Friday, January 18, 2013

You Should Probably Play This: Kentucky Route Zero - Act 1

You Should Probably Play This is my positive review column. In it, I'll review a game that I think needs more attention. It may be an obscure oldie, something that was released recently with little fanfare, or something that was badly received on release but has since been made better. This time: A strange and surreal odyssey through a mystical land called... Kentucky.

Kentucky Route Zero is a surreal, poignant five-part point 'n click adventure game by Cardboard Computer.  Act 1 was released this month, with the following acts to be released over the course of a year or so.  Cardboard Computer is best known for making other surreal, poignant games such as Ruins and Balloon Diaspora.  Kentucky Route Zero is their first fully commercial game, and by far their largest production (once all five episodes are done, at least).

I said KRZ was an adventure game, but do not be fooled!  Myst this is not!  If we arbitrarily use Amanita Design games as a scale, KRZ is much closer to Botanicula than Machinarium.  For those who now have no idea what I'm talking about, that means that it's much more about ambiance, storytelling, and exploration than puzzling puzzles.  In fact, I'd go so far to say that there are no puzzles in Kentucky Route Zero at all.

So... let's talk ambiance.

He blew his mind out in a car... etc.
The best way to describe Kentucky Route Zero would be magical realist.  It's surreal, but in a quiet, ghostly way, not in a running around shouting "Whaaaaat's going oooooon," way.  It's a bit hard to describe, really, in more specific words.  Ghostly's a good one, ghosts seem to be a bit of a running theme.  Melancholy's another one.


Oh, wait, I got it!  The best way of describing Kentucky Route Zero is as a collection of short stories.  There's an overarching plot: You play an antique deliveryman making his last delivery, and you need to go along the mysterious underground Route Zero to get there.  But the real focus of the game is the vignettes, the people and things you meet along the way.  An empty church with a radio playing hymns.  A group of people playing a boardgame in a basement who vanish when you look away.  A stolen kiss in a darkened diner.
Anyone know if they're playing a real game?  It uses a d20.
A  running theme through the game is the past.  Most of the areas you pass through are either abandoned or diminished from past glories, and many of the encounters with people feel like briefly peeking into a scene that ended a while ago.  Then of course there's your main character being an antique deliveryman, and the previously mentioned ghosts (although it's unclear, at least so far, whether they're literally the ghosts of dead people, or just kinda "echoes of the past").

Because of this, the game has a very melancholy atmosphere.  Not outright sad, but with tragedies and lost things hanging thick in the past.  This is perhaps most in evidence when you travel through an abandoned mine with a companion you meet, walking (and later riding) along, looking at the empty mine while she tells you about all the injustice and tragedy that was struck on the miners before the mine was abandoned.  It's a touching, contemplative moment made more powerful by the magical realist touches, such as a radio of recorded miner songs that only plays when you give power to it by turning off your light.  This isn't the madcap stab-you-in-the-face nightmarish insanity of Hotline Miami, nor the gleeful, child-like wonder and cheerfulness of Botanicula.  It's a more grounded, contemplative sort of surrealism.  That's not to say Kentucky Route Zero is depressing, though.   As I said, it's not actively sad, and there are moments of humor to lighten things up a bit.  It's just contemplative and melancholy.
But then what am I playing? AAAAH.
Adding to all this atmosphere is Kentucky Route Zero's vector graphical style, which you've presumably noticed if you've been looking at the pictures in this review.  It's stylish.  Really stylish.  The game makes great use of colors, lighting and negative space, with color-unified screens and shapes twisted just enough to give them a bit of an abstract, iconic feel while still representing actual objects.  My only real complaint with the graphical style is with the text pop-ups, which are also vector style and consist of white text over black boxes (as you can see above).  It's a little bit jarring, as it feels like it doesn't totally fit in the game world.  For the dialog boxes it's not that much of an issue, but they use a similar style for the boxes that hover above interactable objects, and they take me out of the game just slightly.  I feel perhaps Cardboard Computer could've made the pop-ups blend in with the gameworld a bit more, perhaps even made it more minimal (a Monkey Island 3-style pop-up of options when you click on an interactable thing?).

The other part of Kentucky Route Zero, besides the areas themselves, is the road map.  You use this to travel between various areas, and the whole thing is laid out in the white-on-black vector style of the text boxes.  I don't really mind the style in this case though, as it is a roadmap, so the style kinda suits it.  In addition to traveling from story area to story area, there are a bunch of little events you can stumble across when exploring the road map.  Make sure to do so, they're not story critical, but they're an important part of the game.  Like the main story, these are odd, surreal little vignettes with a melancholy touch.
And then it was a text adventure.
My only real complaint about these events is that (aside from one), they're entirely text.  I don't necessarily have anything against text events, but it's a bit jarring when you first encounter them, and I would have loved to see some of the evocative areas described in the events rendered in the game's unique style.  If the roadmap is incorporated into future Acts, I'm hoping we can see more illustrated side areas.

The other interesting thing in Kentucky Route Zero I want to talk about is its approach to choice.  It is, without a doubt, a linear game, but there's also a fair amount of choice.  This choice doesn't significantly affect the way the game plays out, but it still feels important.  How?  It's essentially inner choice.  At various points in the game you get an opportunity to talk or think about yourself and your past, and you're given several options to choose as you tell stories or remember events.  This is a really interesting approach, because it allows you to shape your character's inner landscape, while still keeping the game focused, linear, and mostly non-reactive (although who knows, maybe what you say now will change things later on).

Who wants to sing "Heigh ho"?  No?
I guess I should talk about gameplay, right?  There's not much to say, really.  You click on things to move places and you talk to people.  You can also examine things.  It's pretty standard point 'n click action, really. As I mentioned earlier, there are no puzzles in the game, but (as long as you don't go in expecting a puzzle game), this doesn't feel like a case of a game abandoning gameplay to force in its own railroading story.  The puzzleless, semi-exploratory gameplay works in the favor of Kentucky Route Zero's ambiance, puzzles would honestly just bog it down.

As I mentioned earlier, it is an episodic game so it's fairly short.  However, unlike The Journey Down, Kentucky Route Zero doesn't feel particularly unsatisfying.  It ends with a hook for the next installment, of course, but it has its own satisfying narrative arc and experiences, it doesn't feel like it was torn haphazardly out of a larger game.  My only real concern, going forward, is how the plot will develop.  As great as it was, I could imagine it getting a bit old if it's basically the same thing for all five episodes.  That being said, I have very little doubt that Cardboard Computer will pull it off, they seem to know what they're doing.

So, what do I think?  Well I think you should probably play Kentucky Route Zero - Act 1.  You can buy Act 1 for $7 or subscribe to all five acts for $25.  Buying will get you a DRM-free download and a Steam key once it's on Steam.  As I said, go in expecting a moody, affecting game centered around story and atmosphere, not puzzles, and you'll enjoy it.  Check it out.

...This review was a little conceptually heavy, wasn't it?  Here's a picture of a dapper dog.
D'awww, he thinks he's people.


  1. Is it a proper avatar-based game, or does it have that fourth-wall-breaking thing of Botanicula where "the player" is a separate entity?

    1. Yeah, it plays like a traditional point and click, directly controlling your avatar. I was comparing it to Botanicula more in the spirit of it being about exploration and atmosphere over puzzles.