It’s been a long and winding road to get to this conclusion.
Although it’s rare, there comes a time when a game is released that everyone seems to be talking about. And I remember, back in 2013, when that game was Kentucky Route Zero.
Everyone was talking about this project that was more like a playable work of art than a video game. I remember enjoying the first episode when I played through it at the time, but replaying it some seven years later, I had very little memory of it. Now that I’ve finished its fifth and final episode that players have waited so long for, I find myself wondering if I was the right person to take it on.
Kentucky Route Zero feels like an abstract piece of art that you’ll never quite understand no matter how long you stare at it. Or maybe it’s like a thing that you swear you saw out of the corner of your eye but when you look closer you’ve lost it. Describing it and reviewing Kentucky Route Zero as a single entity feels like a challenge because, despite playing through it from beginning to end, I still feel as though it’s a mystery.
Kentucky Route Zero is best described as a point-and-click game, but one that focuses heavily on story. In the beginning, you play as Conway, a delivery truck driver who has been tasked with delivering the very last package for the antique shop he works for that is getting ready to close. As you progress through the game, you’ll gather a group of misfits that travel with you including Shannon Marquez, a TV repair woman; Ezra a little boy with a giant eagle; and two musicians, Junebug and Johnny. Together your group will traverse between locations on a Kentucky highway and an otherworldly location called The Zero – a single circular path that you can travel clockwise or anti-clockwise around to reach your location.
The game is split up into five acts, along with four mini interludes that connect to the main story later on. Kentucky Route Zero‘s overarching themes are open to the player’s interpretation for the most part, but you’ll find that many elements of the five acts overlap in numerous ways. Everyone that Conway or his companions meet along the way are dealing with issues of their own. Maybe they feel lost, rejected, or misunderstood. This is the theme that seems most prominent: where do we belong? How do we cope? Is there a place for all of us in a winding, twisting world that seems to be rooting against us?
While there is beauty to be found in Kentucky Route Zero‘s non-literal messages, this kind of story isn’t exactly welcome and open for all kinds of players. Not all games need fighting, shooting, a dynamic world or a clear message, but Kentucky Route Zero is so out there and so overwhelming that I’m not sure many players will find themselves making it all the way through all five acts. It isn’t a whole lot of fun to play, in all honesty. I played through the game with a group of friends – and while we all agreed that there was something pulling us back in and encouraging us to play more, by episode three we were more or less burnt out by the twisting mystery.
Stepping away from Kentucky Route Zero‘s story, when you look at the game technically, in regards to its setting and gameplay, it’s incredibly impressive. From the very beginning, players will notice that many of the scenes occur inside and outside of whatever location you’re in. For example, in Act I when you travel inside Weaver Marquez’s, home you’ll be looking at the characters from outside the house while also being able to see the interior, as if the front wall is made entirely out of glass. Just when you think you’ve got a hold on how the game is going to play, something will change your perspective.
Another example of excellent art direction is in the third act when Shannon, Conway and Ezra follow Junebug and Johnny to a bar to watch their performance of their song “Too Late to Love You”. This moment is unique, not only because the player helps to choose what lyrics Junebug will sing, but also because, as the performance progresses, the roof of the bar is removed and the camera view pushes in towards the performers. Eventually you’re left listening to the song while watching Junebug, clad in a striking bright blue dress, perform the song with the backdrop of the night sky behind her. It’s moments like these, where the player is given time to breathe and appreciate the effort put into even the smallest developing choices, that make Kentucky Route Zero feel infinitely special.
When I reached the conclusion of Kentucky Route Zero I felt entirely perplexed. I was confused, awestruck, impressed, frustrated, mystified and a whole other plethora of colourful words that all lead to the same thing. Kentucky Route Zero is still a huge mystery to me. And it will be to many of the players that pick it up to give it a try. For the right kind of person, this game might be the most influential piece of media they’ve ever encountered, but for many players, Kentucky Route Zero will feel like an incomplete thought or an unfinished project. Though perhaps that was always the developer’s intention. Things aren’t always wrapped up in a clean, neat bow – as much as we may want them to be.
With that said, Kentucky Route Zero isn’t a bad game. Far from it. I might be a little confused about the positive reception it has had in its seven year journey, but I don’t necessarily believe it to be undeserving of its accolades. It’s beautifully written, packed with many literary and theatrical references – some of which went over my head, but scholars will certainly be impressed. The game’s characters are likely to stick around in my memory for a long time, and the art style and technicalities deserve a standing ovation.
More than being a video game, Kentucky Route Zero is a work of art – in fact it probably belongs in a museum rather than on our PCs or consoles. And just like any piece of art, it’s unlikely to resonate with everyone who experiences it. But if you’ve been waiting for the conclusion of this drawn-out adventure, you’ll be glad to finally have it.