Death of the Critic

Kentucky Route Zero

Written by: Tom Blaich

It’s hard to talk about video games without using references to games that have come before them. That’s why we have we call games “Roguelikes” or “Metroidvanias”. Because when we encounter a new experience, we look for ways we can relate it to something we are all familiar. Maybe it is an old game like Rogue, or a massively popular series like Metroid or Castlevania. But what do we do when we encounter a truly new experience? That is the question I found myself asking when I first picked up Kentucky Route Zero. While I could see elements of its predecessors within it, I found it hard to truly describe it to others outside of simply saying that it was different.
The game was developed by the studio Cardboard Computer, a two-man design team of Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy with music being created by artist Ben Babbitt. The studio has created 7 games before the production and subsequent release of
Kentucky Route Zero, but for the past 3 years, their focus has been entirely on this game. Unlike some independent developers, they do not have a background in the AAA development space, instead having their roots purely in the independent movement, which definitely shows its head in Kentucky Route Zero. A player can see traditional design elements within the game, but the willingness to go outside of these lines is what makes this game truly independent.
At its most basic level, the game is a point and click adventure game, but really only in the way you interact with the world. As its name implies, a point and click adventure game is a game in which you guide a character through a world solely through the usage of the mouse. You point to objects on the screen and click at them to have the character move, inspect, and interact with the world. Usually this manifests through the usage of puzzles or some other challenges. If you look at the super popular
Monkey Island or Maniac Mansion games, you can see this design element as your character picks up different items and uses them to complete sometimes convoluted puzzles.
And as video games have progressed, these titles have fallen out of vogue, being resurrected in the last few years with Telltale Games and their extraordinarily popular game series like
The Walking Dead, or The Wolf Among Us, or Game of Thrones. You can see the influence of some of these games on Kentucky Route Zero as they started to remove the puzzles in favor of more direct interaction with the world, with The Walking Dead including shooting and fighting segments.  But Kentucky Route Zero went one step further with it, removing all traditionally “difficult” aspects of the game. There are no puzzles. There are no enemies; there are no timers or artificially induced tension. It is simply your character or groups of characters traveling through the world and uncovering the story that it contains.
In this way it is much like the game
To The Moon, which I recently played. The objective of the game is to simply uncover the story. Both of them are narrative point and click adventure games. Neither have puzzles or enemies or challenges. Both of them have a heavy focus on the story. But to say that the two games are similar would be a disservice to each. The fixed perspective and retro styled graphics of To The Moon are fantastic, and do a great job of delivering the moving story of loss and regret. But at the same time, this story is rather straightforward, which is far from being a bad thing. The characters know that they need to find something, and the narrative structure of traveling backwards in time allows the reveal to be held off for as long as possible. But trying to sum up the story of Kentucky Route Zero is nowhere near that easy.
We can identify the most basic plot elements, for sure, but the way in which the web of the story is woven around them is much more complex than that of
To The Moon. This issue is only compounded by the fact that this game is not yet finished. Which, in some ways, really fits in with the games themes of trying to break the boundaries of traditional gaming. The game is structured in five acts, three of which have already been released. The first came out on January 7, 2013, the second released on May 31, 2013, and the third came out on May 6, 2014. The final two acts are presumably still in development, and will be released in the future. And while developmental gaps are nothing new to followers of mainstream games, with Half-Life 2: Episode 2 being released around 8 years ago as fans still wait for the sequel, this amount of delay is far from normal.
It does make it difficult to discuss the story of the game in any serious way, as you must precede any discussion with a very healthy disclaimer, that we have only experienced half of the game, and that we honestly don’t know where the game will go from here. New story elements could be introduced or old ones could be tied up. So when we say that it is hard to sum up the story of
Kentucky Route Zero, the fact that it is not done is a huge contributing factor. The web is only half complete, spreading tendrils of story far and wide, but not yet giving them a chance to fully link back together and circle around into a completed story.
Kentucky Route Zero, when you distill it down to its basic elements, is independent in almost every single way. From the art style, to the story, to the sound design, the characters, and the gameplay. Each small element of the game tries to break the mold in some way, which makes this an extraordinarily interesting game to talk about in the context of both games design and games criticism. And this is what I believe that the designers were trying to accomplish with this game. They wanted their game to be different, to push the boundaries and explore new areas.
These differences make themselves noticeable with the start of the game. When the game opens, you are greeted by a black screen with an option to choose which act you would like to play. There is no requirement to play this game in order, in fact, each act that has been released is available to be played immediately. There are no frills or fancy ornamentation on what amounts to a level select screen. You simply select the act and the game begins. Each act begins with a black screen with the act and scene number before the scenery comes up. Each act begins with a short introduction before the scenes start, kind of like an introduction in a movie.
The art is the first thing that you notice. There is very little background music within the game, so as the backgrounds start to come up and the lighting takes effect, you can really grasp how the art changes the game. Its almost an origami stylization, with sharp, straight lines defining each character and object. Lighting plays a huge role in this game, with the way that illumination and shadows change the way in which you can see the environment and how clearly defined they are. Very clearly this lighting is used more for a storytelling effect rather than anything else, as there is little tension to be built in a game with no fear of death or enemy. In other words, the scenery reflects the story. With the beginning of the game, the lights are brighter and more natural as you walk around the gas station, Equus Oils, in the fading light. You gain a lantern from the old man, Joseph, who works there. When you explore the basement of the gas station, the lighting is soft and natural, being more easily lit than some other scenes in the game.
As you progress through the ups and downs of the story, the lighting changes to reflect that. In the segments in which you are simply driving the truck across the black map, the pure black and white stylization help to offer a sharp contrast and a neutral palette so as to not affect the rest of the game. In the interior of the mine, with the flickering, harsh white light, you get a more foreboding sense. Or in the office building on route zero, where the lighting is more dreary and “normal”. There is little excitement here, and as you limp your way around the office, the dull lighting only accents that fact.
This theme, of having the graphical quality accentuate the story is especially prevalent in the character design. You play as Conway, an older man who’s top heavy design gives him a sense of age and frailty. His thin legs seem to struggle to support him. And as he spends much of the second act limping, this design element feels perfectly at home. He feels old, and weary, and injured. And he isn’t the only one. His old dog, in my game named Blue, seems to be feeling the effects of age just as hard. Again, the limbs are thin, almost skeletal, and here, the torso is gaunt, almost thin. The old hat perched atop her head rounds out her image as she slowly trudges along side you.
In contrast to this you have the characters of Shannon and Ezra. Shannon is much younger than Conway, with a tool belt strapped around her waist. Whereas he is an antiques delivery man, she is a television repair woman, and their natures can be seen clashing in the dialogue options that they have. In the second act, where you are accompanied by her throughout, you have many chances to choose who speaks. Conway’s dialogue options are generally more cautious, inquisitive, and airy, having an ethereal feel to them. He is more concerned with feeling and what is happening behind the scenes. He will ask questions about people’s background, or have philosophical asides. During one segment in which you are in the Bureau, and the two of you must locate a woman who seemingly has the directory to lead you to number 5 Dogwood Drive.
As you navigate the floors of the building you are constantly led in different directions. Conway seems perfectly willing to follow these directions, asking who he must see next, and what forms he needs, whereas Shannon is simply asking where Luna, the woman is. And this direct style shows in her dialogue very often. She is younger and more brash, willing to explore the mines even while Conway rests with an injured leg.
Ezra is a child, and he brings a certain sense of refreshing naiveté to the story. You meet him in the Museum of Dwellings, a large building built over the ruins of a small town. Inside all manner of dwellings reside. From houseboats to tents to chicken coops and doghouses. You find the young boy here on top of the building in the pouring rain. Conway is at his wits end with his injury and they need to find the doctor. When you first meet him, he just appears to be a normal young boy. He says, “with a truck, you’ve got to keep it up. That’s why me and Julian don’t use a truck. We just carry the houses.” It gives you an impression of a child with an overactive imagination, and the way he flits from topic to topic really does fit this more childlike personality. He brings a sense of honest inquisitiveness to your group that contrasts nicely with Shannon’s straightforwardness, and Conway’s musings.
In the third act, two traveling musicians, Johnny and Junebug, expand the group even further. These two are androids that can change their appearances. Apparently they were originally built to drain the water from the mine from earlier in the game, but they rebel against their creators and strike out into the world to make music after discovering recordings of music deep within the mine. These two embody a more cynical side of the story. They have been taken advantage of before, and they are fully conscious of that, and this has led to a certain sense of dark humor. You get the sense that this humor is how they cope with the situation that they are in. They are not included as comic relief, but instead as a major facet of their characterization.
Music does play a huge role in this game, which might sound surprising considering how few songs are actually in the soundtrack. For each hour long act, there might only be four songs, each only a few minutes long. And you don’t even necessarily listen to them all the way through. But the mastery of sound design in this game is definitely worthy of being mentioned. It is immediately apparent from the opening of the game that something is different. You notice immediately how quiet the game is. There is little going on in the way of sound at first. Maybe a few crickets or the wind, but nothing you wouldn’t expect to find standing outside of a gas station in Kentucky. Once you turn the power on, the low whine of the generator can be heard.
Proper sound design is like mixing a drink. There are thousands of recipes, and they all have their different proportions. Some games might include a lot of background music, with very little ambient sound, creating an exciting, pulse-pounding drink to drive you through the story. Others might mix together strange sounds and darker notes for a spicy, more mysterious drink that keeps you on your toes. But this cocktail is perfectly balanced. They have a little bit of music, the highest grade, beautifully crafted, to add a different note and to catch your attention, but the base is still a tantalizing blend of background noises that slowly build over time to have a greater effect. Its complex and rich, with a flavor that draws you deeper into the story.
The gameplay of the game, or lack thereof, serves to function on this path as well. And while this may sound like a criticism to some, it is not. The game is very simplistic at its heart. There really aren’t many branching paths, and often, the straightforward path is the best solution to your problem. Of course you can explore the levels that your character inhabits, but not much actually comes out of it besides background information, which is what this story is all about. There are no enemies, no puzzles, no challenges. At times the story can twist your brain, like when you finally find Route Zero, and learning how to navigate the circular path that will take you to different places depending on where you start and how often you turn around, or how many loops you take. There is an illusion of choice built into the game, an illusion, that while at some points can be stretched thin, but for most of the game keeps you wondering about what you are actually changing.
The biggest moment of this was with your injury to your leg. When Shannon asks Conway about it, I chose to respond that I was fine and that I could walk on it, but this statement turned out to be a lie, I was injured, rather severely. This came as a shock to me, because for the rest of the game I had had that choice of what was going on in conversation, so this took me by surprise. The way in which this story branches is complex, and the amount of influence you have on the story is in fact rather small, but they do a great job of making you feel like you re directing the story. Personally, I would let Conway choose the direction of most of the conversations; I found that he occupied a pleasant middle ground that allowed me to experience the story in my own way.
These points where the story forces a certain choice on you are not very obvious and that is what makes it a well-designed game. They fool you with the illusion that your choices matter, while cleverly guiding you along a fantastic story that they have carefully crafted to be rich and complex and interesting.
We still must acknowledge the criticisms of this game in its gameplay. Because of its simplicity, where the game does boil down to pointing at a place, clicking on it, and choosing dialogue in conversations, the game does not offer a lot of excitement. Which is perfectly fine to me, but to some players, the lack of any real challenge or replayability might make them not enjoy the game in the same way that I did. Which is not to say that they are playing the game wrong, but to say that they simply have a different set of desires than I do. I want an art-house, strange, magical realist adventure in the hills of Kentucky. I am fine not having challenge or only playing this game once. But some people aren’t and I’m ok with that.
To me, the most important part of this game is its story, because it is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before in the interactive medium. It’s surreal, yet realistic. It’s funny without being comedic. It takes all sorts of different elements and blends them together perfectly as they build over time. There is very little here that feels extraneous or unneeded.  Tiny little gameplay elements all build together with the story to make it feel more complete. The marker to show where you are walking to is a little game of horseshoe, glowing faintly gold. It doesn’t make much sense, but it fits so perfectly with the theme and the story that it just draws you further in.
This game is expertly crafted. You have your basic story, that of a man who needs to deliver a package. This is your quest and it is treated as such. It is the base ingredient in this dish. The meat. Then you start adding details. He can’t find the address. It’s his last delivery. No one knows where the address is, or if they do the directions are confusing. These are your veggies. They enhance the base layer by adding more complexity, fleshing out the story and giving it more volume. Very rarely does someone just want to eat meat. Then you can get more complex, you build your sauce. You start adding in characters with their own motivations. You start to discover more supernatural elements and mystery surrounding your journey. You watch as the world changes around you. Then come your background details, your spices. Things you might not pick out of the recipe by taste alone. You were an alcoholic. Your partner and you own this antiques business. You have a dead son. She has Alzheimer’s. These spices help change the conversations that you have in the world. All of a sudden being asked why this delivery is so important or if you would like a drink take on an entirely different meaning.
Then you pour this amazing dish over something to soak it up. Maybe it’s a rice or pasta. Maybe it’s potatoes. Here it is the actual location itself, which has as much character as any individual in the game. The shifting landscape, the dark forests, the dingy mine, they all come together to carry the story, to cut it and allow you to experience the full richness without being overwhelmed.
Its hard for me to criticize this game, because in many ways, as a person that writes about video games and modern media in general, this is the game that I have always wanted to play. It brings an entirely new element to the story and is recognized by critics as such. Built off of an 8500 dollar Kickstarter campaign (Kickstarter), the game is hugely ambitious, and for those people who have always asked for more from games, this is exactly what we have been looking for. And that is reflected in how the game is reviewed. Metacritic, an aggregate review site has the three acts scored separately, with the first scoring an 81, the second an 82, and the third a 91. All three of these scores are out of 100, and they are all fantastic. (Metacritic)
That isn’t to say that the game is without problems, but these issues aren’t issues for me. The fact that it isn’t challenging, that you can’t replay it very well, and there isn’t much direction aren’t exactly criticisms of the game itself, but more of a comparison between this game and more traditional gaming experiences. It raises questions like “does a game need to be challenging” or “how long/how many times do you have to play a game.” It challenges our fundamental assertions of what makes a game a game, and it reinforces the medium as a new way in which we can explore and tell stories, once we remove our preconceived notions and limiters to uncover new methods of story telling. How should we interact with a game? Is there a correct way to play games? Is even asking this question a good idea or are we limiting ourselves? Some would say that there is no one right way to play or design a game, and I’m willing to bet that the creators of this game would agree. By challenging our notion of what makes a game a game, we can start breaking through the walls of this industry and bringing games forward into a new realm of story and experiences.

"Cardboard Computer." Metacritic. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

Elliot, Jake. "Kentucky Route Zero, a Magic Realist Adventure Game."Kickstarter. Kickstarter, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015. .


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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