Developer: Cardboard Computer
Genre: Point n’ click
Platforms: Windows / Mac
Kentucky Route Zero is a stylish and thoughtful offering from two-man team Cardboard Computer. This release represents Act I in what is intended to be a five episode run, similar to Telltales critically lauded Walking Dead adventure. Kentucky Route Zero belongs to that burgeoning family of ‘art-game’ (a title I detest, personally, but for which there seems no suitable replacement, as of yet), alongside such experimental works as the Radiator series made using Valves Source engine, or Digital: A Love Story, by Christine Love.
Mechanics-wise, KRZ takes the form of a simple point n’ click, but forgoes many of the trappings of the genre that we have become accustomed to. There is no inventory, for example, and no convoluted puzzling. It appears the duo behind the game, Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy, have tried to eliminate as many of the obstructive gameplay elements that distance a player emotionally from a games narrative and atmosphere. What follows is a subtle, intelligently-executed and haunting journey through rural America.
The premise of the game is simple: you join a certain Joseph Conway – a quiet man with an uncertain past – on his way to make his final delivery for his antique dealer employer. Tellingly, this is appears to be a nod to Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness. It soon becomes apparent that to make the delivery, however, Joseph will have to traverse a secret highway known as Route Zero, and the game focuses on the events and characters that surround this mysterious place.
The narrative of the game and backstory of the characters are fleshed out by well-written dialogue and environmental descriptions. It is surprisingly literary, with allusions to Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude and references to Robert Frost, amongst others. The writer, like all good authors, has a distinct and engaging voice. It’s an area where the game truly shines, and it shows just how lacking mainstream games are in true writing talent. It also shows how malnourished we gamers are when it comes to good writing—that just one simple, nicely-turned phrase can slap you in the face and make you go “This is what games should have been all along.” (The particular phrase, if you are interested, comes early in the game, and simply describes Conway’s companion. “An old dog in a straw hat”, it reads. “Both have seen better days”). In fact, many of the locales in the game are described and explored purely by text, and yet the writing is done with such grace that these places have more impact than the majority of cookie-cutter destinations games normally throw at us. However, the various locations that are graphically rendered in-game look absolutely gorgeous, and the sombre, moody art direction is a delight. KRZ’s main visual strength is in it’s interplay between light and shadow – the humming oasis of a gas station at night, or headlights glinting off a wreck out on the highway. Coupled with a painters eye for composition and a Limbo-esque knack for clever silhouetting and animation, Cardboard Computer have delivered an absolute masterclass on the depths of feeling that can be achieved with relatively simple visuals. This is accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack of bluegrass and choir that puts one in mind of O Brother Where Art Thou?, and the sparse use of sound effects helps to compound the atmosphere.
This brings us on to the games greatest quality, and the one which is at once hardest to define. The tone and intangible feeling of the game are perfect, an example of what can be achieved when art direction, sound, writing and pacing are all unified by a clear vision. KRZ has that unique atmosphere that can be conjured by only the best directors and authors, and it will linger with you long after playing through the relatively short Act released so far. Kentucky Route Zero manages to capture perfectly that peculiarly American sense of loneliness, embodied by the highway and it’s rootless denizens. Every scene evokes a David Hopper-esque feeling of hushed melancholy. It’s the feeling one gets travelling alone at night on a quiet train carriage, or sipping coffee in a cheap motel room, somewhere between one place and another. It manages to be consistently serious without ever coming across as po-faced, and deep without resorting to histrionics and contrived obscurity. It has a particular sense of humour, which comes across as more of a rueful smile than the usual carnival grin. It’s arresting stuff, and what’s more is that it seems to have been accomplished with unconscious ease. You feel you are in safe hands, and it comes as another revelation how rarely you truly feel this is the case with a game developer.
Cardboard Computer have set the bar very high for themselves indeed. The true test will be to maintain the consistency of their vision throughout the games five chapters, and to walk the tightrope of tone they have made for themselves. If they pull this thing off, it will be a modern indie classic. If not, well, then it would be a great shame – but either way, it doesn’t diminish the quality and promise shown by this first instalment. At $7 for each Act or $25 for the whole series (once released), the price probably seems a little steep. However, at around 2 – 3 hours worth of game time if you explore fully (which you should), then the price is comparable to that of a movie, and the writing quality is inarguably better than most Hollywood blockbusters. It’s an excellent way to wile away the small hours of a winters night.