American highways are a staple of Western Culture. Massive boat-y cars, big displacement cruiser motorcycles, 18 wheelers, and mobile homes all puttering along the freeway. This was a huge part of the 50′s and 60′s, and is a core of American culture. Cardboard Games captures this fragment of Americana and a few other fragments as well with the episodic point and click story, Kentucky Route Zero. You might notice that I said story and didn’t exactly say game. More about that later.
As you open Kentucky Route Zero from your desktop, your screen turns black and you’re promptly met with the title of the game in a bold Tarantino stylized font. One after another, ‘Kentucky Route Zero’, ‘Act I, Scene I’ and ‘Equus Oils’ flashes on the screen. Panning from the orange blaze of a sunset downwards, the massive head of a horse attached to the the side of an otherwise plain gas station can be seen. I’m explaining this all in detail as best as I can because when you play, the first thing you’ll notice during this perhaps minute’s worth of ‘intro’ is that the art direction and style taken in this game is unmistakably gorgeous. Not in the massively open sandbox world with x16 anisotropic shaders way, but in a more conscientious, meticulous and humble way. Every frame of this game is beautiful. You could literally hammer the screenshot key and would be at a loss of which one to use (which certainly happened to me). Even their website is gorgeous.
You begin your journey as Conway, a delivery truck driver that has found himself a bit lost while looking for a route to 5 Dogwood Drive. As you pull over and ask a local for directions, you quickly find out that the aim of Act I is to find your way to the secret highway, Kentucky Route Zero. The highway is kind of a mirage of sorts. It seems most people that you talk to in the area know of it, but where it actually resides is a bit fuzzy. Starting at Equus Oils, you follow a trail of gossip from one local to another about who knows where the mysterious highway is.
Without giving too much away from the story, that’s the gist of the plot. It seems pretty straight forward and in a way it is, but with all good stories, there’s far more to it than the surface.
Moving Conway around the map is done with clicking where you want him to go. A small animated horseshoe striking a stake (an act called pitching a ringer) further reminds you of it’s classic American roots. The menus are fairly spartan; hitting escape will give you options to look through notes (hints on what to do next), save and exit, or restart the Chapter. The map to move from location to location is also nearly as utilitarian as the menus, but it’s execution is brilliant. When you move to a location, you’re met with an old school map set in high contrast white on black. The locations aren’t all placed on the map for you to see, and you need to ‘drive’ along the roads to reveal them, much in the same way that you would drive around in real life. There are a handful of locations that are merely explored by text and have nothing to do with the main story, but definitely add flavour and scope to the world you’re placed in.
Kentucky Route Zero plays much like most typical 2D point and click games, however it’s completely rendered in 3D. This allows the game to switch between 2D and 3D styled settings from one location to another. From the opening credits, you’re given a hint at a big part of the game’s development, not only in story, but in the art style as well. It didn’t hit me until Halfway through ‘Act I’ that Kentucky Route Zero is a theatrical piece. As you move through an area, you’ll notice that every object in view is a prop and each area is a set. From how the camera moves to to a few really well ‘shot’ parts where the camera pans around and the set ‘moves’, the notion that you’re watching from the seats in an old style theatre is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a game, and it’s really endearing.
I feel hesitant to call Kentucky Route Zero a game. It is a game in the sense that you’re controlling the characters, and it’s you that’s pushing the story, but that story is the sole purpose of the .exe you’ve opened. There’s no point and click adventure item combining, or puzzling, which you’d expect in such a game, nor is there any ‘wrong’ dialogue options. It seems that the choices your dialogue is more to tell the story the way you want to. It’s like your doing improv and choosing the particulars of your story, within the overarching story that the developers have created. It’s a pretty novel approach to storytelling within games, and it’s really refreshing, but I don’t know if I’d consider this actually a game. There isn’t any obvious conflict (that I know of) stopping you from reaching your goal at the end of the chapter. Now that might sound like a negative, but it’s honestly not. Did I enjoy playing this? Absolutely. Will I counting the days until I can play the subsequent chapters? You know it. But I feel like I enjoyed this in a similar way to how I enjoy books or movies. Surprisingly, I think it’s in this un-gameness that made the story so enjoyable. There was nothing in the way to ruin the ambiance and story. There wasn’t any text guessing tedium to ruin the pacing or puzzles to grind things to a halt, and that might have been the best part of all.
With a playtime of about an hour, and not much replayability, Kentucky Route Zero might not be the best bang for the buck. To be honest though, it doesn’t matter. This game, story or whatever you’d like to call it is really something special. What Cardboard Computer have created is unique and beautiful, and it draws you in from the first frame.
+ Every frame is beautiful
+ Engaging story that makes you want more
+/- Is it even a game?
- Not a ton to do beyond the story, which is…
- A bit short, even for an episodic game
I can confidently say that Kentucky Route Zero is another compelling argument for ‘Video games as art’, and isn’t that worth the price of a drive-thru dinner?
Is Kentucky Route Zero an example of how the bridge between gaming and art can be traversed? Let us know what you think in the comments below!