You find yourself walking up to a house. You leave Homer by your sputtering jalopy masquerading as a delivery truck. (Or was it Blue? Hell, maybe you forgot to name that old dog.) There’s very little light, and you wonder if Weaver Márquez is even here. But up that serpentine hill you have to trudge.
It’s the final delivery you’ll ever make for Lysette, as her shop will shutter just after you bring this box to 5 Dogwood Drive. But the only way to get there is by The Zero. Joseph doesn’t know how to get there, but he bets that Weaver does. So you climb that hill. Someday, it’ll seem like a mountain to you and your broken leg.
And you stumble upon an abandoned grave.
At this point, something odd and wholly specific occurred. It inspired the first of three crying sessions I would have while playing Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero. This specificity cast an uncomfortable shroud over this game’s review, a game that some are inclined to devalue as an art installation in the wrong package.
But a gallery’s never compelled me to stop for 20 minutes, let a three-minute blues track loop and loop and loop, and let all my tears fall where they would. Kentucky Route Zero did. This is, at its core, a videogame. And, at its best, an extraordinary achievement in that medium.
The aforementioned “you” of this story right now is Conway, an aging man just trying to deliver some final antique. Like the great MacGuffins of old, this introductory plot point only sets the stage for an outré, surreal adventure. Your control ebbs and flows between Conway and the figures he meets along this path: debt-ridden TV repairwoman Shannon Márquez (Weaver’s cousin), besuited orphan Ezra and his “big brother” Julian, the synthwave duo of Junebug and Johnny, and even a radioactive skeleton at one point. The gameplay puts the player in the seat of a script editor, the main scenario already complete but not safe from minor deviations. This doesn’t lead to much divergence from the main narrative thread, but choosing how characters respond to various stimuli is a welcome mechanic.
On occasion, the player can assume the role of game director. When rolling along the titular Zero, we’re given freedom to linger or leave at any point, but there is no guaranteed comprehension of this seemingly endless highway. The Zero itself is one of the best aspects of the game: an elegant, minimalist circle only briefly interrupted by ghostly constellations, lighting the way to obscure sanctums and long-forgotten springs. The highway has very little logical progress or tangible worth, but it’s arcane existence fuels imagination and immersion with near-hypnotic perfection.
To speak of entrancing elements, head writer Jake Elliott has taken nearly ten years to spin the intoxicating yarn present in this game. He is frequently fussy in his prose (and obtuse in proximity to reality) throughout Kentucky Route Zero but nonetheless deserves a massive amount of praise. He runs with each environmental detail and every stray thought presented by the main characters, giving them ample space to breathe and worm their way into your thoughts. The excellent dialogue and theming are well-supported by Tamas Kemenczy’s polygonal vector art visuals, which suffuse each scene with a haunting beauty fit for this weary, broken world. The characters are blank-faced, but they require no expressions to communicate their state of being with clarity and appropriate gravitas.
The music of Kentucky Route Zero plays fast and loose with diegesis in some arresting ways. Often, there’s little more to the soundscape than the ambient drone of night and a wash of synthesizers. But once in a while, the keening of gospel punctures this calm, as lead sound designer Ben Babbitt and the Bedquilt Ramblers force their way into the foreground with a brand of doomed Americana that could have been written in 1930 or last week, for all which still marches on in the zombified life of late capitalism. And in Act III, Johnny and Junebug’s “Too Late To Love You” turns a sparse bar show into a cosmic escapade, a place where star-crossed lovers find themselves undone by unnatural forces and cruel destinies.
When Kentucky Route Zero is in full command of its vision, I find myself at a loss for words. In Act II, I was controlling Ezra in a forest as Conway rested on a log. In the previous act, Conway’s leg was left mangled from a caved-in mine, and he found himself unable to continue for a spell. Shannon stood by, helpless to repair anything lacking knobs and antennae, and both were dwarfed by Julian, who I may have neglected to mention is an enormous bald eagle. Conway sees Ezra running around as if he’ll never stop, and the aging deliveryman recognizes the end of the road he’s fast approaching. “I’m just not as tough as I used to be,” he confesses to Shannon. During this, a silhouette appears and sings Conway’s story for him, with a weary 12-bar lament that could only end with “I’m on my long journey home.”
It was at this moment that I began crying unlike I have in years. You see, someone very dear to me lost their job recently. They’re probably about Conway’s age, and, when I saw them recently behind a mask, I first began to truly notice it. They’d spent much of their earlier life bootstrapping their way up to the American Dream, and eventually received something they thought near to it, for a time. But two economic depressions in 12 years have fundamentally changed them. They’ve begun to wear this world in gray hairs and crow’s feet, long sighs and pained steps. Seeing Conway sitting on that log, trapped in the long shadow of this standard-bearer for the American exceptionalist con job, I could do nothing but empty myself of all that I’d left pent up inside.
This is empathic storytelling at its peak. Not every game has to attempt such boldness (and most shouldn’t try), but Kentucky Route Zero gave me more to sink into in a single five-minute scene than most games can do across tens of hours. To accomplish this is no small feat in the slightest.
Kentucky Route Zero started life as a solitary act released in January 2013. It came at the height of the adventure game rebirth: Telltale’s The Walking Dead had just swept up all manner of GOTY plaudits, and the classic genre was mainstream in a way it hadn’t been in over a decade. It was a prime time for Zero‘s entry into a market that hungered for more of a literary take on interactive storytelling.
Now, we find ourselves in the waning days of 2020. Zero’s fifth and final act came out earlier this year, 6 weeks before a pandemic magnified the very disturbances and hyperreality the series has highlighted all this time. Telltale shuttered two years ago in ways both sudden and traumatic for their workers, and the point-and-click has once again fallen to the there and then. In many ways, this last act plays like threnody: to the end of Kentucky Route Zero, the adventure genre, and the meek, dying whimper of a mythical American Dream.
When I stumbled across that grave not 20 minutes into the first act, there were only three surnames listed as “the unfortunate.” Márquez, of course, but two others: “Padilla” and “Nowakowski.” Two names which pierced me on a supernatural, haunting level: one being someone I lost prematurely long ago and the other being close to the name of her dear friend, gone just last year. No one else will experience this or the log scene quite the same way I have. But somewhere in these painterly strokes and grand ambitions hangs tragedy and beauty in equal measure, an experience both wholly unique and painfully universal.
“I know I shall meet Him at the gate when trials are past/
I know I shall meet Him face to face in glory at last/
Oh, I believe that when we meet ‘well done’ He’ll say/
I’ll trust in the soul-redeeming love, I’m going that way…”