Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

released on Jan 27, 2020

Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it. Gameplay is inspired by point-and-click adventure games (like the classic Monkey Island or King's Quest series, or more recently Telltale's Walking Dead series), but focused on characterization, atmosphere and storytelling rather than clever puzzles or challenges of skill.

The game is developed by Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt), and features an original electronic score by Ben Babbitt along with a suite of old hymns & bluegrass standards recorded by The Bedquilt Ramblers.


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Created by just three people over the span of nearly a decade, this indie point-and-click adventure finally wrapped up with its fifth chapter. Kentucky Route Zero is a dialogue-driven narrative experience with a bit of puzzle-solving but mostly just walking through the environments and guiding the story constituting the gameplay. It is not the kind of story that can be taken literally, with strange detours and unexplained phenomena pervading throughout the adventure.
I didn't find myself liking it much as I played, as I failed to grasp much of the story's meaning. However, the game's quiet ambiance and curious musings have stuck with me in the weeks that have followed me completing it. It was interesting to see the cast of characters grow overtime, from its lonely truck driver Conway and his dog, to a ragtag band of travel companions, until eventually you'll be experiencing a whole community. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but Kentucky Route Zero strikes a fascinating tone of haunting loneliness but also of peaceful resignation. The characters never seem weirded out by their increasingly surreal circumstances, but simply accept them as they are, accepting things as characters often do in a dream.
Between the episodes (which tend to be about 90 minutes each) are short interludes which at first feel entirely disconnected from the general plotlines, but always ended up tying in. Sometimes you might learn more about a location's past, or a periphery character’s backstory.
One of the game's biggest strengths is its presentation. The minimalistic art style works really well, as it allows the player to fill in the details using their imagination. The soundtrack from Ben Babbitt is haunting and quirky and makes great use of different styles. I especially liked the in-game folksy song performances, of which there is at least one per episode.
While Kentucky Route Zero lets you shape details of the backstory with dialogue options, it never makes a difference in the general throughline of its tale. I could see this game being completely alienating to many players. Outside of the obtuse and surrealistic storyline, you'll have to put up with slow-paced clunky controls, and the occasional moments where the directions on where to go in the game's open-world travel map aren't clear, which is frustrating. Despite its faults, there are still moments of this weird little experience that I won't soon forget.

Kentucky Route Zero is a game about liminal spaces. Cardboard Computer's surrealist masterpiece finds its characters in search of things that may or may not exist. In the most literal sense, what they are looking for is the Zero, a hidden highway where our hero Conway is scheduled to make his final antique delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive. However, Conway and his cohorts' adventure is far more existential than the mere exploration for a mysterious address. Like the Zero, which exists somewhere between real and unreal, each of KRZ's heroes find themselves adrift between two states of being—life and death, employment and unemployment, companionship and loneliness. Their odyssey through a post-recession Kentucky, itself belonging to a space between the prosperity of the super-rich and the poverty of the working classes, finds them in search of something that will ail this liminality. What that is, however, even they don't seem to know. What is it that makes 5 Dogwood Drive so important? Maybe at this address they hope to locate the American Dream, or even the meaning of life, both of which are equally as elusive as the lost highway they are in pursuit of.

this isn't a game, this is art

at the end, you always need to ask yourself, "who would be there to take care of the ghosts?" and realize you might be the one to do it for everyone

sometimes i hesitate to call this a game but i'm not really sure what it would be, instead
but it does make my soul hurt really bad (example: junebug's dive bar performance)