Kentucky Route Zero is ‘a magical realist adventure game’ by Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy of Cardboard Computer, an independent game development outfit geared toward exploring non-violent, storytelling capabilities of games. Kind of part way between Twin Peaks and a Haruki Murakami short story, the game is a gorgeous aesthetic and narrative experiment that will play on your mind. The player begins the game as Conway, a delivery driver for an antique firm trying to find an address he’s never heard of in rural Kentucky. The eccentric attendant of Equus Oils, who greets you seated on a Queen Ann armchair positioned in between the two gas pumps, points you in the right direction but not before you’ve discovered the ghosts of some RPG gamers in the basement.
This world is full of ghosts, you quickly discover. Something that is hinted at in the game’s art style, using shifting silhouettes to startling effect by constantly obscuring or revealing objects within the shadows. The enigmatic quality of the world is reinforced by the lack of context you’re given and what exposition there is, is often gained from speaking to your dog. Thus the context of events is of your own choosing, based on your choice of dialogue prompts. A clever way of creating an unsettlingly esoteric setting whilst still making the player active in its construction.
The game most closely resembles the indie hit Superbrothers Sword and Sworcery, which married a similarly minimalist point and click interface with RPG conventions to tell a disjointed story that was more an ambient experience than anything else. Like Sword and Sworcery the graphical style is simplistic but beautifully designed, as though it were all constructed by a crazed graphic designer. Even the elegant, minimalist signage feels fresh and the various eccentric locations that make up this strange world are connected by a map that consists of simple intersecting lines representing the highways and their tributaries. As you drive around this simple but effective map you’ll stumble across many periphery locations – a diner, a bait shop, two men pushing a light aircraft down the street - some of which appear on screen and some of which are explored by means of an old school text based adventure interface, which, like the majority of the game, are wonderfully written.
Kentucky Route Zero foregoes the fashionable pixel-art style of Sword and Sworcery (and many other recent indie games) in favour of a creative use of geometric shape and lighting, but it shares with that earlier game an experimental approach to soundtrack as an integral part of the game play experience (the game features a subtle electronic soundtrack by Ben Babbit interspersed with Bluegrass standards by the Bedquilt Ramblers).
The result of all this is a game that’s light on puzzles and heavy on atmosphere; a slice of curious Americana that will appeal to those of a literary leaning. The game’s authors are clearly voracious readers, something which is apparent throughout their imaginative storytelling. For all its simplicity there always seems to be more going on than is immediately apparent, as though you’re the victim of some surreal, existential experiment. Like the protagonist of a Kafka novel trying to navigate a world that is close to reality but ever so slightly out of register.
This first installment is available here through the Humble Store and more will be released throughout the year, although as should be obvious by now from the nature of the project and its initiators firm details of actual release dates and even the number of episodes is highly sketchy.