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Late to the Game(s): Kentucky Route Zero – Exploring the spaces (we think) we know

By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

How many times have you played a video game set in a place that you know? Not a place that you’ve heard of or read about. Not a place that you’ve visited. But a place that you know; the way you know your way around your bedroom in the dark without stubbing your toe. The way you can almost drive the winding roads to the holler where you grew up with your eyes closed. The way you know what lies just over the next hill in the woods where you played as a child. When was the last time you played a game that was set in a place you know like you know the smell of your mamaw’s kitchen? 

Chances are pretty good you haven’t, especially if you’re from around here. There aren’t a lot of video games set in Appalachia or Kentucky. Fallout ‘76 makes some nods to the Appalachian tri-state. They feature an alternate reality version of Camden Park, and the Mothman of Point Pleasant, WV – or something a lot like it – makes an appearance. But otherwise it’s a Fallout game. It doesn’t capture that feeling of driving dark back roads late at night. It doesn’t evoke that sense of trying to find a place that’s new to you, even if it’s just down the road from where you grew up. It doesn’t have characters that you’ve never met before, but remind you of the second cousin you only saw at family reunions and holiday get togethers. 

Kentucky Route Zero does. Set on a fictional roadway that shares its name with the title of the game, Kentucky Route Zero is a point and click adventure game that places you in the role of Conway, a delivery driver attempting to find an address to deliver a truck load of antiques. Along the way he encounters surrealistic versions of folks that might remind you a little of people you’ve known; if the folks you’ve known were cast in a David Lynch movie. The game is meandering, strange, and beautiful, with a fantastic soundtrack and a hauntingly unique art style. It’s also wonderfully written, giving you control over the dialogue and responses from Conway and sometimes other characters in the game as well. 

Told in five “acts” the game took years for developer, Cardboard Computer, to complete, with the first act releasing to Kickstarter backers in 2013 and the final act not releasing until January of this year. While the game was only available for play on personal computers at first, with Windows, Linux, and Mac versions available for download, after the final act released this year a “TV” version of the game was released for Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One. 

Like Where The Water Tastes Like Wine or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and other narrative driven games, Kentucky Route Zero focuses more on storytelling and stylized visuals than it does on the sort of fast paced action and non-stop adventure we generally associate with video games. In fact, there aren’t really even any puzzles in Kentucky Route Zero

One critic described the game experience as closer to poetry than novel or story, and it’s an observation that’s hard to argue with. The story unfolds slowly and deliberately, with lots of asides and a few flashbacks, reminding you as you play that life is really about the journey, not the destination. While that metaphor may seem a bit on the nose for a game where you’re literally on your last delivery for the antique dealer you work for, the game really isn’t as ham-fisted as that may make it seen. Quite to the contrary, the game – and Conway’s meandering route to his final delivery location – are an example of how subtle and nuanced game stories can be. And, like life, it’s both comfortingly familiar and disquietly unnerving at the same time. If you’re looking for the “game as art and narrative” experience, or just want to play a game that celebrates everything we love about Kentucky with that “just a half step out of sync” vibe, it’s worth checking out. The art alone is worth the price of admission, and now that the final act has been released, and console ports are available for digital download, you don’t even have to wait seven years to finish the story like early backers have. So load up the dog. Fill up your tank. Grab a map and plot a course along Kentucky Route Zero. It’s bound to be a heck of a ride. 

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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