Kentucky Route Zero: A Master-class in Subversive Video Games

Kentucky Route Zero: A Master-class in Subversive Video Games

During my journey as a gamer, I have come across a variety of games. Some pride themselves on their straightforward stories, some are slow to reveal their cards. Others offer great flexibility in narrative, allowing players to chart their own course through the story (games like Detroit: Become Human have a mind-numbing number of paths to choose from). And yet, never before have I come across a game as unique as Kentucky Route Zero. In fact, simply classifying it as a ‘game’ feels like a disservice to its creators, for it is so much more: it’s tragedy – extracted, refined, and bottled into a near-potent form, to be consumed in cautious sips (much like the Hard Times whiskey featured in-game).

After all, how many games can boast of a moving musical performance, a play (within a game presented as a play itself) and a cast of characters with deeply personal, intriguing backstories against a world much like ours but with echoes of the magical?

Junebug and Johnny beginning their musical performance of 'Too Late to Love You Now' at the Lower Depths.

Junebug’s musical performance was equal parts touching and utterly unexpected
Image Credit: Cardboard Computer

The Rich Flavour of Experimentation

Kentucky Route Zero starts off fairly sombre, with a hint of the seriousness and surrealism it embraces shortly after. Conway is making his final delivery for Lysette’s Antiques to an elusive address: 5 Dogwood Drive. The first few minutes have you naming your dog, cracking the password to a computer, and restoring power to a (supposedly haunted) gas station to get directions to Dogwood Drive. What starts off as a seemingly sad, yet straightforward tale expands to include multiple characters each with their own motivations and backgrounds.

KRZ’s strength lies in its experimentation: it refuses to present its story in the same format across five acts. My favourite parts were the interludes between the main acts; these experiences vary from walking through an art exhibition to dialling into an informational hotline. They flesh out the world of KRZ, filling in the boundaries and making the actual acts all the more interesting.

The Gameplay of Kentucky Route Zero

Playing as a point-and-click adventure, navigating a scene is as simple as clicking wherever you want Conway to walk to. As the player ventures deeper into the story, it becomes increasingly clear that this is their own story – I knew the dog as Homer for all the game, but you could have chosen a different option and known the animal by a completely different name. Choices in dialogue are key to unlocking crucial background information about the characters – or not – if the player even wishes to do so. A character is but a canvas with an outline: the details are coloured in by the player. The game does not weigh you down with ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ choices. Every dialogue moves the story forward regardless of what you pick. Only now, it’s your own version of KRZ.  

The world portrayed here is very much like our own, but not quite. Featuring giant flying Eagles and mystical highways (that are probably pathways to a parallel plane of existence), KRZ is not set in the typical world. The trick here is not to prod at the finer details, for it is a magical realist adventure after all. The laws governing this reality are not the same as ours, and that’s okay.

When a game goes down the surreal route, either its charms and mysteries make it all the more alluring, or it fails to capture the players’ interest and comes off as insensible. KRZ deftly balances this line and can leave you both enthralled and puzzled at the same time.

Magic and reality intertwine in the most normal fashion in KRZ
Image Credit: Cardboard Computer

Conclusion

Kentucky Route Zero is not hamstrung by traditional narrative structures or by focusing only on its leads for that matter. There is no fixed ‘lead’ (though much of the game is narrated from Conway’s point of view), and this often works in its favour. This flexibility in focus allows it to make bold narrative choices, such as shifting perspectives and modes of delivery. It is much more than a game; this is a surreal story that was chosen to be shared with the world as a video game.

It’s a warning against capitalism and the all-consuming greed of corporations that ruin countless human lives around the globe every day. It’s about searching for missing family and finding a new one on the road. It’s about being on the road itself; meeting people who pass by briefly, much like flashes of light whizzing by on a dark highway. It’s Kentucky Route Zero, and there’s quite nothing like it.

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