Kentucky Route Zero has finally been completed, with its fifth and final act releasing just a little while ago. For those not in the know, the game is essentially a point-and-click walking simulator with a heavy emphasis on character interaction and moving what can be called the story forward, all with an air of magical realism to keep players on their toes. It’s not really a game you “play,” as there are no puzzles to solve and the majority of what you do is click through dialogue to move on to the next scene. This isn’t an inherently bad setup—To the Moon used a similar format to great effect. Unlike To the Moon, Kentucky Route Zero tends to overstay its welcome at points.
The game puts players in the shoes of an old man named Conway—at first. Conway acts as a delivery man for Lysette’s Antiques, a little store off Route 65 in Kentucky that has fallen on hard times. The game starts with Conway pulling over at Equus Oils to ask for directions to what will turn out to be his final destination as a delivery man. He has stuff in his truck for a place called 5 Dogwood Drive, and you never find out what exactly he is carrying. He is told to seek someone else out, who then tells him that he needs to find The Zero in order to get to 5 Dogwood Drive. There are other roads with the word dog in them, but Dogwood is past The Zero.
It turns out The Zero is some kind of underground road where physical space becomes abstract. The game uses a strange art style to depict travel through The Zero. You wheel around from a side view through a wire frame tunnel that circles around itself…unless you perform certain tasks. An objective has you keep driving until you reach a Crystal, then you turn around and drive back where you came from to reach your destination.
In case you can’t tell from the above description, this game leans heavily into its magical realism angle, with nonsensical things happening every episode. The characters always take it in stride, never questioning why they are seeing what they see. Conway never wonders why there’s this mysterious underground tunnel that seems to stretch on forever. It gives the game the feeling of an old folk tale or ghost story. It almost feels like you’re watching a waking dream of someone who has been downtrodden all through their life.
The presentation is a huge part of this feeling. Traveling is simple as can be, while the 3D walking sections use fixed camera angles to shift the player’s focus on different parts of the environment. Every character is kind of reminiscent of the early days of 3D, with lots of sharp angles and blatant polygons. Their lack of physical features, though, helps that design choice feel natural instead of weird. It does lead to problems later on, which I’ll get to shortly.
The visuals combine with subtle ambiance in some pretty neat ways. The most apparent instance of this is in Act III, where the player is treated to a musical number where they choose the lyrics. Taking place in a bar, once the music starts, the costumes of the characters instantly change and the wall and ceiling open up to reveal a star filled night sky. The game has a knack for moments like this, where the insignificant feels significant because of the way it’s presented.
That’s appropriate, because it’s the primary theme of the game. As I mentioned above, the bulk of the game is reading characters dialogue with one another. They tend to skirt around the subject of where they’re going. As you progress, Conway picks up more and more people who decide to come along with him for various reasons. The cast becomes rather expansive, and it includes a TV repair woman, a lost child with no family (and a giant bird for a friend), a musical duo who drift around playing small venues who may, or may not, be homeless, and more later on. You travel through a whole host of backwoods, off-the-beaten path locations. and talk with even more people about their lives and anything else that comes to their minds. It should be said that this is a game you have to be in the mood for. It’s extremely slow moving, and much of the dialogue can come across as inane if you’re not in the right head space. There isn’t much in the way of an overarching plot apart from getting to 5 Dogwood Drive.
All of the small talk is well written, though. The journey through forgotten places and interactions with random individuals drive home the game’s themes of the world forgetting people. All of the party members I mentioned are essentially nobodies, people that the world has moved on from. As you go on, you learn others’ stories about how their businesses have died, or how a vaguely threatening Whiskey company bought up their land and used it for something else. The game makes these insignificant people significant, and sets out to say that even though the world at large may not give a damn, there will always be places inhabited by somebody, and that matters.
It’s a unique story to be certain, and punctuated by a fairly strong final act of the group finally making it to the town where 5 Dogwood Drive resides. By that point, though, the group isn’t what they once were, with more than a few of them having left. You see the place in the aftermath of a flood, and even play as a cat, eavesdropping on various conversations around the town as time goes on and people rebuild. It’s beautiful in many ways, but I have to spoil the literary aspirations of the game now.
There were times where it tried my patience immensely. While much of the game is about unique people for the sake of unique people, it uses interludes between acts to further flesh out the world. The problem is that the later ones tend to drag, with them going on and on before getting to the point. This is no more evident than in the second interlude, which sees the player literally watching a stage play filled with inane dialogue. It tested my patience many times.
And there is the matter of later acts. It took this game 7 years from its release on Steam to be completed, with the longest gap having come between Act IV and V, the final one. Act III contains a side story about a failed computer game that stretches on for far too long and could have been cut. Act IV sees the player traveling down a river, making detours at a variety of places and chatting it up with the locals. The whole point of the game is making the player feel something for nobodies, but by the time you reach Act IV, it’s pretty clear. There is one major development in IV that brings some themes home nicely, but much of it feels like filler.
The other major problem is the cast of characters. As I said, your party grows and grows as you go on, and the game even introduces new characters in the final act. The core group is already fairly sizable by this point, and many of the later characters tend to get lost in the shuffle, with them feeling underdeveloped despite the time you spend with them. It doesn’t help that the simple visual style can make it tough to distinguish who is who, especially when the camera is pulled out like it is in Act V.
Ultimately, I wonder how necessary the five act structure is. There are undeniably parts that could have been cut to make it a more concise but no less interesting tale. The influence of “literature” is clear. A lot of books that are considered great literature have parts that, for lack of a better phrase, wander. Sometimes it works amazingly well (House of Leaves) while other times, not so much (Blood Meridian, there, I said it, that book bored me to tears). Kentucky Route Zero is somewhere in the middle with its wandering. At times, particularly early on, its engrossing and absorbing thanks to the way the generally good script, unique visuals, and subtle ambiance all work together. Other times it feels like the game is dragging, particularly near the end.
I must once again bring up To the Moon. That game also consists of almost entirely walking and character interaction, with puzzles so light that they may as well not even be there. The thing is that it is, simply put, a good story told well, with pacing that means you’re constantly moving forward, and a length that doesn’t feel too short or too long. It manages to convey some really great messages about love and humanity, all told through the lens of high concept science fiction. Kentucky Route Zero offers up its own unique themes, and often times meanders in an endearing, engrossing way. Other times, though, it tries one’s patience and you might find yourself wishing for it to get to the point. It ends strong, but there are parts in the middle that are undeniably tough to get through.
I’m not completely sold that this was a story that needed five acts to be told. I can’t help but feel that it could have been just as effective with three, and yes, that leads me to question whether or not the wait for the final act was worth it or not. At the end of the day, though, I’d say it’s still worthwhile. Its themes of people being abandoned by time and progress are expressed in unique ways, and it has moments of striking beauty that makes you feel things in a way that few games can. Just be prepared for the slow, slow burn you’re getting yourself into.
Kentucky Route Zero is available on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, XBox One, Linux, Mac & PC