Stripping me of the convenient introduction of “X is a ‘insert genre here’” (though I have kinda still opened like that I suppose), Cardboard Computer‘s Kentucky Route Zero Act I manages to be one of the most perplexing games (or segment of a game) I’ve ever played (or experienced) despite being almost entirely devoid of puzzles. A narrative-centric point-and-click gets us some of the way there I suppose, but let’s just go into this review with the game largely undefined and see how we fare – the mystery of it all is a far better reflection of it than some label anyway.
A horse head sign, a gas station, an old man silhouetted in shadow and an approaching truck whose rattling engine is the only thing cutting through the ambient noise. This scene, gradually unveiled in an appropriately theatrical way, is how the game begins. No context and no need for any as the aesthetic design and animation have already granted the game a distinctive and intriguing tone. There is a backstory to the main character you play in this act – the truck driver (Conway) in search of a seemingly elusive address – but it is revealed and shaped gradually throughout via some of your dialogue options. Only time will tell as to how much of an impact these choices will have, but it makes for an interesting character whose cohesion with the ethereal nature of the places and people within the game is suitably unsettling.
This isn’t the only way that you shape the uncertain roads of Kentucky Route Zero. The dog that accompanies you, described rather wonderfully upon what was my first click of the game as “An old hound in a straw hat. Both have seen better days.”, can be disregarded as a stray that follows you around or an old pal that you feed treats and speak to with genuine affection. The events in the act may remain the same but the tone can shift significantly. For example, telling your aged dog to wait for you because you know it would struggle to climb a hill is quite touching whilst the dog you have been ignoring suddenly failing to follow you is evocative in a somewhat darker way.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into these things, but that is precisely the atmosphere the game creates. One of introspection, unease and analysing every element to the nth degree. Certain events promote this – fixing a TV only to get lost not in the screen but the barn behind it, disappearing characters, an impromptu bluegrass band and the fact you aren’t always controlling Conway himself – but it is the writing that really sells it. There is a confidence to every line, an economy of words that makes everything that bit more emotive. Much of its may be rather poetic, but it is perpetually engaging as oppose to pretentious (something I’m unfortunately failing to mirror with this review), and effortlessly thought-provoking.
Surprisingly, for a game that looks this good, some of my favourite moments came from the complete darkness of the locations you can discover by driving beyond the path of the plot. Making your way through a pitch-black diner via descriptions and sounds alone may not sound all that engrossing, but it is. Again, these sections can’t really be considered puzzles; after all, the only wrong answer is to not seek them out in the first place and make an already short act come to a close even sooner. The most memorable aspects are arguably based around the aesthetic – the way the front of buildings peel away upon entering them in order to reveal what’s inside, the animated horseshoe throw that marks your movement clicks – but the sound design (both ambient and main) and writing can comfortably carry the experience.
Intrigue may not be the most powerful of emotions, but Kentucky Route Zero establishes it so expertly and sustains it so completely that it becomes damn near palpable. It’s ambiguous without ever being vague enough to appear vapid, and the characters in it are mysterious and intriguing as opposed to ill-formed and shallow. It is, in short, something rather special. My only reservations are whether the four acts to come can compare and, even if they do, whether it would ultimately be better experienced in its entirety instead of episodically. Regardless, this one is definitely worth looking at – especially as more often than not you won’t be able to believe your eyes.