I’ve just completed Act I of Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer, and it is amazing.
It’s a point and click adventure game, in which you control Conway, a delivery man who’s trying to deliver a truckload of antiques to 5 Dogwood Drive, but he doesn’t know the way. Turns out that a secret underground highway, Route Zero, is his best option, and, well, I don’t even want to tell you anything else about the actual events, because that would be spoiling it.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the game looks gorgeous. It’s been created with indie resources — that is to say, without the kind of financial backing a big studio game would have; this is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, which netted the two-man team at Cardboard Computer $8,583 — not exactly a king’s ransom, and I have no doubt that the duo have put a lot of their own money and sweat into the game.
And it has paid off, because this is one of the most beautiful and atmospheric games I have ever had the pleasure to play. I’ve heard it compared to Another World (or Out of This World, as it’s known in North America), and it’s a fairly apt comparison — both games feature a great number of silhouettes and eschew bright colors.
The difference is, of course, that for Another World, that look was rather cutting edge for its day, and, to a great extent, imposed by the technological limitations of the day — realistically speaking, that game couldn’t have been much more impressive. In the case of Kentucky Route Zero, it’s a subtler choice — a far more artistic choice. At the same time, it’s just good design — creating graphical assets is pretty much the single most expensive part of making video games.
For a two-man outfit, hiding things in darkness and suggesting details, rather than showing them, is undoubtedly a bit of a necessity, especially when you have a have a game like this, where you can’t just recycle assets easily. You need to be smart about how you spend your money. Not that the game looks remotely cheap; quite the contrary, every image in Kentucky Route Zero is beautiful.
It also sounds fantastic. The audioscape is sparse; most of the time, the game is quiet, or, at least, you would be forgiven for thinking that. The ambient sounds are easy to ignore, but that’d be an oversight, because there’s a rich world out there — distant cars driving along an unseen highway, the gurgle of fish tanks, the crackling of an ancient PA system. Occasionally, there’s music, whether it’s a badly degraded old recording, or a muffled choir singing in a church. Mostly, things are quiet and understated, so when you do hear something, it leaves an impression. I found myself holding my breath when I became aware of a new sound.
The dialogue, which is fairly plentiful, isn’t spoken; it’s just text, and yet there are human sounds that are almost startling in their intimacy — a man breathing into a microphone, his distorted exhalation echoing through untold depths. They do a lot of that kind of thing in Kentucky Route Zero.
The actual adventure gameplay is not terribly deep, I suppose. It’s not what the game is going for. It’s more about the experience than about solving a puzzle. If you are so inclined, I suppose you can hold it against the game, but I think that’d be a mistake. There is exploration, and there’s dialogue, and the things the characters talk — and think — about are more important and interesting than using the wrench on a bolt would be. It’s not a difficult game, but it is a game that rewards the careful player. There are little vignettes, curious and surreal moments sprinkled liberally along those Kentucky back country roads.
The dialogue is where the game often shines. You’re not really talking to others in order to make them give you something or do something for you. Rather, you are defining things as you play through the game — for instance, Conway has a dog, and through a dialogue choice you determine its sex and its name. Likewise, through dialogue it becomes obvious that Conway likes his drink; how much that affects his thinking, how much he dwells on the past, is something you can determine, or at least affect.
And it’s not just Conway — sometimes you start a conversation as one character, and then when it’s time for the other person to respond, you choose that response as well. There’s a great deal of introspection, and it’s very well written — evocative and atmospheric. Sometimes it’s funny. Often it’s sad. It’s always interesting.
There’s also a lot of surreal weirdness, but it’s the kind that doesn’t seem weird for the sake of being weird. It’s a long night in Kentucky, and you encounter people and situations that seem to exist just slightly outside normal reality. It’s a bit of a ghost story, a bit of a Lynchian trek into the subconscious. Every once in a while, it’s scary — but this isn’t a horror game, really; rather, it makes you feel the weight of the years and reminds you of your own inevitable mortality, or the mistakes you have made, of the regrets you have — or Conway does, anyway.
And there are secrets. Sometimes, you have a lamp that you can turn on and off, and while in the darkness you don’t see much, things are still revealed in startling and enticing ways. I saw ghosts. I saw them walking alongside as I sat in a rickety cart somewhere deep underground. I caught a glimpse of a unicorn.
This first act of the game isn’t very long. It took me about 90 minutes to play through it. But it was worthwhile. I’ve got it on my brain now, and I can’t wait for the next act — there will be five in total, and the next one is scheduled to come out in April.
I found Route Zero. I can’t wait to explore it.
Oh, and yeah, the season pass is 25% off on Steam right now. That’s a seriously good deal.
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