Video games have a definite genre bias. I use the term “genre” in reference to literature, and subsequently in reference to the times in creative writing courses where professors told me to stop writing genre fiction – fantasy, horror, science fiction and the like. In academia, those are the other, the outcasts from what constitutes “real literature.” In video games, it’s the opposite: seeing something in a modern day setting is almost unheard of. Gamers as a whole would rather wander through Tamriel, Azeroth or a galaxy far, far away.
It would be foolish and impossible to say that Kentucky Route Zero has no genre elements. It contains the dark and mysterious setting of horror, the unexplainable magical events of fantasy, and the prevalence of technology in science fiction. However, it blends these elements into the ordinary, stereotypically boring setting of rural Kentucky. The result is an adventure in magical realism comparable to the work of someone like Gabriel García Márquez. In that regard, Kentucky Route Zero is a very original game, and the first act should be a good indicator of what’s to come.
The first thing you’ve probably noticed here is that I’m not comparing KR0 to other games. Allow me to remove my fedora, turn off my record player, put down my craft beer and explain. KR0 is a game, and can be treated like a game. There’s a world map, you can move freely in your environment, there are rudimentary puzzles and you can interact with objects. However, like Proteus – a game we reviewed recently – the goal of the game is different from many games. KR0 doesn’t reward the player for doing well as much as it rewards the player for paying attention.
And pay attention you should, because KR0’s strongest suit is its atmosphere. The game’s rural setting is equal parts eerie and beautiful. Old, quiet houses stand against silhouetted mountains, a gas station with a giant horse head is surrounded by a busy highway and an abandoned mine is filled with distant echoes and the ghosts of dead miners. The people you meet are equally odd, lost souls with stories sometimes only told subtly.
Speaking of which, story is another major focal point of KR0. The concept is simple: you’re Conway, a delivery man for an antiques store, who has to make a delivery to an address you can’t find. You quickly discover that the only way to get there is by taking a mysterious highway called “The Zero.” This leads you around the countryside and into conversations with the locals…and into pretty surreal territory. Visual presentation is absolutely fantastic, with graphics that resemble the child of rotoscoped animation and comic books.
Thankfully, for a game so focused on story, the writing in KR0 is top-notch. Dialogue is wonderfully expressive and realistic, beyond anything I’ve seen before in a game. The story is a bit nebulous and confusing at first, with a little bit of “I’m so indie” syndrome. However as this chapter of the game goes on, the plot fleshes out and the game begins to use more traditional storytelling techniques. While I’m definitely one for experimentation, the game’s unique setting and creative premise just work better when conveyed traditionally.
Some people will not like the gameplay of KR0. Some people, like me, will just not pay much attention to it. Movement is pretty textbook point and click adventure style, but the puzzles are way easier than, say, Myst or Monkey Island. Most of them revolve around finding out where stuff is and exploring the environment. The game rewards you for discovery, with strange text-only events on the world map and objects that flesh out the game’s world. However, it’s never a struggle to figure out what to do. Difficulty doesn’t really exist in KR0, but that’s not the point.
And some people may not like that aspect of the game. The somewhat slow beginning – and a slightly tedious first puzzle – may also turn those people away. Really, KR0 plays like an interactive graphic novel. If that’s not something you enjoy, then KR0 is not a game you should play. It’s also tempting for me to launch into the same debate surrounding Proteus, of whether or not KR0 is a “game,” if it’s an “interactive art piece” or whatever. Even calling it a graphic novel above was a bit problematic.
And I will say the same thing now that I did with Proteus: who cares, man? Kentucky Route Zero is a kick-ass whatever it is. With better pacing, the rest of the acts have the potential to be truly great.