe. The vector-based visuals and sparse but effective soundtrack heighten the situations even more. The graphics may seem primitive at first but they also contribute to the mystery of the story. The total design is pretty spectacular in its deft subtlety.
During the middle of Act I, the focus moves from Conway to a second character, Shannon. You control this character and feed it your choice of dialogue as well. The shift of protagonist is a bit odd and confusing at times. I can only hope this was a conscious choice of the developers to achieve a surreal, David Lynch-esque style.
I live in central Indiana and often drive to Nashville, Tennessee on business. It was fun for me to see the Interstate 65 highway I know so well as the setting for the game. Gauging from the map you use to drive from point to point, Kentucky Route Zero is set between Bowling Green and Elizabethtown, Kentucky though you’d never know from the game itself. No towns or cities are mentioned on the map. Another design choice that fuels the game’s uncertainty.
Honestly “game” may not be the most apt description for Kentucky Route Zero. It’s heavy on storytelling but short on actual puzzles or game play. You are lead to the next segment in the story through metaphorical breadcrumbs, there’s little room for guessing or exploration. I would have enjoyed more riddles to solve or trial-and-error inspection.
The makers could’ve easily told this story as a graphic novel or short film. I commend the developers for their choice of medium but I have a hard time labeling it a game. It’s more like an immersive multimedia story. By no means did this detract from my enjoyment of Kentucky Route Zero.
Calling Kentucky Route Zero a game may disappoint gamers looking for more action. I could be proven wrong in subsequent acts but I think there’s just one plot here with a beginning, middle and end. This narrative owes more to the world of film than it does video games—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Whether or not it’s a game should not dissuade you from giving it a try. The plot is strong and very enticing. Act I ends on a cliffhanger. They definitely have me hooked, enough to get Act II when it’s released. I might even look for the fabled Kentucky Route Zero on my next trip south to Nashville.