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Kentucky Route Zero: Act I

(Cardboard Computer; US: 7 Jan 2013)

The last episodic game that I played was what I consider to be the best game of last year, The Walking Dead.  After playing just the first episode of that game, I was hooked.  I felt like I had just stumbled into something great.


Now, I have no intention of judging my latest foray into the episodic point-and-click adventure experience with that previous one.  Just because The Walking Dead was the single best gaming experience that I had last year, I didn’t somehow expect Kentucky Route Zero to meet some unreachable expectation of what the episodic adventure genre has to now attain to.  And I am not sure whether the experience that I had with Act I of this five episode experience completely hooked me or portends something great as it unfolds over forthcoming episodes.  But I do have to say that I am totally intrigued with this new and completely different experience.


Kentucky Route Zero is about being lost.  You take on the role of Conway, a delivery driver for an antique store, who can’t find the address for his latest delivery.  Quite mundanely, Kentucky Route Zero begins with your arrival at a gas station to ask for directions.


What proceeds from this reasonable enough “solution” to a rather common enough problem is anything but mundane, though, as Conway finds himself mistakenly (or, maybe, purposefully) directed to a, perhaps, haunted and abandoned mine, past an artificial limb factory, towards a bait shop that doubles as a television repair shop, as he encounters a mathematician, a blind gas station attendant and aspiring poet, all alongside his ever faithful, straw-hat wearing hound.


The “game” is moody, quirky, and maybe morose, as you and Conway stumble, fairly blindly, towards a highway called the Zero, which supposedly leads to your destination, but may not be real at all.


I hesitantly refer to Kentucky Route Zero as a game, since it really has few elements in it that offer up the kinds of challenges that one normally associate with modern video games, even point-and-click adventures.  You have no real inventory, you can look at things and talk to people, and in addition to navigating some really beautifully rendered 2D environments (the kind of environment common to the point-and-click genre), you also at times navigate an overhead highway map that moves Conway from encounter to encounter.  There may be some very, very light puzzles, but they all involve lighting (which is interesting thematically, as perspective and perception seem important to the idea of being lost and attempting to find something), but one is unlikely to be stumped by these “challenges” for all but a few seconds. 


If Kentucky Route Zero is a game at all, it is a game that features only the exploration elements of gaming, but, again, not really in a traditional way that might be associated with point-and-click adventures.  This isn’t pixel hunting.  This is about exploring a map, wandering for the sake of understanding more about the world, as it vaguely hints things about its nature and those who occupy it.


The plot or at least the tone of a slightly alien world, then is probably paramount to whatever it is that Kentucky Route Zero is, some sort of interactive fiction, certainly not an interactive novel, but a world that does have a story that unfolds in some kind of deliberate but often vaguely wandering direction.


The visuals and sound and especially the camera work, which pans and zooms as sometimes environments dissolve to show another perspective on them, are all very beautifully integrated to make this a world that is intriguing in its frequent obscurity and also frequently teasing allure.  This latter element, the camera work, seems really and especially fresh to me.  I can’t recall seeing anything like this, that so called my attention to admiring the way in which the game directs me at different parts of the world, in any game at all really.


And as much as the few obvious choices left to the player in Act I (which largely concern choosing what to say to people from a menu of choices) seem to matter little in a sense, as the plot is leading to the episode’s ending, which will not vary from playthrough to playthrough, this episode of Kentucky Route Zero really must be played multiple times.  If you largely only made the most obvious choices and headed in the most obvious directions the first time through, you’ll be kind of amazed at how much more the game has to offer in events and encounters if you sometimes do the least obvious thing or head in a slightly different direction.  These choices cause the world to unfold in more interesting ways and the weird and seemingly nonsensical events to begin to gain greater context, raising new questions, while making some themes and ideas clearer.


Seriously, play with this game a bit.  Play might be more important here than anything like what most games are about these days.


Like I said, I’m not quite sure yet if Kentucky Route Zero will pay off as much as its intriguingly eccentric introduction might suggest.  I don’t know yet if it is great.  But it seems like it very well might be.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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