And so a meandering journey comes to an end. Kentucky Route Zero, “a magical realist adventure game”, was funded, modestly, on Kickstarter back in 2012. The first of its five episodes released in early 2013, the second a few months later, the third a year after that, the fourth two years later still. Now, following the almost exponential trend, after a further three-and-a-half-years, we get the game’s conclusion – alongside a new console edition of the entire series.
If you’ve been following this game since the start, then, it’s been a long road, and perhaps an exasperating one. Not that this wasn’t a fitting way to experience Kentucky Route Zero’s tale of a band of misfits getting drawn into a truck driver’s quixotic quest to deliver his load of antique furniture to an address that seems to get further away with every step. Some made their peace with the open ending of the fourth act being as good a place as any to leave it – and they weren’t wrong. But I doubt they will be disappointed in the fifth act that releases this week. Strikingly different in style, it’s a gorgeous epilogue that finds resolution while resisting the urge to solve any of the game’s many mysteries.
If you’ve been on this long journey with the game, I envy you. I have played Kentucky Route Zero from start to finish in the space of a week – all five episodes, plus the four interludes that developer Cardboard Computer released for free – and I’m not sure it’s the best way to take it in. Essentially a beautifully illustrated and animated text adventure, Kentucky Route Zero is slow, whimsical, interior, elliptical and at times deliberately frustrating. It is as inspired by theatre and installation art as film or video games; it’s dense with memory, digression and fragmentary, half-remembered lore. It’s not long, but it has too little plot and too much story to be comfortably consumed in one go. Like a meal composed of dozens of dainty side-dishes, it risks leaving you stuffed but unsatisfied. Better to give each portion its space (though three-and-a-half years of space might be overdoing it), to savour the flavours that linger long after you put the game down.
Conway, the truck driver, asks for directions at a petrol station decorated with a giant horse’s head. In the basement he has the first of many encounters with people – ghosts? – who don’t seem to exist in the same timeframe as him. He is directed to the Zero, a secret, underground, extra-dimensional highway; it’s the only way to reach his destination. Getting to the Zero won’t be easy, but navigating it and the spaces – and people – it leads to will be trickier still. He acquires a travelling companion, Shannon, who loves to repair old TV sets and sees visions of her vanished sister in the white noise. (This game has a strong retro fetish for analogue technology: cathode ray tubes, radio static, magnetic tape, theremins. The suggestion is that these old machines left more room for magic and mystery than the digital world does – a tempting, if heavily nostalgic, point of view.)
Searching for the Zero, Conway and Shannon explore an old mine, where he injures his leg. They find the mystical road, but it only leads them into a bureaucratic purgatory of dead ends, odd characters and illogical institutions. They keep getting sidetracked. There’s a huge bird that carries houses; a game-within-a-game, running on an ancient mainframe computer, that tells the story of its own making; a tugboat navigating an underground river. An orphaned boy joins them, and a cool musical couple, and other lost souls drift in and out of the scene. No-one ever seems to be fully present, being constantly pulled back to their own thoughts, their own reality. The ultimate goal of the delivery is not so much sought as drifted towards.
This is what Cardboard Computer means by magical realism: a recognisably real world where fantastical things can happen and where dream logic holds sway. Kentucky Route Zero is clearly inspired by David Lynch, though not in the totemistic way other video games quote his hugely influential mystery-horror-soap, Twin Peaks. (You know what I mean: red velvet curtains, sharp-suited investigators, torch songs in roadside bars, creeping unease in placid Smalltown, USA.) Plenty of games have indulged in this while pursuing their own more or less conventional concerns, from Deadly Premonition’s outsider-art survival horror to Virginia’s elegant procedural. Kentucky Route Zero gets closer to the unsettling core of Lynch’s work, where the things that ought to make the least sense make the most – where the unreal and impossible has an awful, implacable truth about it. (It does also feature a torch song in a roadside bar, mind.)
In this world, a band of distillery workers appear as glowing skeletons; they make everyone uneasy, but nobody remarks on it. The laws of space and time seem easily pierced or folded, to which characters react with, at most, a vague bemusement. The images and moments Cardboard Computer conjures from this dreamscape have a haunting power. The trouble is that there isn’t quite enough reality in this magical realism. In Lynch, the surreal and horrifying lurch suddenly from a landscape of extreme, almost anaesthetised normality. In Kentucky Route Zero’s middle episodes, however, it plunges into head-spinning concept after head-spinning concept, taking each as far as it will go – a very video gamey thing to do.
At times this is almost alienating, which is a risk when your game gives the player such a slender toehold in the narrative. For all its oddity, this is a pretty linear piece of storytelling in which the choices you make are less about what will happen next and more about the inner lives of the characters: where their memories lead, how curious they are, the song lyrics that haunt them. You spend most of your time in this game reading. The script, by Jake Elliott, is good, with a compassionate humanity that balances the occasional excesses of surreal southern Gothic. I loved the passages when there was a sudden shift in perspective and a voice from a different timeframe would cut through – such as the scene narrated by a couple of bored office workers from the future, reviewing old CCTV tapes.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game of words, but it’s Tamas Kemenczy’s vector visuals for which the game will be remembered. It is extraordinarily beautiful. Small, fragile, hazy figures pick their way through skeletal spaces. The lighting is dim and suggestive, using silhouette and negative space to leave your imagination room to breathe, and there are some startlingly lovely effects. It often looks like a flat, paper-cut diorama until the camera slowly rotates, revealing its surprising solidity and depth.
The game has many obsessions: death, memory, the decline of rural America. There’s a rather heavy-handed subplot about the entire region being in hock to the electric company. But above all else it is fascinated by art. It is full of artworks: videos, songs, installations, poems, and that primitive, fully playable adventure game. Half the characters seem to be artists or frustrated artists. If this sounds dangerously self-referential, well, I suppose it is. It does seem rather preoccupied with the hipster bubble within which it is all too easy to assume the game was created.
Yet some of the game’s most persuasive moments take place within this art-within-art. I’m thinking in particular of two of the interludes (which you can download for free at the game’s site). The Entertainment is a play, experienced from the point of view of one of the performers, that introduces a location and characters that will pop up in the subsequent episode; Un Pueblo De Nada puts us behind the scenes at a tiny community TV broadcast during a torrential downpour, foreshadowing the final act. Both use a single fixed camera point to brilliant effect, creating a strong unity of place and giving a much-needed shot of reality amid the magic – despite the air quotes they appear in.
This trick is repeated by the game’s fifth act, which breaks formally with the fragmentary, collage-like approach of the preceding four. It all plays out in a single location, with a single camera floating high above the action, following the player’s focus (rather sweetly embodied in a gambolling cat). Characters are discovered in different moments and attitudes as the camera sweeps across them and we stop to hear what they have to say. The sun warms the scene and, for the first time, the world of Kentucky Route Zero feels tangible, whole, held together. After a week drifting through Cardboard Computer’s elusive dream of a game, this was quite a moment. I can only imagine how it feels after seven years.