My Love for Kentucky Route Zero

“That’s pretty romantic, in a sense. I mean like misty-valley-and-ruined-churches romantic, not like flowers-and-chocolate romantic.”

These words are uttered by a stranger you might meet at the first stop along the Echo river which takes you through the latest act of Kentucky Route Zero, on a gas station tethered to the underground riverbed.

KRZ does look and feel like no game that’s ever came before. The low poly art, chosen very consciously to fit a certain dreamy vibe, the diligently timed, fluid camera movements, the carefully orchestrated symphony of ghostly background sounds all come together in something truly unique. Much has been said about the various sources of inspiration the tiny team behind this episodic adventure games pull from (you can find detailed lists here and here), but the main thing that differentiates it from almost anything out there is that it takes much more from theatre than it does from movies. Not only do the visuals betray a leaning towards the aesthetics of theatre, but the narrative of the game also neatly adheres to the dramatic structure outlined by Gustav Freytag in the 19th century.

In addition to theatre the developers have tapped two literary movements in creating the atmosphere of KRZ. Magical Realism is mostly used to describe the works of authors who write about the real world, but imbue it with numerous, yet tiny magical instances that, like a mist, pervade their world. What distinguishes these works from books like Harry Potter is that there is no systematic treatment of this magic, nor are the characters truly aware of its abnormality, thus making it easier for the reader to suspend their disbelief and inhabit these worlds as though they were real.

Magical Realism was popularized by the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and is mostly associated with the Latin American literary scene. While KRZ pays homage to its predecessors, these works supply only the shell of the game, the flesh is pure Americana. Besides being set at a time akin to the Great Depression, the game is all about a listless searching, a quiet acceptance of life’s hardships and a puritanical resolve to trudge through life with a hope of finding home at the end of it. The music and the design of in-game buildings adds to it, but it is the characters and their stories that truly lend it credence of being set in some mysterious part of Kentucky.

The initial plan Cardboard Computer laid out in their modest $6,500.00 Kickstarter campaign was to release the game over 2011. The first two acts came out in 2013 and earned much praise for both narrative and visual excellence, culminating in KRZ being named Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s game of the year. Act 3 came out a year later in May of 2014 and fans had to wait over two years for the most recent installment. This haphazard release schedule has led to the slow decrease of hype around it, but the studio has repeatedly proved their commitment to quality and the latest release is a solid example of that.

Act 4 feels a bit like an intermission. The first three acts saw the visuals get more striking and the stakes get higher. The ending of 3 was such a bombshell that I can understand people being angry at not getting a resolution to that story-line for two years. This act feels more like a rest from all the weird craziness that the game has already introduced. The player had never been in control of the narrative of KRZ, but in this act you lose even the fleeting illusion of having any that might’ve deluded you in previous acts. The main character, Conway, recedes into NPC status and you never get to steer your boat as you drift along the underground river.

This time it’s all about quiet contemplation, the game mostly consists of getting to know the backstories of already established characters, with a few chance encounters with strangers that inhabit the dark caverns of the Echo river.

The most striking development this act brings forth is the way it plays with how dialogue is shown in the game. The slowly unfolding typewriter typeface is still there, but this time around we actually get scenes where there are two characters having their own, simultaneously-evolving dialogue pages and there are times where the screen splits in two when characters talk on the phone.

There is another, more fundamental shift in this act in how the game works. Every scene is like a coin, only one side of which you get to see, you’re not given much info to base your decision on, but once you pick one side, there’s no turning back. Previously missing a scene meant not being diligent enough when navigating route 65 or getting lost on the Zero, this time missing out is encoded directly into the game’s DNA. This way the creators compel us to play the game at least twice to get everything we paid for out of it, thus prolonging the experience and stretching out the time between the climax of Act 3 and the resolution of the last installment. It’s almost as if they’re preparing us for something…

We can only hope that at the end of the road the characters will find the home they have been looking for, but while we wait for everything to tie together, Act 4 invites us to take a deep breath and think about what came before as the characters drift along the underground Echo river, tired and slightly dazed.

It might not come out until 2020, but Cardboard Computer has proved time and time again that it will be worth the wait.