Kentucky Route Zero: Act I

Posted by Patrick Talbot.
First posted on 15 March 2015. Last updated on 15 March 2015.
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Kentucky Route Zero: Act I
Conway stops at a gas station seeking directions for the road.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act I
Conway finds the circuit breaker and restores power to the gas station.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act I
Conway takes a detour to make a quick delivery.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act I
The television set triggers a vision in Conway.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act I
Conway finds an abandoned mine.

Kentucky Route Zero

The game is comprised of 5 acts:

Act I

Act II


Act IV

Act V

Indie developers are leading a renaissance in the adventure game genre. By experimenting and taking risks in the games they create, these developers challenge gamers' perceptions on what makes a good game. Cardboard Computer is such a developer that is pushing this perception envelope even further. Kentucky Route Zero, the company's first game, is a collaborative effort between its cofounders Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy. The game is also among the earliest projects to be successfully funded on Kickstarter. Set in 5 separate acts, Kentucky Route Zero is described by its developer as a "magical realist" adventure inspired by classic point-and-click adventure games of LucasArts and Sierra of yesteryear.

Kentucky Route Zero is not an adventure game by any genre conventions. Rather than puzzles and challenges, the game focuses on storytelling and atmosphere. There is no tutorial to teach you on how to play the game. Instead, you are encouraged to freely explore the game to grasp its nuances. It is a truly unique game that you need to be experience firsthand to fully understand it. It is unlike any game that you have ever played before.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act I is the first act of the game. The game introduces you to a truck driver named Conway. In the opening scene, you see Conway pulling up his truck slowly to a gas station. At this point, you do not know where he is, why he is pulling over, or for what purpose he is driving his truck. Gradually, however, you discover that Conway works as an antique furniture deliveryman. He is in mid of making a delivery of some furniture to some remote location. He asks the gas station attendant there for directions. He is told that the only way to get to his destination is to take the mysterious Route Zero. Yet, somehow, the attendant is unable to tell Conway how to get to that route. Suffice to say, the rest of the game is devoted to Conway driving through the forgotten back roads, asking around for directions, and following leads in order to locate Route Zero.

Conway is not traveling alone. He has an old dog as a companion. This dog, which you get to name, wears an old straw hat. Since Conway is in Kentucky, the many interesting characters that he meets treat him with good old-fashioned Southern hospitality. Yet, Conway also senses that there is a mysterious air about them. An example is the gas station attendant, who is the first character that Conway meets in the game. He is an odd old man sitting outside in a chair between the gas pumps, seemingly waiting for Conway (or perhaps someone else) to help him to restore power to the lights to the gas station. Conway agrees to help the old man and goes down to the basement to flip the circuit breaker to restore the power. There, Conway sees a trio of characters playing a board game with dice. Yet, these characters seem to have disappeared into thin air when Conway returns just moments later after wandering off in the basement. When Conway asks the old man about these characters, the old man tells Conway that it is probably a trick of the light. This surreal experience extends to other characters that you will meet in the game, lending the game a foreboding ambiance probably unlike other games you have previously played.

There is a map that you can use in the game. However, this map differs from the typical maps in other adventure games. Rather, the map looks like a scribble that someone draws for someone else asking for road directions. Indeed, Conway gets directions to where he needs to go from most of the characters he meets while on the road. Furthermore, opening the book icon in the lower right corner of the map screen brings up a menu of places that Conway has heard about from conversations with these characters. Selecting the desired place then brings up directions on the map to that place. Rather than an auxiliary item, the map is actually the central interactive set piece for the game.

The game uses a point-and-click interface. You move Conway until he comes across some character with whom or some object with which he can interact. A pop-up box then appears with icons that describe what Conway can do. An eye icon allows Conway to examine. A speech bubble icon allows Conway to initiate a conversation. A wheel icon allows Conway to drive. There are no spoken dialogs. Instead, all conversations are displayed in text only. In a way, this game is a hybrid of graphic adventure and interactive fiction games of the early years.

Even without voice acting, there is plenty to listen to in the game. Ambient sounds are aplenty, from the crickets chirping at nighttime to the birds whistling during the day to the winds howling deep in the mind shafts. However, it is the emotive background music that really sets the tone for the game. The music is absent for most of the game. Yet, when it is present, it is as powerful as the game's unique visuals. In all, the attention to sound detailing is this game is astounding.

The graphics in this game are highly stylized. The characters have no facial features and are drawn as if they are made from colored construction papers die cut to order. Yet, they do not move like stringed marionettes. Character movements are very fluid. You click on the screen to direct where Conway needs to go. A marker in the shape of a tiny horseshoe spinning around a spike then appears confirming the temporary waypoint. This animation is cutesy and shows the level of attention that the developer pays to the visual styling of the game.

By far, the greatest strength of this game is its writing. This is where the developer's willingness to experiment with the genre really shines. The writing feels personal and subtly adopts to the choices you make in the game. The conversations that Conway has with other characters are always interesting if not strange and bizarre. It is clear that all of the characters Conway meets have their own stories to tell.

Given the episodic format, the game is quite short. You can finish the game easily in about an hour. Even if you choose to experiment a bit with the dialogs, you can still finish the game in under a couple of hours. Once you reach the end, though, you will immediately long for the next act.

Kentucky Route Zero is a game that every adventure game fan needs to play. The experience it delivers is simply unforgettable. The game's unique visuals match perfectly with the game's surreal storytelling and foreboding atmosphere. Kentucky Route Zero is an example why indie adventure game developers are leading a renaissance in the genre.

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