Kentucky Route Zero is gorgeous. Its art style caught me at first glance, and its abstract story kept me buried after delving into it, but the whole thing is just so gorgeous it nearly moves me to tears.
Created by two-man studio Cardboard Computer, Kentucky Route Zero is a “magical realist adventure game” that uses geometric shapes, soft lighting, and eerie music to create a nighttime otherworld. You play mostly as beleaguered truck driver Conway, who makes deliveries for an antique store and is having trouble finding the last address on his route. The further down the road you go, the more you realize the address is probably only a metaphor for the end of Conway’s journey, the actual destination of which is much more complicated.
In fact, everything you encounter in the game could be a metaphor and is open to interpretation. It’s up to you to piece together the bits of story you pick up as you go along, while circumstances can easily twist and change at any moment. To get wherever it is he’s going, Conway travels a strange underground highway known as Route Zero, where all he encounters is filled with mystery and tinged with Americana.
Kentucky Route Zero flows beautifully, placing you in one dreamlike sequence after the next. It begins realistically enough, with Conway stopping at a fueling station to ask for directions, but you barely have time to get your bearings before you’ve found yourself in a twilight world where nothing is as it seems. Ghosts and visions abound.
Conway soon gains a traveling companion, a woman named Shannon who seems slightly more grounded in reality, yet she’s experiencing Conway’s dream world right alongside him. The characters they encounter on their journey have much to say, and you’re rewarded glimpses into their lives as well.
The story is presented through creative uses of script. In one scene, you explore The Museum of Dwellings, one of my favorite locales in the game. It’s exactly what it sounds like—a museum with exhibits doubling as people’s homes. As you tour the museum, the perspective switches from Conway and his companions to the residents of each dwelling. They subjectively describe you and your actions, and each dialogue option you choose influences how they perceive you.
The scene is reflective of not only the depth that’s afforded to even minor characters but also the unique and unexpected ways the story unfolds. Similar locations greet you as you make your way across, around, and through the game’s nonlinear map, places that appear outwardly mundane but have surprising quirks when you investigate them deeper. There’s a storage facility that once held church services and an office building with a floor devoted entirely to bears.
The gameplay doesn’t include the usual puzzles or time-sensitive action sequences you might expect from an adventure game. Instead, it relies solely on its brilliant storytelling. You choose how to react or respond in certain situations, but while your choices determine the kind of information you receive, they don’t have much bearing on the overall story.
While you have some control over the content that’s revealed, Kentucky Route Zero is ultimately a game to be uncovered rather than played, like peeling back layers of paint to reveal an even more profound painting underneath. Terms like “adventure game” and “interactive novel” don’t feel quite right. It’s something that can’t be boxed in by genre or type.
So many games now are pushing the limitations of video games as a medium for art, The Stanley Parable and Gone Home being two others that come immediately to mind. While the former feels like a social experiment and the latter an interactive story, Kentucky Route Zero feels more like just plain art. It’s quiet and contemplative, full of shadows, and dotted with references. It almost seems to breathe at times, it’s so alive in its ability to connect with the player, more like a good friend you want to keep spending time with than a game.
The soaring electronic score alternates with old-fashioned bluegrass hymns, adding yet another ethereal layer to the game’s atmosphere. Every piece of development in Kentucky Route Zero combines perfectly to create one of the most unique and captivating experiences I’ve had, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next act. There will be five total, and in my eyes, that’s about a hundred too little. Like a dream I don’t want to end, I want to stay in Kentucky Route Zero‘s world.