The magical realism of Kentucky Route Zero
A gas station shaped like a horse head. A haunted mine. A museum dedicated to different types of dwelling places. A mountain hall housing a supercomputer that runs on mold. All these places and more are spread about Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, along a mysterious highway known only as Route Zero. Exploring them is unlike any other experience in gaming.
A point-and-click episodic series in which there are no fights to be won or puzzles to be solved, Kentucky Route Zero instead immerses the player in a bizarre dream of America. With the game’s final act due to be released soon, there’s no better time to catch up.
Developers Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy) name the works of David Lynch, Flannery O’Connor, and Gabriel García Márquez as their influences. Other writers have done extraordinary deep dives to suss out the host of other references to history and art within the game. The story follows Conway, a delivery driver on his last job, along with a growing group of oddball acquaintances who are each lost, in one way or another, on the Zero.
There aren’t many magic realist games. Most video games comfortably slot themselves into one of the two parts of that descriptor. A select few, mostly simulators or sports games, chase realism, while the rest indulge the fantastical as part of our desire for escapism, or to live out an adventure we never could in real life.
But while there are plenty of strange, impossible things peppered throughout Kentucky Route Zero, the game arises from a subdued, down-to-earth setting. The characters are firmly grounded in the context of America’s recession, each adrift from the way things are “supposed” to be. It’s a sad story but not a miserable one, with many scenes devoted to small moments of beauty on a road trip or affirmations between friends.
The narrative is the game
Patterned heavily after theater, the game plays out over a series of conversations, with the player taking control of numerous characters across each scene and selecting from a wide array of dialogue options. The idea is not so much to change the direction of the story (although this is possible, in little ways), but to determine the mood of each scene. This game hands you a set, a script, and some actors, and turns you into the director. How the show proceeds is in your hands.
Kentucky Route Zero establishes its identity in the very first scene of Act I. A gas station attendant asks Conway what his dog’s name is. The player can then decide if it’s a boy named Homer, a girl named Blue, or if Conway somehow doesn’t know its name. Just a few sentences later, Conway either goes straight to business and asks about the location he’s supposed to deliver to, or decides he’d rather watch the sunset right now. The next choice can let the player proceed with business, ask about the attendant’s life, or, in a curveball, ask if the attendant likes poetry.
There are countless possible permutations to the flow of the narrative. None diverges too distinctly from the built-in plot, but that’s not the point. Each choice is like a small improvisation on a bluegrass song, a minor but meaningful personal inflection, and over time they add up to something unique for every player. There are few games where simply looking around at where you’ve been brought feels like its own fulfilling experience, but this is one that repeatedly encourages you to sit back and reflect.
Achingly soulful and melancholic, Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t demand your attention. It simply waits for you. You should go to meet it.
The developers at Cardboard Computer are now on Patreon, where they post updates about the status of the upcoming fifth and final act of Kentucky Route Zero.