Review

Kentucky Route Zero

Southern Discomfort

The South of Kentucky Route Zero is both stranger and more honest than the South as seen on TV.

By Ryan Smith • January 22, 2013

For more on Kentucky Route Zero, read Ryan Smith’s interview with the game’s writer and designer, Jake Elliott.

The rural South—according to the narrative of many reality television shows—is a land of Wal-Marts, quaint diners, and downscale homes owned by honest, unironic folk who are blissfully free of the pretensions of city life. The gator wranglers and beauty pageant contestants of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, Moonshiners, and other quasi-scripted docu-dramas are real people. But they feel like performance artists playing cornpone characters in a Sarah Palin fantasy of “real America,” a place somehow devoid of the social problems, like poverty and substance abuse, that plague the real South.

Kentucky Route Zero

This popular brand of aw-shucks oversimplification may be why Kentucky Route Zero strikes me as more honest and human about its depiction of the South, despite its journey through a surreal world that includes an underground secret highway and a prosthetic limb factory. The unnamed rural Kentucky area presented in the game’s first act (four more episodes will be released in coming months) is defined by its duality: ingratiating yet unknowable, modern yet historical, grounded yet steeped in the supernatural.

There’s a difference between honesty and realism, though, and Kentucky Route Zero is hardly a documentary. It’s set in a dark, nearly empty nightscape with a dream-like quality that shrouds many of its images in mystery. People appear and disappear like ghostly apparitions. Conversations with strangers can twist in unexpected directions. A bluegrass band croons a song in the middle of nowhere.

Kentucky Route Zero

You play as Conway, an antique-delivery driver who can’t seem to find the location of 5 Dogwood Drive for his last delivery of the day. The game begins with a stop at Equus Oils, where Conway asks directions from the gas station’s owner. In response, the owner waxes poetic about the broken circuit that has left him without power. And he rather casually lets slip that the way to reach your final destination is a hidden highway called “The Zero.” From there you spend the rest of the episode either hunting for Route Zero or roaming around roadside attractions both on and off the beaten path.

The places you go and the characters you meet exude old-fashioned Southern hospitality, but they mask a sense of well-worn hardship. You learn secondhand the backstory of one central character, an eccentric mathematician who fled her house out of exasperation with her family’s crippling debt. The old mine, once the economic engine of the town, is now haunted with tragedy. Almost every object—a wobbly truck, a rabbit-eared television—feels like a relic stubbornly hanging on for life. The people feel that way, too.

Kentucky Route Zero

The structure keeps the player off-balance. At times, it’s a point-and-click affair where you navigate shadowy caves with your mouse. Then it switches to a text-only interface without warning and prompts you to explore with only written descriptions to direct you. To access a locked computer, you don’t guess a password but rather compose a short poem, line by line. Most jarring of all, the game occasionally changes into the perspective of another character and forces you to pick several different dialogue choices for someone you know nothing about.

Reality shows in the Hillbilly Handfishin’ vein are like a meal at Denny’s. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you sit in front of it for a half-hour: folksy sayings, contrived drama, and gee-ain’t-that-strange depictions of Southern life, set to twangy music. But in Kentucky Route Zero, the people, places, and even the overall structure of the game are as complex and unpredictable as the South itself.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act I
Developer: Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy)
Publisher: Self-published
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $7 for first episode; $25 to pre-order all five episodes

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  • http://www.facebook.com/ChrisBrimstone Christian Brimo

    Wait, who thinks the South isn’t filled with freaks and rednecks and supernatural danger and hidden highways? Not this Northern boy who gets all his knowledge of the South from the Drive-By Truckers and old country!

    I want this game.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    I just heard about this game a few days ago (on Polygon’s podcast, I think) and was surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before – it sounds like it snuck up on people.

    This game looks and sounds like it would totally be my jam. The price point is a little higher than I expected, but I think I’m more than willing to support these guys doing something like this.

  • rvb1023

    I’m always looking for great point and click games, but this looks striking to say the least. If the game holds up as well as the art style then it should be quite the experience.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    The art style is certainly gorgeous.  It’s almost evocative of Out of This World, using blocks of flat vector color to build a sculptural feel.
       I saw a beta trailer last year, I believe, and it felt like the writing needed some development.  It had the Southern Gothic fable vibe in place, but read a bit strained.
       But even that caveat may be misplaced, based as it is on a year old fraction of a game I haven’t played.  I’m intrigued with the idea behind the world and am always happy to see more games like this getting made.   

  • Colonel Mustard

    Both the art style and your description of this game almost seem to suggest a horror game without ever coming out and saying so.  Is it?

  • GaryX

    Texas ain’t much different in terms of Lynchian ghost stories though I’m sure we’re a particularly different flavor.

  • GaryX

    I thought the episodic nature of The Walking Dead was one of its strongest elements. Being able to reflect on the twists and turns in between episodes and hope they would manage to pull the whole thing off was half the fun.

  • Ron Andrews

    There is literally only one puzzle in this episode and it’s very simple. I wouldn’t expect too much in the way of gameplay from this series.

  • Chum Joely

    Me too, I’m getting episode 1 tonight (or this weekend, at the latest). I will probably also enjoy it with the lights off and alcohol near to hand, as recommended in this review from a site called “Paste” (first I’ve heard of it…)

    Not sure if I want to lock myself in for all 5 episodes right off the bat, though… even at a 28% price cut ($25 vs. $35)… what if the first episode isn’t actually that great?

  • Chum Joely

    I have picked up the first episode on the strength of this review, but I haven’t had a chance to play more than 10 minutes of it yet. The call of Mass Effect 1 (Therum Ruins ahoy!) was too strong.

    However, the release notes are encouraging, including as they do some advice about making a really good Old Fashioned, and the suggestion that “If you find yourself getting bored, go with that feeling. Really own it.”

  • Effigy_Power

    I explain it this way:
    GS is the only gaming news portal I read, so the announcement of this game hits me with the same amount of press as the next CoDBlOps.
    So for me this isn’t an indie game, because it has the same amount of advertising. For me anyways.

  • Effigy_Power

    Yeah. Tell yourself that’s the reason for discouraging permanent residence down there. ^_^

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    I’m tempted to replay it to see what would happen if I made different choices along the way, but most of the time when I do this with games I end up disappointed that I can see through the illusion.  Things that seemed like big choices in the story end up changing little or nothing as you go.  “Oh, you saved Bob this time!  Too bad he gets killed two scenes later anyway.”

    I think I’ll just keep my enjoyment of this game from the one playthrough intact.

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    That makes sense.  It definitely seems like how Lee reacts to situations and how he talks to Clem might change in different playthroughs, altering the overall tone of the story.

    SPOILERS

    I wonder though about the parts early on where you have to choose who to save when two people get attacked.  Would saving Hershel’s son instead of Duck change anything?  Or saving Doug instead of Carley?

  • Effigy_Power

    Let it all out. It’ll do you good.

  • valondar

    I have to concur with Girard. For years I avoided Steam because of its requirement that I access games via its service. I used to use Direct2Drive, which no longer exists but at least I didn’t have to boot it up to play my Dragon Age: Origins (which I can still play). Gog’s complete lack of DRM is also very appealing and I’ve filched a few favourites from there.

    But god… Steam’s prices… it got to the point I’d find an interesting looking game on gog and then check to see if it was available cheaper on Steam, and the answer was usually yes.