There was a day a few months ago when I wasn’t sure if I was awake or dreaming. At first I was confused. Then I was terrified.
It turned out I was awake. I was having a panic attack and I felt like I was losing my mind. My consciousness was flooding with flashes of reality and unreality. Waves of nausea hit my stomach and throat as I tried to reconcile what was genuine and what was an unwelcome intrusion from my own brain. I dry-heaved over a stone planter in Union Square Park as the sun sat overhead in the clear blue sky.
When I played the final act of Kentucky Route Zero, memories of that day seeped into my mind.
Throughout its five acts and four interludes, this game wanders between down-to-earth conversations and strange, other-worldly scenes that coax up countless moments of self-reflection. I couldn’t help but think about my own life and my own experiences as I trudged along picking dialogue options.
In Kentucky Route Zero’s meandering stream of text, dream-like imagery, and despondent music, I looked for clues about the world and its characters. Where was this story heading? What was this story about? Was there even a coherent story?
I don’t know. The story never headed where I expected, and I quickly learned to just let the stream carry me where it went. The harder I tried to examine its current, the less I found myself enjoying the journey. The more I let go and embodied my role as a passive observer of these characters’ stories and paths, merely prodding them along when necessary, the more I connected with the material.
Kentucky Route Zero is not my style of game.
I am certain that I never would have finished it if I wasn’t reviewing it. But I did, and in it I found some strong, poignant sections and some moments that transfixed me. Though what I carried away from Kentucky Route Zero was less the contents of the game and more the thoughts about my own self.
The first act of Kentucky Route Zero came out in 2013, and the developer Cardboard Computer has been trickling out the rest of the acts and interludes in the intervening years, with the final fifth act releasing on Jan. 28. Along with it is the release of Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition that brings the episodic game to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
In Act I, players control the character Conway, an aging delivery driver for an antiques shop who’s out on the road with his delivery truck looking for 5 Dogwood Drive. The game opens with Conway arriving at the Equus Oil gas station, a mid-century building with a giant horse head looming overhead, asking for directions on how to get to 5 Dogwood Drive. The attendant, Joseph, suggests that Conway take highway Route 0, which runs through caves beneath Kentucky.
The goal of making it to 5 Dogwood Drive remains consistent throughout the entirety of the game, but other things keep popping up. New characters get introduced, new locations beg exploration, new mysteries bubble up from the dark corners of Kentucky and before you know it, you get swept up by a giant hawk named Julian and his young human brother Ezra tags along with the traveling party, occasionally making references to the fact that his parents abandoned him.
Kentucky Route Zero’s themes center around interpersonal relationships, labor, and debt. While traveling along real roads, the transitory Route 0, and later the subterranean Echo River, every stop and attraction seems to be beset by the claws of debt, which is controlled by the Consolidated Power Company and the Hard Times Distillery, the latter of which is staffed entirely by people working off their debts.
Debt is pervasive in this game as it is in real life. When Conway hurts his leg, the medical debt for his treatment sticks with him, as personified by the glowing, skeletal appearance of his appendage after the incident. Likewise, the staff of Hard Times have turned into glowing skeletons, unable to speak and forced to work off whatever they owe.
Where there’s debt, there’s people. The game only begins with a few characters but more and more get introduced along the way. The collection of names and their relationships with other names piles higher and higher. There are traveling musicians, artists who’ve lost touch with each other, community television broadcasters, and store owners.
This game has a way of pulling you into its dream-like clutches
You never seem to catch anyone at the beginning of their story. They’re always partway through their journey, as if your own stream and their stream meet up miles away from their sources, touching together either briefly or blending together into a stronger, wider flow of water.
The game has this ubiquitous sense of transience. At the end, despite the characters’ potential inclination to continue on to new areas, I felt an overwhelming urge to choose dialogue options that suggested they settle down. Lay down new roots. Relax.
I felt like everyone had done enough traveling, and I connected with the characters to a point where I felt like I had done enough traveling in this game, and I was ready to stop and relax.
These kinds of games
Kentucky Route Zero is a particular kind of game that doesn’t involve a whole lot of gameplay. You could call it a narrative game, or maybe a visual novel. It describes itself as a point-and-click adventure, which is still pretty accurate. I would liken it to a visual novel, because while playing this game I primarily felt like I was reading a book.
I like reading books. I like games with lots of text. But the text has to grab me. In Kentucky Route Zero, there were a handful of sections that absolutely did not grab me.
There are a number of reasons why. One of the primary reasons I lost interest and just wanted to run through text as quickly as possible is because this game sometimes introduces new characters who we had no prior knowledge of and doesn’t really give us a reason to care about them. There are plenty of introductions that work, but a handful that make me think “Why did I just read these walls of text from people who aren’t interesting?”
There are also some painfully slow sections and conversations that just felt boring and dragged on too long. Slowing down the pace is not a bad thing, but when the game is already slow, there needs to at least be some flavorful text to help push things along.
One of my favorite parts of Kentucky Route Zero was Lula Chamberlain’s art exhibit in the interlude between Act I and Act II called “Limits and Demonstrations.” In it, you control a new character that walks around in a circle observing a few different sculptures from a character that you’ve never heard of. It worked well because the visuals were interesting and the text had so much power behind it.
In the moments like this one, I felt like I was experiencing something so unique and refreshing and interesting. In the moments where the pieces didn’t come together, I was reminded of my ADHD.
It’s a game that’s impressive nonetheless
It’s not always easy for me to read because of the way my brain works. I can lose interest and drift away from a page so easily. When I’m entertained or invested, I get locked in and have a hard time prying myself away. When I feel like something isn’t going anywhere or there’s nothing to entice me, my mind starts searching for something else to latch onto.
At times this game was a huge struggle for me. There was a scene, during Act IV, when I was controlling Conway’s companion Shannon and wandering around this strange facility doing these little quizzes to earn money. Like the rest of the game, it was a bizarre setup, but this used a framing device that was also used in Act II: The point-of-view was through security footage and my actions were being narrated by a pair of body-less characters watching the tapes back. It worked in Act II. In Act IV, I was so bored by this scene of two new characters talking about other (mostly) unknown characters doing things that were unfathomably mundane.
I couldn’t get my brain on board. Luckily, though, Kentucky Route Zero’s scenes are never that long. The whole game took me about 10 or 12 hours to get through and the interesting parts kept me rolling along.
When I hit Act V of Kentucky Route Zero, I found a town ravaged by a flood that first popped up in the interlude “Un Pueblo De Nada.” The travelers, in search of 5 Dogwood Drive, had just arrived in its aftermath. The sun was coming up over the wreckage, casting a dreamy light on broken houses, huge puddles, and ghostly figures wandering through the little town that had no road leading out.
Instead of being in control of one of the humans you’ve been living with over the course of the journey, the game puts you in control of a cat.
This game has a way of pulling you into its dream-like clutches.
My cat died about two weeks ago. Her name was Coconut and she was around six years old. She had been battling lymphoma in her spleen for nearly a year, which she was diagnosed with a few months after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy.
The day we took her in to have her put down, just three and half years after we adopted her from a rescue organization, was the hardest, saddest day of my life.
A couple days ago, I went to pick up her ashes from the same emergency vet center she died in, and I cried carrying her remains to the car.
The next day, I was playing a little cat in Act V of Kentucky Route Zero, running around, listening to conversations, watching a man named Ron dig a wide grave for two nameless horses that died in the flood, and meowing at people.
This game has a way of pulling you into its dream-like clutches, wrapping you up in its scenes, making you feel not just like you know the characters so well, but that a little part of you is inside them by asking you to choose what to say, even if it doesn’t really change anything in the long run.
When I play the games I love most, I don’t think about things like death, my own struggles, or days that I wish had never happened. I don’t think about debt. I don’t think about all the ways that life can spiral out of control.
Kentucky Route Zero, without telling me to, made me think about these things. It made me uncomfortable but it also brought a healthy dose of catharsis to the experience. I don’t think I was ready for it, but I’m glad I experienced it.