Having explored the fourth act of Kentucky Route Zero, Magdalena goes back to the beginning to fully explore the adventure that’s years in the making…
When I first booted up the game I didn’t quite know what to expect, but it was love at first sight, really. The first act of this gorgeous game opens as the camera pans down from the beautiful orange sunset towards black silhouettes at a gas station – Equus Oils. This huge contrast of bright colour against these dark tones creates a huge amount of tension, which is pretty uncomfortable. With a huge horse head figure that created the station’s building, it is obvious that the game intends to tell a noble story in a graceful way.
The episodic point and click game that uses text-based dialogue as a replacement to actual voice acting makes sure that your imagination stays in good shape as you venture through the game’s mysterious world. This game, whilst initially seeming generic, actually does a lot to subvert the genre by providing a unique experience.
For Kentucky Route Zero, you will need nothing more than a mouse to move around and interact with the game’s world. With the simple point and click mechanics, the character will move through the world that at first may appear very two dimensional, but transforms into incredible three dimensions by the use of beautifully animated cinematics. Not even AAA games have such smooth transitions in my opinion. In this act, the creators have opted for a combination of linear set pieces and open-ended exploration puzzles. To help with the navigation, the player is given a route map, which is very interactive, as your characters pay attention to surroundings and often want to explore them.
Gameplay truly expands the player’s experience when in certain sections you are given control of the other party members. It’s nice to get a variety of characters with a difference in perspectives, and with each one of those characters building their opinions of one another, it is so interesting to see the different dialogue options that perfectly suit the speaker’s personality. Yet that’s not even all of it, seeing the depth of the story being expanded through these different perspectives is a mesmerising experience.
To be differentiated from other narrative-based games, Kentucky Route Zero does not change its ending no matter how many dialogue options there are. Cardboard Computer has developed this game in such a way that gamers can share their experiences with each other only with some differences. Those differences are mostly because of perception. Since each dialogue option can leave a different impression on other characters, it allows the intended story to be told smoothly without the player’s path being diverted somewhere else along the way. The player alone is left to interpret the story based on these dialogue choices.
By being reminded of previously made conversation choices, it is almost as if the creators were mirroring the mechanics of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, where the player was reminded that characters would remember the actions that were taken. Even though there are no consequences, it keeps reminding the player about the personalities that were created through conversation, their revealed pasts, or the choice to keep everyone at an arm’s length.
With characters being built up through dialogue that is unique to the landscape, it is beautiful to see them reminiscing what those landscapes meant to them in comparison to their current state. It’s incredible how much of the past we learn about, as the story is told is mainly through dialogue. Although it keeps changing and shifting, one would even say evolving, each landscape brings up some sort of memory to the characters, sparking up a conversation. The mines (being a good example of this) allow one party member to reminisce about ‘the good old days’ despite the eerie history given to the location.
To keep the player on edge, a contrast of colours is often employed. Now, what was actually haunting was when that contrast was paired with some haunting background noises as the walls melted away to show off a beautiful vista while zooming out to reveal a spooky environment. Although it is occasional, music also adds to the mood with the expert timing. The use of text instead of voice is a good decision for this game, creating a very lonely world, in which the buzz of the outdoor lamp or the hum of the truck’s engine are nearly your only companions. Until you reach the mines, whereby you hear some pretty disturbing things, better keep those lights on.
When it comes to interactions with objects as well as characters, the descriptions are always very short and evocative. Of our little companion the game says: “An old hound in a straw hat. Both have seen better days.” The conversational options reveal a lot about Conway and the gang with the vague abruptness of these statements lending itself to interpretation. The old hound could just be “some dog”, or become a girl or boy with an actual name. This only depends on the answers you pick for these conversations.
The game is trying to get its player to pay attention to the detail in order to find out anything more about the characters in the opening scene. For example, it is only subtly hinted at that the man giving Conway directions is not quite what he seems. All the information is hidden in a skilful way within the realistic dialogue. Really, you absolutely have to pay attention to the game’s narrative as it is truly atypical, in a good way of course.
Although this is a pretty short act in its duration of about an hour, it still does leave the player wanting more, while also providing a satisfying, yet confusing ending. The game is a journey to remember, with exceptionally beautiful landscapes and very well developed dialogue. With its mechanics, it is great to see that developers are still choosing to go with the simplicity of a point-and-click over something completely unnecessary.
Magdalena Kolodziej is a freelance journalist and contributor to PN2. You can find her on Twitter @magda_0019