Kentucky Route Zero: First Impressions

I’m titling this one “First Impressions” because I am writing this after having completed the first two acts that are out with three more acts due to come out in the future. Anyway, this game left such an impression on me, I knew I had to write about it before I even finished what I owned of it.  Let me help spread the word and hopefully gain a few more fans for a brilliantly crafted game aptly titled Kentucky Route Zero.

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This was the first image I ever saw from the game, and it was all it took to intrigue me and make me want to experience whatever awaited me in that world.

Kentucky Route Zero, or KRZ as I will proceed to refer to it to save keystrokes, is a poetic, slow-paced, subtle, and somewhat meditative point-and-click adventure game.  It is unlike any point-and-click adventure game I have ever played in that it did some pretty experimental things I have never seen before in parts of the game I will mention further in the post.  The basic premise of the game is that you are a delivery man trying to make a delivery to an address on Kentucky Route Zero, but you need help finding it first.  The plot unravels from there and the longer you work towards this, the less the game becomes about getting from point A to point B and more about everything in between.

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Some of the script and dialogue choices are so ambiguous, it leaves you sitting in front of your PC, scratching your chin and furrowing your brow for minutes before continuing on.

Every moment in this game feels deeply meaningful in some way.  It’s like a really good, classic film.  As I played it, I knew that I would have to play it several more times-maybe even analyze it and discuss it with others-to truly appreciate everything the creator put into this game.  I got my degree in Programming & Design, so needless to say, I am not very practiced in interpretations of narrative, symbolism, and poetry.  A lot of bits in this game felt like they went right over my head even though I was trying my hardest to keep up with its ambiguous speech choices and plot turns.  Now, I’m not saying that any of this detracted from my enjoying the game.  I am just being honest with how I experienced it and that I rather enjoyed the game’s intelligent approach. The game treated me like a mature gamer; Like a human with a brain in their skull capable of reading and processing information and feeling as opposed to a mindless creature out to shoot zombies and loot bodies.

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The use of the camera was very creative and effective in multiple scenes throughout the game. The zoom in effect with the foreground blacking out and backgrounds coming into view was very enjoyable.

KRZ was created by an indie company called Cardboard Computer which consists of creators Jake ElliottTamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt.  I’m not too familiar with these men, but I have to guess one or more of them studied film (I’d be really surprised if none of them did) because what they did with the camera in this game was very effective.  It panned out at the right moments and took control of scenes when necessary.  The graphics reminded me of the PC classic Another World with its clean, vector-like shapes and high contrast.  At first everything looks very flat, but the constantly changing camera gives an added depth to the world that keeps it interesting and always changing.  Sometimes, it has a rather disorienting effect which I think was intended and if so, well executed.  The point is to feel lost sometimes.

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Navigating the roads at your own leisure was a nice change of pace in a linear story game.

As you would expect from a point-and-click adventure game, the story is linear, but there are opportunities to go out of your way when you’re in your delivery truck to find stops along the road and explore.  These little hidden spots have either some flavor text or minimal interaction, but they all contribute to the broader narrative of the game very well.  I don’t like to spoil in my “reviews” of the games I talk about here, but I can’t help but mention the Supernatural aspects of the game.  I guess you could think of them as science fiction elements- things that can’t happen in reality but are easily acceptable in a game setting.  A big part of the game is that strange, inexplicable things keep happening to you but your character seems to take it all in stride, as none of the other characters make a fuss about the strange phenomena.

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I’m not going to give away what this is or where this is, but wow.

I don’t want to go on too much more in depth about the plot, but there is a lot of reflection on who you are, where you are from, and what your goal is.  None of this is handed to you.  In fact, most of it is chosen and shaped by you.  You never see it and it’s never obvious, but you are constantly making choices in speech option scenarios without any information as to what the ‘right’ answer is.  This was clearly intended, and I don’t think there really is any right answer.  The game pushes you to define yourself and what you want your journey to be within the boundaries of the story that you act within.  It’s a very interesting design that I can’t really think of any examples off-hand to compare it to.  Usually when you are given speech options in a game, it is to define personality traits like whether you are a friendly-type or more snoody.  In KRZ, sometimes the speech options will all seem like good things to say, but you are limited to one choices.  It’s hard to choose sometimes, but that’s the challenge.  That’s the core of the game: the frequent opportunities they give you to over think the dialogue and wonder, “what if I had said this?”.

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Scenes that appear graphically simple are beautiful in design and composition. Paired with the cryptic dialogues, I often stopped to sit and just reflect on what was before me.

If story-driven head scratchers are your thing, you’ll have to do yourself a favor and pick up the season pass for Kentucky Route Zero.  It’s such a refreshing game experience that is reminiscent of The Longest Journey, but more focused and purposeful than Sword & Sorcery Brothers EP, and, in my opinion, easier to grasp than Dear Esther.  This is certainly a game for gamers who want something beautifully poetic, mentally stimulating, and intellectually satisfying.  A few things in my first playthrough may have gone over my head, but I would gladly go through this experience a second or third time just to put all of the pieces together and better appreciate this work of art. And yes, I’m not afraid to call this that: a work of art… and I haven’t even talked about the sound yet!  Yikes, what have I been doing.

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Sometimes your speech options extend beyond the main character you begin as and include a companion you pick up along the way. Neat!

Well, that last paragraph was intended to lead into a conclusion but I just have to mention the sound design before I wrap up this post.  The sound design is… outstanding.  It is exactly what it needs to be for this game: a mix of the quiet, ambient, loud, white noise, and soft synth tones for more peaceful scenes.  It reminds me a bit of the sound design for Limbo in the sense that it pairs so effortlessly well with the game that you can’t help but become immersed in the experience.  The characters aren’t given voices, and frankly I’m glad they weren’t.  The sound does all the work establishing scenes, enhancing them, and putting you into that meditative state I mentioned that few games really achieve like this one does.

I look forward to seeing Parts 3, 4, and 5 from Cardboard Computer and can’t wait to see how this journey ends.  This was one of those games that I would think about when I wasn’t playing it, and still think about days after having finished.  It truly leaves an impression on you.  Whether you are a hardcore gamer looking for something fresh or a casual gamer looking for something to play in the little time you have to allot to video games, definitely put this one high on your priority list.  This is one of the best storytelling indie games of the year and I’d hate to see you miss out.

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