Kentucky Route Zero @ PC, OS, Switch PS4, Xbox One, Linux
Emoji summary: 🛣🌌🪑
I should play a tune, really, get the right bass line going for today’s review. I feel the need to click you into this mood with me so you can really get what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. In this game critic POV, I wanna tuck you into bed for a weird lullaby where the bedtime songs sound distant; I’m dripping water into your ears until they are full, and then watching as the water falls slowly back out, down the lobe and onto your neck where you can feel that it is slightly warmer now for having been inside your head. The mood I want for you is the purgatory of telephone hold music but only if that music was made by a mysterious traveler who plays the theremin with shaky hands in the dark. I will keep typing out these sounds and maybe you can keep all this imaginary word-music in mind as we get into things, when I try bending over backwards to write about a video game that plays like multiple stories wrapped around time, round and round, like a plait. I have a whole album to describe if it would help - it’s all still with me after playing. The sound of a big old truck coming to a stop; the echo of footsteps on buffered floors in huge empty spaces; and a painful love ballad sung out in a bar to an audience of lonely people. I hope this is helping you get weird because that is where we need to go. Like, imagine if a whole river was replaced by the sound waves off the radio and life was one big visualiser, and you could see the waves as they rocked up against the dockside and fell apart. We need some pictures to go with these sounds, so also imagine the silhouettes of strangers between trees, singing church songs with guitars in American accents - like you can only see their edges, as though they are 6ft paper puppets come alive at night. Imagine more songs of their saviour but now we are all congregated together at a graveside where two horses are being buried together as the sun sets on a milky, flooded town. That is where I’m left after Kentucky Route Zero, n that is what I’ve been through: I’m feeling jittery, stunned, and basking in a dark romantic aesthetic. So just, you know, keep hold of all that and we can figure out this review together.
It’s a whole thing to write about this game in particular. It was released in five parts between 2013 and January of this year, and I feel the pressure writing now because plenty will have experienced it bit by bit, mulling and waiting, their appreciation for the story seasoned with time. The amount of our readers who messaged to recommend it (but like… to pass us the recommendation as though they were slipping us their digits across a bar) makes me think it is a little cultish, and that this is something people really care about, have discussed with friends, and thought about through articles, podcasts and so on. There’s those players and then there’s me: I mainlined the whole saga in 5 days last week and only now am I coming to. It is the weirdest game I have ever played and probably one of the best? After playing it, I felt similar to how I did after I went to a film festival for the first and only time, like my sense of the world is a little more expanded now, but also I am really tired. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into with Kentucky because I don’t like a warning with these things (or any-things - I hate watching film trailers for example, it gives it all away), and I haven’t read anything to follow up on the game afterwards because I want to hear out my own opinions first and allow the experience to be the game rather than the game plus the discourse. Let me sit in this puddle alone. There’s enough to sift through as it is.
At its core, the game follows an easygoing protagonist, Conway. He is a tall skinny man who is trying to deliver antiques to an address he cannot find. What happens between the beginning and end of the story is a slow tumbling blur, like I know we went from person to place trying to find someone who could point us in the right direction of the delivery address but… the notes I made about Kentucky Route Zero as I was playing are fuzzy: looking at them now, they are a bit like when you try to draw a clock with your eyes closed, the numbers from 1-12 always curve out of the circle and away. I kinda think my ‘what just happened’ reaction is kind of amazing for what is essentially a simple game format that involves pointing, clicking, hardly moving, and making your way through a whole load of text in conversations, songs, computer script, monologues and internal dialogue. The player does bits, but it’s mostly reading and selecting what is said next as we help Conway try to make it to 5 Dogwood Drive, that elusive addy. A text adventure (still learning proper game vocabulary, bear with me).
He starts alone at a petrol station but soon picks up some wayward characters - an acquaintance, a kid, a singer and her partner. And I probably shouldn’t say he begins the game alone actually, because he has an old droopy dog with him that wears a wide-brimmed hat. We go from that petrol station to a stormy house; and there’s also a gallery, a mine, woods, a museum after dark, a dive bar, a ferry, a church inside a storage unit, an underground distillery ran by skeletons, an open air bat sanctuary over the river, THE BUREAU OF SECRET TOURISM, a floating restaurant, and many-many loose ends and interiors in between. Conway and his growing company walk, drive, boat, and get carried across land by a bird that is so big but never explained or even acknowledged really. They travel highways, interstate roads, the Echo River, and they take the highway too, ‘the Zero’ in the game’s name, Kentucky Route Zero. The structure of the story is like crawling through the kids bedroom section of Ikea, the way they connect the tiny showrooms with slides and climbing holes; you take the ladder and then the toy tunnel through to the next part of the game in the hope of making it to the destination, but so much happens along the way and it’s all so specifically interesting that you kinda just have to stop to smell the ghosts and the roses, wherever it is you have ended up. When the ending finally came, I felt surprised, because being in motion with the characters - that was like, enough for me. I could have gone a lot further.
I don't need to go into too much detail to talk about that ending (I’m not even sure I could), but I played the game thinking all the overlapping stories, references, personalities and places would come together in one neat resolution - and they sort of did, but it was also calmer. A very poetic and wide conclusion to a wider world of tales. This was like Love Actually if David Lynch directed it. And by that I mean, no one is going to show me how to use a magic pen to join the stars up in a way that makes a constellation out of them; there is a distance left there on purpose for me to live within. Some stories are like that, they are loose but no less careful and Kentucky Route Zero belongs to that genre I would argue. I mention David Lynch as if I have any actual knowledge or authority with which to do that, and my boyfriend will be clenching his fists at the reference because he knows I’ve never been able to stay awake for longer than 10 minutes into anything that man’s created. But that’s exactly the point I want to make. I fall asleep when a story is structured in this big expansive, knowing but secretive way because my body has nothing to latch onto. It’s not because it is boring but because everything is so fucking slippy. And at the very beginning of the game, I woke up with the Switch controller in my hands and thought ‘oh no, it’s happening again.’ Thankfully after that, it didn’t. Where my head submits to sleep in the presence of Lynch films (like my soul won’t allow me to stay), KRZ had this soft demand to stick around, to be dependable, and to keep the wheels turning so that Conway finished his job, and I think this is because it takes the form of a game. I had to show up. My hands had to do the things. A game like this is an invitation in the way a long film in the same evasive style isn’t because a viewer is passive; the viewer can keep their hands to themselves, they can fold their arms; they can fall asleep on the floor in front of their boyfriend and pretend for an entire year that they watched Eraserhead and didn’t just wake up at the end and blag it because they know it’s important to him. Sorry Michael. I do wonder what Lynch’s work would be like if it was a game and because I can’t make it through any moving image of his, I am double glad I made it through Kentucky Route Zero. It is probably going to be one of the most memorable things I will ever play -
because it seems like the people who made it, Cardboard Computer, really fucked with what they were making, like they really put love into the game. I don’t know if that is true but with the care put into the language, easy depth of the characters, soundtrack that felt so personal, the whole haunted aesthetic and the way the story is laid out with so many options to choose what happens next (without ever making it clear how much or how little that effects what actually happens), I have to believe it’s a labour of love. Very much a game that could only be a game. It reminded me of the Universe Splitter app that helps you make decisions by letting you do option A in this universe, and option B in another (as if to comfort you because you sort of went with both options in the end). It reminds me of the shower-thoughts moment I sometimes I have in the middle of the street when I’m walking where I’ll think, ‘did the sound of my last footstep make the squirrel over there run away or would it have legged it anyway and it happened to be at the exact same time my foot hit the ground?’ Did you ever read those Reddit posts about the staircases found in the forest by park rangers? Kentucky Route Zero gave me similar vibes. Whoever it was that posted those fictional tales wrote, ‘On just about every case where we're really far into the wilderness, I'm talking 30 or 40 miles, at some point we'll find a staircase in the middle of the woods. It's almost like if you took the stairs in your house, cut them out, and put them in the forest. I asked about it the first time I saw some, and the other officer just told me not to worry about it, that it was normal. Everyone I asked said the same thing. I wanted to go check them out, but I was told, very emphatically, that I should never go near any of them. I just sort of ignore them now when I run into them because it happens so frequently.’ Throughout this game, there’s the same acceptance of all the harmless and weird goings on, and it’s one of my favourite things about it - especially the board game players who disappear and reappear at the beginning and end of the game with their glow-in-the-dark twenty-sided dice. Or you know, the whole part where the skeletons run a distillery underground, and they’re also like, the mafia? That constant lightness means that whenever a feeling is on the verge of getting stuck in your throat it passes: no decision you make holds too much weight, everything is fine, we’re only delivering a parcel really. That attitude makes for a nice step away from competition, battles and victory as the only end point of a game. That’s really not the goal here, it doesn’t seem to matter that much if we don’t find the address.
Too many shapes and edges to try and pin down in one review and I know so much has slipped past my writing, like the fact I think this is the first game I can remember someone hurting themselves and having a limp for a while? First time I’ve seen a body break down that isn’t quickly dead or right back to full health in typical game fashion. Also haven’t touched on the spiral jetty runaround as a cat in Act 5 which made me dizzy and euphoric. And I haven't even described the single greatest moment which might be a nice place to end: when Junebug and Jonny ask you to stick around because they were booked to perform at this bar and there’ll be no other audience if you leave. You say okay then, and the roof breaks off the place and disappears. We’re still in the bar but we’re also standing under the stars and the sky, and Junebug starts her whisperwaving singing in a glowing blue dress like looks like a geometric take on the cinderella Zendaya dress from the Met Gala. And importantly, amazingly, when she gets to the end of a verse, the player gets to choose the lyrics she sings next. Isn’t that generous? How did they even do that? How many versions of the song must they have made to cater to us all? Yeah. I had so many moments when I thought, ‘I hope other people have played this and felt exactly what I’m feeling right now,’ so I guess that’s the secret password into the cult following. I’m in now. I can’t wait to meet the other members.