Kentucky Route Zero (Zero) has been out, in parts, for a while now. However, they’ve now released the fifth and final chapter, so I feel like now’s a good time to talk about it. Especially since I just finished it. Again.
Frankly, any attempt to explain Zero is going to end in lots of hand-waving and incoherency. But what the hell, right?
You start the game playing Conway, an older truck driver on his last delivery for an Antiques Store. He has to deliver to 5 Dogwood Drive, but he’s having no luck finding it.
He pulls off into an Equus Oils Service Station, finding it dark, but with the owner sitting outside near the pumps. He can help you find Dogwood Drive, as it’s on ‘The Zero’, but the information you need to help you get started is on his computer, and the power is out …
So far so clicky-adventury1. Here, however, you’re introduced to a small slice of the strangeness that is to come. In the basement are some tabletop gamers, who have lost a die that glows in the dark. If you find it, you can give it back to the … now empty table. Were they really there?
Once you’ve got the power back on, and gone back upstairs, you can see about getting the information you need. You can find more than addresses on the computer, though, and none of what you read will likely make sense until later in the game.
When you leave, we move to the ‘map’ screen, which is somewhere you will navigate a few times. For now, your truck is represented as a wheel on an overhead view of the map. You can click on various roads to drive there, and on eye icons to examine landmarks, or arrows to enter a location.
The style of the game changes, depending on context. Sometimes you’ll have a side or 2.5D view of things, represented with some nice retro low-poly models. Other times it’ll look like an old vector line graphic game. Sometimes it’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. There are sometimes choices to be made – some of which affect the game world, some of which don’t appear to. There are a few puzzles, there’s some walking and exploring.
Really, the only thing you can guarantee about Zero, is that the playstyle, the camera view and, even the character played, will change almost as often as the scenery. Sometimes more often.
The Zero presents a world that touches reality, but is a more surreal existence. It’s at times wondrous, eerie, infuriating and fascinating. You’ll meet a bureaucracy that’s almost worse than some Real Life ones. You’ll meet a lot of people who live in their own reality. You’ll enter a lot of realities with some of those people. You’ll even take a trip on a boat down the Zero River – an underground river that occasionally meets the Zero Highway.
The thing is, everything connects. On the first playthrough you may or may not notice this. People who pop into the narrative briefly will usually pop up again later. Sometimes you’ll shift completely to a new group of people that won’t become important to the main story until later. Only if you’re paying attention, or playing through multiple times, are you likely to say ‘ahah!’2 and fit events and people into a larger narrative.
Which isn’t to say that things always make sense. At least, to me. But they don’t have to. There are a lot of little mysteries, unexplained details, that add to the world, giving it more colour, more depth, and more strangeness.
Backing all of this, is a wonderful, often surreal3 soundscape. A lot of things sound slightly ‘off ‘ from reality, but in a way that suits the game perfectly. I really do recommend playing this with the sound on. In fact, one puzzle makes this mandatory for a short while.
If this sounds like your kind of thing, then I have only one caveat to make: it’s a very slow game. While you can skip through some parts, and click through dialog, there’s still a lot of moving around, exploring and poking. Not much of any of that is done at speed.
Really, it’s a game you meander through. For me, this enhances the otherworldly feel of the locations, and the people. Maybe I might see you on the Zero.