Kentucky Route Zero: Soulful, evocative and one of the most important games of last decade

Elise Favis

THE WASHINGTON POST – I never thought much about how Kentucky Route Zero would end. As its protagonist crossed paths with eclectic personalities during his surreal trek across a ramshackle America, I grew more interested in his journey than his destination.

Many characters had already met some sort of denouement: business closures, the loss of a family and foreclosed homes. If Kentucky Route Zero is a collection of stories about life after an end, how could this game possibly conclude?

Yet here we are, seven years after the debut of this episodic point-and-click adventure game. The final act initially left me with a feeling of, “that’s it?” But sitting with it for a couple days changed that perspective into a more positive one. I was left with unanswered questions, sure, but this is a game that has always been better at posing questions and leaving answers open for interpretation.

As the video game industry experienced tumultuous change in the last decade, Kentucky Route Zero has felt like an anomaly, unconcerned with industry trends.

Even as an episodic game, developer Cardboard Computer took years at a time to release acts – something most episodic titles try to avoid. It’s like Kentucky Route Zero was rejecting every rule, doing things its own way. Through that, it became one of the most important experimental games ever, establishing itself as a major player in the discourse of whether games are art. Kentucky Route Zero screams an emphatic and stubborn “yes” to that question.

Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it. PHOTO: CARDBOARD COMPUTER

Kentucky Route Zero is experienced like a playable novel, and one of its best features is its take on player agency. You aren’t shifting the plot in a new direction, but instead crafting its tone. This isn’t a game concerned about decisions, but instead about how you interpret a series of events you – and by proxy, the game’s characters – can’t always control. Through interactive dialogue, you decide people’s childhoods, fears and reasons for why they are who they are. It’s a unique kind of character molding. You are less like a playwright and more like a director, which is appropriate, as Kentucky Route Zero is broken up into scenes and acts.

Divided into five episodes, Kentucky Route Zero casts you as Conway, an old trucker searching for a secret highway, who is making a final delivery for a shuttering antique shop. Conway is joined by a young boy whose best friend is a giant eagle, a tugboat crew and a TV repair woman struggling to pay the mortgage on her family farm, among others. Each of them has lost something, or faces an uncertain future. Conway’s decision to make this final trip is a sentimental one, like a send off for a shop he’s long called home.

Others along the way help of their own volition, but maybe it’s because they have nowhere else to go.

The world of Kentucky Route Zero is one consumed by debt. People work dead-end jobs, and only stave off hopelessness with meager moments of respite. For Conway, paying to fix up his injured leg leaves him with a debt that could take years upon years to pay off. Following his leg’s recovery, it takes a frightening, skeletal form that stutters like static. It’s never explained why, but like many other moments in Kentucky Route Zero, it feels symbolic of the new, financial weight he now carries everywhere.

Kentucky Route Zero’s world is, as its characters say, “familiar but strange.” You journey through a rural countryside, but its bleakness is superimposed with magical realism. A dingy bar’s ceiling magically opens up to the night sky during a concert, making you feel as if the music is physically transporting you to another world. Or a group of wild horses inexplicably blocks the road at night – but maybe their appearance isn’t inexplicable at all, maybe it’s a foreshadowing of something grave. In a world dripping with meaning, each of these enchanting moments gives you a better understanding of the places you visit and the people within them.

Playing the game, you often stumble upon unexpected things in unexpected places, because an agency called the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces has been foreclosing properties and re-purposing them. You’ll find a church led by a janitor in a self-storage building, a neighbourhood-turned-museum and a phone company taking up shop in a cavernous tunnel leading to a bat sanctuary. It can all sound ludicrous, but these incongruities make the world beautiful, eerie and wondrous, all at once. I was always eager to see what was around each corner in a game that puts discovery at the forefront of the experience.

It isn’t just the nature of these environments that makes them beautiful, but also the lens through which you see them. In one area, you witness events via interactive security tapes. In another, you listen to a voice mail inbox filled with messages from strangers explaining why they can’t sleep. When they talk, their text appears fuzzy, like their voices over the machine. The mix of excellent cinematography, sound design and a stark, angular art style makes these experiences unforgettable.

As the story progresses, the focus moves away from Conway, and shifts instead toward the world he inhabits and the people who surround him. Nearing the end, his presence is negligible. You take control of other characters and even animals, including a cat in the final episode. This isn’t a bad thing. Maybe Kentucky Route Zero was never about Conway to begin with. He’s our initial guide through this world and has a story to tell, but his issues are a byproduct of something greater. His alcoholism, debt and livelihood are results of this fictional world’s financial crisis, reminiscent of America’s own economic recession. Journeying through Kentucky Route Zero, meeting the disenfranchised and hopeless along the way is a peek into a world that attempts to find meaning despite crippling poverty and a bleak outlook.

The game manages to make that journey beautiful: even when you face something inescapable, it doesn’t mean it’s the end.

The conclusion is bittersweet and short in length, but it’s also poetic, which ultimately makes it feel satisfying. Kentucky Route Zero tells us that there’s no easy answer or “right” decision to make in life.

The game isn’t concerned about what you do in its world, but instead who you decide to be. This isn’t a heroic quest, but more of an introspective trek into the minds of people struggling to stay afloat. It’s about acceptance, and investing our time in the little moments that give us meaning in what can feel like a meaningless world.

Although Kentucky Route Zero ends on a note some may find abrupt and maybe even frustrating, without sufficient answers to the story’s many mysteries, it does something I’d argue is more meaningful. It concludes what Conway set out to do, and it addresses its cast of characters’ endings in a metaphorical light. You’re no longer drifting from one place to the next; the whole episode takes place in one town ravaged by a storm.

This is a story about loss and forging a new beginning. And to that end, a game that revolves around questions also ends on a final one. The townspeople, just like the main cast, need to make a decision: Will they stay to rebuild what was lost, or move on?